Classical Countdown: Why Orchestral Music Reigned in 2013

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

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.


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Comments [19]

David Gravitz from Westchester County, NY

I agree with Elaine about Sibelius' 2nd (always one of my selections) and the Franck d minor symphony. It deserves to be on the list list. As a non-Wagnerian enthusiast, I wonder if the reason the Ring (why are 4 operas combined as one selection? No one else gets this break except the Bach Brandenburg Concerti) made the list this year was because of the week WQXR devoted to Wagner because of his 200th anniversary in 2013. I also wonder how many people actually voted and how many votes it takes to be #1. In any event, I enjoy the countdown and look forward to it every year.

Jan. 06 2014 12:02 PM
Maryann Gerety from Fairless Hills, Pa

YES! it is time for earliest Mahler to be appreciated: Das Klagened Lied
written in 1880 when Mahler was 20 years old. The full three movement
version is the only choice that tells the whole story.

Jan. 03 2014 04:38 PM
Vivian Russo from Brooklyn

You can't please everybody, but you came real close. Regardless, it was glorious listening to four days of listener voted music. Thank you so much WQXR and the listeners.

Jan. 03 2014 03:25 PM

The guide I read this year for suggesting music for the count-down specifically said "from the last 100 years." Thankfully, many ignored that with their suggestions. My new favorite work is Dittersdorf's "Ovid's Metamorphoses" -- it would never figure in the competition anyway, but I didn't put it down because it wasn't from the last 100 years.

Jan. 03 2014 12:34 PM
Anne from New York City

Judging from comments I have heard, many people who vote for Beethoven's 9th Symphony know only the choral finale, not the entire work. And I have finally figured out why I don't like it (I do like the rest of the work). What is supposed to be an "Ode to Joy" is set to very unjoyful music that is (to me) very militaristic and bombastic. Perhaps we're all getting too accustomed to the bombastic and overly loud bass instruments in today's "pop" music.

Jan. 03 2014 12:04 PM
Elaine from Nanuet NY.

I was very happy to hear and see that Sibelius was number 14 with his Second Symphony. I always pick it as my first selection. There are so many works that deserve to be on the list like Franck's Symphony in d minor and the charming Bizet Symphony number 1 with the beautiful second movement. I,for one could put so many favorites on a list if it were longer. I remember the time when I had to mail in my list. Yes,I am one who always enter my favorites and look forward to it from year to year. Thanks again for those who finally picked Sibelius to get into the top 20.

Jan. 02 2014 07:21 PM

This analysis is rather flawed. To compare 3,000 to 5,000 listeners who were members of a self-appointed “advisory committee” to listener’s five favorite countdown pieces is inappropriate. Many of us didn’t bother to vote, because we knew it was for a lost cause. You need to have similar populations to compare results, which these are not.

“Countdown voters appear to prioritize pieces that signify "greatness," and thus bigger, deeper statements win out.” This statement is a bit disturbing. Does it mean that Bach partitas, for example, are not great because they are music written for one instrument and predate German Romaticism? Are Beethoven’s late quartets less substantial than his symphonies? No. In fact, they are among the most profound creations in music. Small and quiet doesn’t necessarily mean insignificant and shallow.

The Franck’s Symphony in D minor and Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 are hardly obscure, but it would be interesting to hear on WQXR Gliere’s Symphony No. 3. I never knew this highly rated piece existed.

Jan. 01 2014 08:08 PM

Dear WQXR,

Thank you for this insightful post. Can you tell us (generally) what the response was like, numbers-wise, and whether most submitters actually sent in five pieces?

Thanks in advance.


Jan. 01 2014 05:45 PM

My first year of hearing a good number of the 105 selected works. Many selections seemed well chosen, others were unknown to me, and there were those I felt were clunkers. Clearly my appreciation and knowledge of the various genres of classical music (orchestral, operatic, etc.) is not as robust as other listeners so it likely I have much to learn.

The task of selecting a set number of performances or works is difficult for most I would think. So while the listening enjoyment varies for each listener, it does highlight for me how much one can learn. It does not mean I agree with all of the selections or types of music but this selection does broaden my listening experience.

Jan. 01 2014 05:08 PM

So glad you posted this - All so fascinating! Yes, it would be interesting to see the different results if there were different voting restrictions. I, for one, have no problem with Beethoven's 9th holding first place annually. That is the spot it definitely deserves. It's influence and construction are unmatched.

Jan. 01 2014 03:48 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

A very Happy New Year to all! Mr. Wise's piece raises important historical connections to music that is "trending" at a particular moment. For example, when Winston Churchill flashed the "V" for victory sign during WWII and the letter V translates to three dots and a dash in Morse code, an instant connection was made to the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Beethoven's 7th Symphony has gained recent popularity with its appearance in "The King's Speech" and if you look back to the 80's, I'm sure you would find Mozart's Requiem and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik near the top thanks to Amadeus just as Beethoven's 9th was at the time of the Berlin wall. I also believe a composer's centennial, sesqui-centannial, etc. raises awareness as well as devoting a month of programming toward an individual. When the call goes out for our favorites or "top 5" on the "classical music countdown," I believe the question has to be raised - what is the definition of classical music? While I take pride in seeing Gershwin and Bernstein making the cut, is it at the cost of Franck, Purcell, Debussy, or chamber music perhaps? As a baseball fan, I have always thought the baseball writers should select the All-Star teams rather than leaving it up to the fans who can vote as many times as they want. It would be interesting for future musical polls to have two lists generated - one by the listeners and one by the classical music "experts" and compare the two. This by no means is insinuate that WQXR listeners are not qualified or experts on classical music! On the contrary, I receive great enjoyment reading the many wonderful comments and insightful blogs by the listening audience who in many cases have opened my eyes and ears. My high school band director once said, "popularity does not necessarily mean excellence" and while the countdown list becomes a bit of a popularity contest, it is still difficult to be an armchair quarterback with such an incredible and vast library of music to select from.

Jan. 01 2014 02:36 PM
Madison from Manhattan

Thanks again to WQXR for this wonderful yearly extravaganza. I think,however, that if the hosts didn't have to keep repeating the call letters of WQXR and it's affiliates over and over, they'd probably have enough time left over to play a complete Ring Cycle!

Jan. 01 2014 02:08 PM

Having WQXR to listen to is such a gift that I laugh at all those complaints about the type of music being played. Just keep playing it! Anyway, a couple of specific comments now. First, I think Mahler became more popular among QXR listeners after being "championed" by Leonard Bernstein. Second, I do love Schumann's music, but I think that the canon of classical-romantic music is so huge that his pieces are often overlooked.

Jan. 01 2014 01:39 PM

I was surprised at how far some pieces moved from last year. #105 this year (Bach Cello Suite) was #52 last year. The Mendelssohn Octet (#101 this year) was #65 last year.

As I've stated earlier, I think that if WQXR played a more diversified playlist throughout the year, maybe the listeners would choose a more diversified list.


Jan. 01 2014 01:29 PM
Elizabeth from High Falls, NY

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a country so divided (leaving us frustrated, anxious and uncertain about the future) that we wanted to hear music "that signif[ies] 'greatness,' and thus bigger, deeper statements" as Brian says, to launch the new year.

Let's hope that in that new year we can regain enough confidence in our sense of ourselves that, reassured, we can again relish the delicate beauty of Debussy and hundreds of others whose music celebrates the joy and thrall of nature and everyday life.

Jan. 01 2014 01:15 PM
Peter from Brooklyn, NY

I suggest that your listeners give chamber music more of a chance. As I have listened to more chamber music I have found that it provides a more intimate feel for the music and instruments, is more personal, and touches on one's emotions. Of course, everyone's tastes and experiences are different, but I would vote for Ravel's Quartet over his Bolero by a mile. And what about Dvorak's Piano Quintet, Opus 81, and Brahms' Clarinet Quintet? They would also be high on my list. For those who don't know these pieces, I suggest you listen to them when you are in the mood to just listen to music.

Jan. 01 2014 12:12 PM
Mary from Brooklyn

Sob! No Monteverdi or Purcell.

Jan. 01 2014 11:46 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'm really surprised nothing of Debussy's made the list. No Afternoon of the Faun? And what about other works by Ravel beyond Bolero? No "Mirrors" or "La Valse?" Seems odd.

Jan. 01 2014 10:43 AM
arden anderson-broecking from Fairfield County

I hardly think that the analogy of the glorious Beethoven Ninth to a "cheap gym membership" is valid, and I hope you are not as cybical as your comment makes you seem to be. AAB

Jan. 01 2014 10:29 AM

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