Classical Top 40 — Set in stone, or sand?

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of folks about classical music, and it seems like there’s an unspoken rule that both the casual and hardcore listener share. There’s an assumption that there’s a single list of Great Music that has stood the test of time and that all pieces must be measured against (and usually found wanting).

I usually hear about this list when I air something a little too adventuresome (read: unfamiliar). Then I get the calls asking why I don’t play GOOD music for a change! Well, the nature of my program, “Gamut,” is to explore the full range of classical music, both familiar and obscure.

But there’s something else: even though everyone has an idea of what makes up the accepted canon of classical music, each person has a slightly different list.

Case in point: Classic FM is a commercial classical station in the UK that recently put out a Top 40 list based on their listeners’ requests. Commercial classical stations (a vanishing breed here in the US), like other commercial radio stations, are concerned about maximizing the audience (and therefore the ad rates they can charge) within their genre. So you can bet Classic FM has stayed with the tried-and-true. Plus, most people aren’t classical music geeks. So when asked for names, they’re most likely going to offer up the most familiar composers and compositions.

So Classic FM’s list should be a pretty good indicator of what Great Music should be, right? Let’s look at the top ten:

10. Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 “Choral”
9. Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1
8. Elgar: Cello Concerto
7. Elgar: Enigma Variations
6. Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”
5. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
4. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
3. Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
2. Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
1. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2

Wait, what!? Did this list cause you a double-take? Where’s Bach? (No. 53) Where’s Handel? (No. 144) Where’s Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (No. 11), or Pachelbel’s Canon?  (No. 13) Where’s Mendelssohn (No. 211), or Schubert? (No. 264)

Two things jumped out at me about this list — there are four works by English composers, and six of the ten were written in the 20th Century. There’s a good chance that were we to poll an American audience, we’d get a substantially different Top 10. Which would be different from the results of a Japanese poll, or a French poll, or a German poll.

Where’s Copland on this list? He’s at number 165! And Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” checks in at number 14.

The point is, while we may think there’s a unified canon of Great Classical Works, the actual details are a little more fluid. And that will continue over time. There’s a good chance that what an audience 50 years hence will consider masterworks will include some compositions that didn’t make this list — although they’ve already been written and performed.

The good in music is relative — and that’s the way I like it. Because it gives me the freedom to find those works (sometimes off the beaten path) that speak most deeply to me.

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