2012 Classical Countdown: Assessing the Winners & Losers

Tuesday, January 01, 2013 - 12:00 AM

The 2012 Classical Countdown The Classical Countdown (Wordle)

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 held its grip on the top slot in WQXR’s 2012 Classical Countdown, just as it has almost every year since the listener survey was established some 25 years ago.

But while the "Ode to Joy" heralded the New Year in typically rousing fashion, the Countdown also saw some surprises and notable shifts.

The expansion of the survey to 105 pieces (from 75 pieces in 2011) meant that many composers who failed to make the cut in the recent past were ranked this year. Newcomers this year included Rossini, Chopin, Bizet, Grieg, Strauss, Schoenberg and Shostakovich.

At the same time, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bach were easily the most popular composers on the Countdown. Conspicuously absent were Haydn, Liszt, Schumann, Ives and Debussy. Monumental, spiritual works struck a particular chord, with the inclusion of requiem masses by Fauré, Brahms, Mozart and Verdi, as well as Beethoven's Missa solemnis (no. 85) and Bach’s Mass in B minor (no. 25).

The ranking, based on a three-week online survey that asked listeners to vote for their five favorite pieces, presents a non-scientific picture of WQXR’s audience.

A few highlights:

  • Most popular: Beethoven not only held the most entries, with 11 in total, but he dominated the uppermost slots; six of his symphonies made the top 10. Mozart was nearly as popular, with 10 works, but they were spread out across the survey. Not coincidentally, the Countdown began shortly after Beethoven Awareness Month in November.
  • Surprise newcomers: Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a massive post-romantic cantata, debuted on the list at no. 69. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra arrived at no. 49, and Stravinsky’s neoclassical Pulcinella Suite from 1920 turned up at no. 40.
  • Biggest growth spurt: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings climbed from no. 69 in 2011 to no. 15 this year.
  • Biggest losers: Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 plummeted from no. 23 to 102 while Holst’s The Planets dropped from no. 22 to no. 54

Broken down by musical eras, the 19th century accounted for 42 percent of the pieces on the Countdown, followed by the 20th century (30 percent), the Baroque era (19 percent) and the Classical period (9 percent; a category consisting entirely of Mozart). Only two post-1950 pieces were ranked: Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture and West Side Story.

As a point of comparison, the Q2 Music New-Music Countdown, which focused on pieces from the past 100 years, reveals several acknowledged masterpieces that failed to make the WQXR list, including Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (no. 1), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (no. 8), Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (no. 9) and Berg’s Violin Concerto (no. 10). Works by John Adams also proved popular on Q2 Music (Harmonielehre and The Dharma at Big Sur at nos. 4 & 5, respectively) but didn't register on the WQXR Countdown.

WQXR listeners commented on individual rankings via Facebook and Twitter.

Nina Basescu, a violinist, wrote on Facebook: "How personally insulting: One of my dearest favorite pieces, Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony... was beaten this year by one of my least favorite pieces of all time, the very annoyingly BORING Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I play the violin and hope to never have to play that faux-beautiful blob of a piece again!!"

And a listener named Maya offers a psychological theory on Twitter. After seeing Tchaikovsky's Fifth ranked at no. 45, she wrote, "People were too happy in 2012 if Tchaik is this low!"

Ultimately, ranking favorite pieces or composers will always be a highly subjective process for novice or veteran listener.

"The classical repertoire is so vast it can't possibly be boiled down to just 50 or 75 great works," said Matt Abramovitz, WQXR's program director. "We figured, 'let's go for broke and do 105,' but even that larger number barely scratches the surface."

What did you think of the results? What makes a piece of music great? Please leave your comments below.


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Comments [28]

Carl Orpheus jr Pollack from brooklyn NY

How can you possibly establish any list of outstanding music. We have been blessed and continue to be with such ethereal music from so many divine composers and musicians. For me, I am surprised that Tchaikofskys 6th symphony is never mentioned. What soul rending music this is. Your heart is lost when you hear this enduring masterpiece. The pantheon of musical greatness could never embrace all the jewels we have heard through the centuries. I just feel eternally thankful for having heard all this inexpressible beauty. It's the most effective medicine for curing depression, anxiety and loneliness. The Medical profession should be envious of its magic and enduring love.

Jan. 10 2013 10:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One's background and personal talent on an instrument, vocally or as a composer, all contend to develop a preference musically. There are masterpieces in many music formats and new instruments and imaginative approaches that will engage our interest as time goes by. I started my composing and interest in becoming an opera singer at age 10. hearing music on radio station WNYC and attending MET OPERA performances from age 15. We lived in Jersey City then, from the Journal Square station taking the Hudson Tubes, now called the PATH, to Herald Square, just 5 blocks from the old MET OPERA. Juilliard and 4 main hall Carnegie Hall solo concerts and 65 standard opera roles, including 6 world or American premieres in the title role or the leading tenor role, and I am firmly established in my niche but open to all worthy musical adventures. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ.

Jan. 10 2013 05:06 PM
Barbara from Florham Park, NJ

In response to Harriet's question, I do remember a year (but not which year) in which Beethoven's Ninth came in second to Beethoven's Fifth (my personal favorite).

Jan. 06 2013 03:21 PM
Harriet from Bayside, NY

You chose 4 out of the 5 pieces that I selected. But, I wasn't sure of the hours, and I miss the Brahms Violin Concerto.

There was a mix of music that I love and music that I don't really care for.

Did Beethoven's 9th symphony ever not end up being # 1 on the Countdown?

If there was such a year, when was it, and what piece beat it?

Jan. 05 2013 02:57 PM
Richard Green from Brooklyn, New York

The "Ode to Joy," is just that, Joy! And, my joy in this new year is there are venues like WNYC, WQXR, Public Radio International, and Local across our nation, PBS.org, ...that contribute so very much to our everyday understanding of the world around us, for young and old alike. Two versions of this Ode that are very lovely include the Flashmob version from Spain last May: http://youtu.be/kbJcQYVtZMo and, ...y, con Gustavo Dudamel, ...With Such Joy! http://youtu.be/MqugKJ-Vk50 Que Viva, NPR, PBS, And ALL of you in Public Radio and TV who give us such Joy in this New Year 2013!

Jan. 05 2013 11:58 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

It is a bit depressing to see that so many listeners assume that good music was written only by composers who lived at least part of their lives in Hapsburg-era Vienna. And it is appalling that "Papa" Haydn -- without whom there would have been no Mozart, no Beethoven, and a very different history of Western music -- was totally omitted. I assume he was penalized for being prolific. His 103 symphonies were only part of an enormous oeuvre; Beethoven stopped at nine, a much smarter electoral strategy.

I was delighted to see the appearance of a personal favorite, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which, I might add, misses your "post-1950" cut-off by a mere five years. Slowly but surely, the new generation of artistic directors, typified by Alan Gilbert, is introducing audiences to a wider range of music.

The substantial preference for Baroque music, I suspect, reflects the fact that today's "typical" classical audience (the Medicare set) came of age with the re-discovery of baroque music. I have scores of Vivaldi concertos on vinyl. And as more than one musicologist has pointed out, the Beatles were just a baroque band with amplification.

The rise of Barber's Adagio for Strings, a powerful, elegiac piece often played at funerals, is, alas, most likely due to the tragedy in Newtown.

Jan. 05 2013 02:03 AM
Phyllis Aquino from Montville, NJ

We need more of the "cloying, mundane sentimentality" of the "tune" from Dvorak's 9th Symphony which became known as "Going Home". I love it, love it, love it!

Jan. 04 2013 05:56 PM
Anne from New York City

I would love to see an analysis of the top composers compared to how often those composers had been played on WQXR during the past year. In other words, does the WQXR playlist influence the vote?

Jan. 04 2013 04:30 PM
Lauren Scott from Manhattan

I really like the idea of being able to register favorites as the year progresses, and not having to rummage the attic of your memory at the last minute. I was pleased to see Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story on this year's chart but wish that there had been a few other pieces after 1950. I was amazed by the large jump by Barber's Adagio, but might it reflect all the sad happenings in 2012. It is a quintessentially sad piece.

Jan. 04 2013 03:26 PM
Ray from Long Island, NY

You play the same music week after week, and then at the end of the year you ask listeners to name their favorites. This is a no-brainer.

Jan. 03 2013 09:08 PM
Someguy from new york

How shocking that schubert great c major symphony didnt make it!
surely one of the greatest symphonys ever

Jan. 03 2013 02:38 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Just a couple of points. As to [pigeonholing composers by "period": while Beethoven started out as a follower what is now called "classical" style, he was a groundbreaker and and a bridge to Romanticism, not capable of being held entirely by either period, as he was a master of formal architecture, so not purely Romantic, and he knew how to put emotion forward while still honoring form, hence not a pure "Romantic". perhaps the best example of a tue Dionysian-Appolonian synthesis (though that can also be found in much of Bach).
I agree with Bob from New Brunswick on many of his points, particularly on wondering why RV-W's "Hodie" is never played at Christmas time: a truly marvelous commentary on the standard narratives, which are themselves embedded in the piece in a very Anglican choral setting connecting the larger and more reflective numbers. also, I agree about the merits of Dvorak's "American" quartet.

I just heard, on WKCR,Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast": thrilling choral work, but never heard on this station. Why not?

Jan. 03 2013 10:46 AM
MARYANN GERETY from Newtown, Pa

Congratulations once again to Beethoven's music and his Ninth symphony.
Real devotion is putting out the money and time to cheer one's favorites
at Tanglewood. The Ninth has owned the last Tanglewood weekend for over
a dozen years. Mahler continues to do well as he well should! The 2nd
symphony, "Resurrection" is a spellbinding awesome work for chorus and
orchestra and happily follows very closely on the heels of Beethoven.
The Mahler Third is always a giant pillar and welcomed by me everywhere.
For me the Mahler Third shines like Parsifal in the Opera house.
Tchaikovsky been my faves for over 50 years!...this is good.

Jan. 03 2013 01:22 AM
Joan from New Jersey

I agree with Greg's comments. I confess that I'm not a Beethoven fan; that said, if you must have a Beethoven Awareness Month, must it be in November?
Might we give another worthy composer a boost?

Jan. 02 2013 07:12 PM
Nina Basescu

I have mixed feelings about being quoted in the article on the Classical Countdown results. I'm amazed that WQXR quoted me on their website; Wow, thanks, that's really cool! But I also feel compelled to clarify a couple of things:
It was edited out in the article above, but one of my dearest favorite pieces is really the FIRST movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. I think the whole symphony is terrific, but the FIRST MOVEMENT is one of my favorite pieces of all time. Of course the particular performance can make a difference, too.
Also, I wrote that I play the violin (already in the quote), but I didn't call myself a violinist. I much prefer to say I'm a musician who happens to be lucky enough to be able to play an instrument. What I love is "classical" music (including all the periods), not "violin" music.

Jan. 02 2013 12:09 PM
Barbara from Florham Park, NJ

I don't remember Beethoven's 7th Symphony every being as high as #2 before and wondered if that fact that it was used in the movie "The King's Speech" contributed to that. Also, I wondered what happened to the Franck Symphony in D Minor. I seem to remember it being in the top 10 not too many years ago, but couldn't find it anywhere this year.

Jan. 01 2013 09:52 PM
Mark from Saint Paul, MN

Beethoven should be in the Classical Era.

Jan. 01 2013 04:55 PM
Marilyn from Cambria Heights, NY

I enjoyed reading the comments by the others but I have to disagree with the person who thinks we should vote for a piece at the time we hear it on the radio and that WQXR should store the vote in its data base. That would limit the votes to pieces that were played on WQXR at the time that the listener happened to be listening. I was glad to see the Requiem Mass of Verdi on the list, an awesome piece of music that is not played in live performance often enough. There was a time that I made a point of chasing it down. The last time that I heard it live, there were not a lot of people in the audience. I turned to someone sitting near me and expressed surprise that the theatre was not filled. The person commented that it was because it was religious and that was the first time I said but it's awesome music. Beethoven deserves to be represented many times and Mozart, too. This is a list of our favorite works by our favorite composers not of pieces that we've heard recently.

Jan. 01 2013 04:12 PM
Bob from East Brunswick, N.J.

No big surprises this year (or any previous year). Warhorses dominated - pieces played over and over and over again. All these pieces were (and are) immediately popular. No one is saying that they're not great, it's just that tastes seem to revolve around a "Greatest Hits" mentality. The lack of scope or breadth in this list is stunning. While "The Moldau" is a really fine piece, it's hardly the last word in music. FACT: Smetana HATED "The Moldau" and wished he had never written it, as that's all anyone ever wanted to hear. He felt (rightly so) that his better compositions were ignored because of its tuneful accessibility. Dvorak's "New World" Symphony is primarily popular because of the cloying, mundane sentimentality of the "Going Home" tune. His Piano Quintet and "American" String Quartet are much better pieces - original, finely developed, yet engaging. Where was Haydn? Bizarre. I knew Monteverdi woudn't show up, even though he revoluntionalized music and his works ("L'Orfeo," the vespers and motets) are absolutely amazing and deserve more exposure, as does Gabrielli. Grieg wrote "interesting" music that had immediate appeal, but does not compare to contemporaries like Vaughan-Williams and Carl Nielsen. The Vaughan-Williams symphonies get little attention, although the banal Greensleeves fantasia is played ad nauseum. For Christmas, his "Hodie," a very cool piece, could have been programmed. Occasionally, a small piece by Nielsen will appear, but never one of the six symphonies or the amazing clarinet or flute concertos. In general, everyone seems to like the big ole thunder and lightning, "Greatest Hits" (to be redundant) pieces. Chamber music (Faure, Haydn, Beethoven, Glauzanov, etc.) doesn't seem to be too popular, perhaps because of folks' basic unfamiliararity with many great works. Works of all genres are out there and deserve to be appreciated: the Copland Clarinet Concerto, Glauzanov's "Five Novelettes," Janacek's "Sinfonietta," Hindemith's Clarinet Concerto, J.C. de Arriaga's first String Quartet, M.A. Charpentier's masses, Walton's Viola Concerto, Haydn and Beethoven's String Trios, etc., etc. It sure would be nice if people would be willing to expand their horizons, and, along with their established favorites, enjoy more of what centuries of music has to offer.

Jan. 01 2013 03:58 PM
Bernard Landou from NEW YORK CITY



Jan. 01 2013 02:08 PM
Kevin from Manhattan

Double surprise: Schubert's Great C Major symphony was nowhere to be found, and then the absence of Schubert symphonies was not even noted among the "biggest losers." I was certain his 9th would wind up near Dvorak's if not Beethoven's. Certainly that one and his "Unfinished" have long been HUGE favorites. What happened? It must have been while traveling elsewhere that I recently heard those in the top ten of some countdown....
Perhaps the perference for the Trout piano quintet and (especially) the String quintet indicates a level of sophistication in the voting after all?

Jan. 01 2013 12:23 PM
TW Scalora from NWNJ

I will repeat my comment from the voting thread. I'd like to see next years voters list one choice from each of the recognized periods. That should assure a greater variety.

Thank you for listening to "US" .

Jan. 01 2013 10:34 AM
Jonella from Lonely, Iggorant Boondocks of Sullivan County, NY

As I suggested in another e-mail to your management, I would recommend that WQXR set up a system on the website whereby during the year, as we listeners hear the various selections, we can click on a current piece and place it into a personal "Favorites File" - on the website. That way a far greater variety of pieces are likely to be selected because people won't have to search their memories for the best of the year - they'll be right there in the Favorites File - on QXR's website!! And when it's time to choose the top favorites of the year, hopefully just a click will place the vote for the desired selection, found handily in the Favorites File!
That's my New Year's suggestion to WQXR. Would greatly improve - deepen! - the experience of listening and learning - and widen the perameters! - as it seems many listeners would like.

Jan. 01 2013 09:08 AM
Greg Kopia from Hillsborough, NJ

The wording of a portion of the WQXR analysis of the Classical Countdown is interesting. While commenting on the dominance of Beethoven pieces in the top slots, the writer says, "Not coincidentally, the Countdown began shortly after Beethoven Awareness Month in November." Since it wasn't a coincidence that the countdown started right after Beethoven Awareness Month, does this mean that WQXR tried intentionally to influence the countdown results by drawing attention to Beethoven's music? Do you think that listeners might be more favorably disposed to that which they hear a lot of? Maybe next year you should have a Shostakovich or Grieg awareness month before the countdown and see if these composers pick up additional spots on your list.

Jan. 01 2013 08:48 AM

@Frederick - you are correct. Thanks for the catch!

Jan. 01 2013 08:07 AM
Richard from White Plains, NY

The solo violin and requiems seemed to dominate. befitting a year ended by plaintive cries. I loved it all But i missed Schumann's a minor piano concerto and Carnavale Suite. Mozart's A Major piano concerto. Beethoven's Pathetique. May 2013 be the year of the piano.

Jan. 01 2013 07:38 AM
Frederick from Westfield

I only counted 10 for Mozart, not 12 - unless you count the three excerpts of Figaro as three separate pieces, rather than 1 (and indeed, the three were together as #28). Going back four years, there are five pieces that have been in the top 10 all four years. Mahler's 2nd didn't break the top 10 in 2009, when it was 27th - interesting that it's been in the top 10 since then. I could go on and on....

Jan. 01 2013 07:15 AM

I'm glad to hear that other people also consider Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony as one of their all time favorites and are disappointed by its 45 ranking. I have always been mesmerized by this most beautiful, powerful, and melodious work and esp the ravishing 2nd movement. Don't know why most of your listeners do not feel the same. The same can be said for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto 1 and Violin Concerto - most beautful and haunting works of music that to me far surpasses most classical compostions with the possible exceptions of the 3 greatest Beethoven symphonies - nos 6, 7, and 9.

Jan. 01 2013 01:14 AM

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