2011 Classical Countdown: Assessing the Winners and Losers

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If anything, classical music fans are not a frivolous crowd. That is the evidence turned up in WQXR's 2011 Classical Countdown, a listener survey that showed that Beethoven remains the most popular composer around, with his Symphony No. 9 "Choral" topping the list of 75 classical works.

The ranking, based on a three-week online survey that asked listeners to vote for their three favorite pieces, presents a non-scientific picture of the station’s audience. Along with Beethoven, works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach and Brahms are the most popular overall while noticeably absent are classics by Haydn, Liszt, Chopin, Bartok and Shostakovich. As in the past, listeners gravitated towards serious, profound works -- though not entirely.

A few highlights:

  • Most popular. Works by Beethoven held a remarkable four of the top five slots in the survey and nine of the 75 slots in total, making him the most represented composer of 2011. Not insignificantly, the Countdown followed closely on the heels of WQXR's Beethoven Awareness Month.
  • Biggest growth spurt: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The symphonic epic jumped to third place in 2011 from fifth place in 2010 and 27th place in 2009.
  • Biggest loser: Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9. The "New World" fell from its number-two perch in the 2010 and 2009 Classical Countdowns, to sixth place. Missing altogether this year were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (no. 34 in 2010 and no. 14 in 2009) and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (no. 44 in 2010 and no. 26 in 2009).
  • Surprise newcomers: Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (no. 20) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (no. 35). The sprawling late romantic works are generally not considered hits by either composer but each received a healthy number of votes. 

As for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, that piece has held the top slot throughout much of the Classical Countdown's 25-year history. While records are incomplete, station archives show that the piece was voted number one every year from 1987 through at least 1998. Similar tastes emerged decades earlier. When WQXR asked more than 4,000 listeners to nominate their favorite symphonies in 1940 and 1948, the Ninth ranked at No. 2 and 1, respectively. Follow-up surveys in 1962 and 1967 also put the Ninth at No. 1.

Taken as a whole, the 2011 Countdown shows a particular priority of classical-music listeners when it comes to picking favorites: monumental works of profound or spiritual significance consistently rank high while pieces with a lighter touch are less favored. Franz Liszt, a composer who gave the world plenty of splashy and occasionally over-the-top works, is nowhere to be found on this year's list (or those of 2009 and 2010, though this year was especially striking, being his bicentennial). Haydn, Rossini, Bellini, Bizet, Chopin, R. Strauss and the aforementioned Rimsky-Korskov are also conspicuously absent.

Ravel’s Bolero and two Gershwin favorites (Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris) are notable exceptions to the serious trend. By contrast, Requiem masses were a particular favorite this year, specifically those of Mozart (no. 10), Brahms (32), Verdi (28) and Faure (66). Just over half of the pieces -- 38 in total -- were composed in the 19th Century.

This raises the question of contemporary works. Only two pieces composed after 1950 placed in the 2011 survey: Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (no. 42) and West Side Story (no. 38). A glance at one barometer, the Pulitzer Prize winners in music since 1950, shows no overlap with the Countdown, even among composers who fall on the approachable end of the spectrum, including John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich, Gian-Carlo Menotti and Virgil Thomson (for more modern works, consult the Q2 Music New Music Countdown). Composers of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras met a similar fate.

WQXR program director Matt Abramovitz said the Countdown is not only an ideal programming hook for the holiday season, but a chance to read listener feedback online. "WQXR listeners are such a smart, engaged and passionate group," he said. "It's invigorating to see such lively conversation about the station and the music as we head into a New Year together."

What do you think makes a piece of music great? Should it speak to profound issues? Can it also be fun and even frivolous? Are there other personal factors involved? Please leave your comments below.