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WQXR Features

Classical Countdown: Why Orchestral Music Reigned in 2013

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The appearance of Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 at the top of the WQXR Classical Countdown is as expected as the cheap gym membership offers that arrive in the mail every New Year.

While few will complain, it wasn't always this way. During the 1940s, Beethoven’s Ninth ranked second to his Fifth Symphony in annual WQXR surveys of between 3,000 and 5,000 listeners (who were members of a self-appointed “advisory committee”). In those days, listener favorites also included now-largely obscure pieces such as Gliere’s Symphony No. 3, Franck’s Symphony in D minor and Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1. And unlike today, Mahler was nowhere to be found.

But station archives show that the Ninth Symphony moved up to the top slot when listener surveys were conducted again in 1962 and 1966, bumping the Fifth to second place (in 2013 it came in fifth). When the modern Classical Countdown began in the late 1980s, the Ninth took the top position and it has remained there ever since. The core of the classical canon has changed little in the past 70 years – a topic that generates no lack of debate among commenters.

Yet there’s another factor when considering historical shifts. In its early decades, WQXR conducted polls for discrete genres. Listeners voted separately for their favorite symphonies, operas, concertos and soloists and a top 30 list was tallied for each category. In 1947, the most popular opera was Bizet’s Carmen, for example; in 1962, the favorite concerto was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

In 2013, listeners were instead asked to vote for up to five pieces of any type or era. The results skewed heavily towards 19th century orchestral music: 73 of the 105 pieces, or 70 percent, were orchestral (symphonies, concertos, suites). There were eight operas; eight chamber works (quartets, octets); seven choral compositions; and six solo pieces (Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata). As a whole, Germanic and Slavic music dominated.

Ultimately, Countdown voters appear to prioritize pieces that signify "greatness," and thus bigger, deeper statements win out. If, however, separate polls were conducted by genre (orchestral, chamber, opera), different priorities might emerge. Music from the past 100 years might get a better shake, with space for pieces like Debussy's Preludes or Steve Reich's Music for 18 Instruments (the Q2 Music New-Music Countdown winner). Similarly, music written prior to the 18th century, such as Monteverdi's Orfeo, or madrigals by Palestrina, might emerge.

But that's to consider for another day. A few other highlights for 2013:

  • Mozart unseated Beethoven as the most represented composer on the Classical Countdown, accounting for 12 of the 105 pieces. As some commenters have noted, the Countdown came just after the Month of Mozart, this year’s November festival.
  • Beethoven took second place with 11 pieces; Tchaikovsky had eight, Bach and Mahler were each represented with seven, and Brahms had six.
  • Notable newcomers: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Mahler’s Das Leid von der Erde.
  • Notable Absences: Works by Debussy, Liszt, Rossini and Schumann. Any pieces written after 1950, besides Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

What was missing from the Countdown results? What was your biggest surprise? Leave your comments below.