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Top 100 composer lists: and the point is . . . ?

Obey BeethovenClassical public radio station WQXR in New York City has released its annual New Year’s top 100 composition list—the results of a listener poll of favorite pieces. The results bear an uncanny resemblance to, well, last year’s WQXR top 100 list. Here are the top dozen of this year and 2013:

2013 2014
1 Beethoven Symphony 9 Beethoven Symphony 9
2 Beethoven Symphony 7 Holst, The Planets
3 Dvorak Symphony 9 Beethoven Symphony 7
4 Beethoven Piano Concerto 5 Dvorak Symphony 9
5 Beethoven Symphony 5 Beethoven Symphony 5
6 Mahler Symphony 2 Bach Brandenberg Concertos
7 Beethoven Symphony 6 Mahler Symphony 2
8 Beethoven Symphony 3 Beethoven Symphony 6
9 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 Debussy Afternoon of a Faun
10 Handel Messiah Debussy Arabesque No 1 in E
11 Beethoven Violin Concerto Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
12 Mahler Symphony 5 Beethoven Piano Concerto 5

Of the first eight items for 2013, seven appeared in both 2013 and 2014. Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies showed up in exactly the same place. I could probably have written the top 25 for WQXR myself, saving everyone the time and trouble. Brahms’ German Requiem, Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s Appalachian Spring—they always rank high on these taxonomies because classical radio stations play them all the time.

So given the predictability level, what’s the point of this sort of poll? I don’t want to give QXR too much grief here. After all, the station runs a terrific contemporary music substation called Q2, and its top composition list for this year is a lot more interesting. But even Q2’s top ten includes the Gershwin Rhapsody and Appalachian Spring.

I think that it is time for some creative thinking about classical radio polls. In the past I’ve suggested that classical stations scotch the top 100 composition poll and replace it with a top 100 performers poll. Here are some other possibilities:

  • The 25 worst classical compositions of all time. Let’s make this a pre-1915 list so nobody’s feelings get hurt (apologies to you spiritual types; I’m assuming that dead composers don’t have feelings).
  • The 100 best classical recordings (Rolling Stone does this with rock; why can’t QXR do it with classical?).
  • The 20 weirdest classical pieces (Satie’s Vexations!).
  • The top 50 best forgotten or neglected composers (go Henry Litolff! Ignaz Moscheles! Xaver Scharwenka!).

Anyway, you get the idea. Admittedly, some of these polls might need to be launched in November or even October to get some momentum going. Any other possibilities I’ve missed?


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