Classical music poll descends into farce

Every year since 1996, British classical music station Classic FM has held a poll of the nation’s top 300 pieces of classical music, the Hall of Fame. Unlike the weekly charts that exist for both classical and other genres of music, the Hall of Fame is not intended to rank the best-selling recordings of the day, or to promote particular performers. It is concerned solely with composers and their compositions, with listeners voting for their top three works, not for specific performances. Inevitably, the chart looks fairly similar each year, with the number one spot occupied for many years by Bruch’s violin concerto, with works such as Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and Mozart’s clarinet concerto also taking their turns. As classical music is supposed to be timeless, it’s only to be expected that the chart should evolve slowly year by year as tastes change without seeing any major changes.

The chart has always contained a fair amount of contemporary music, including film music, with examples of the latter being real movie classics by John Williams such as Star Wars and Schindler’s List. I do think film music has a place in a classical poll, as the film music of today may be tomorrow’s classical music. When defining contemporary classical music, I feel we have to ask whether the music is likely to still be played in 50 or 100 years’ time. Some of the contemporary music in the Hall of Fame – whether film music or not – may well fall into that category. Much of it is likely not to.

The first sign of something being wrong with this year’s chart what when they played a piano piece by Helen Jane Long. Who, you may ask? Good question. There are actually three pieces by Long in this year’s chart. It turns out that she is a pianist who performs her own compositions, and who has done quite well in the classical album chart this year. Unfortunately it seems listeners who are not immune from the short-term celebrity culture that engulfs most other media these days have voted for music that even they are likely to have forgotten in a few years’ time.

However, at least those people voting for Helen Jane Long may well have heard her on Classic FM and are genuine listeners to the station. One could argue that it is their democratic right to vote in that way. Worse was to come. There had apparently been a campaign amongst members of the video game community to try and get the soundtracks from some of their games into the chart. Their campaign has proved a success, with two such pieces making it into the chart: Jeremy Soule’s Skyrim and Nobuo Uematsu’s Aerith’s Theme, which was right up at number 16. Now, these are decent pieces of orchestral music that are in my opinion just as worthy of being included in a classical chart as film music. What I find wrong is that many of the people voting for them have probably never heard of the Hall of Fame before, and may never have even listened to Classic FM. So their votes meant the chart no longer reflects the tastes of Classic FM listeners, but instead has been distorted by outsiders who ordinarily have no interest in the radio station. In political terms, it is not the equivalent of an election campaign, but rather of bussing in extra voters from a neighbouring constituency who shouldn’t be entitled to vote.

The final insult this year was that the chart was said to contain the highest ever new entry in the history of the Hall of Fame. Indeed, the new entry would be in the top five. Speculation turned out to be correct, and the piece in question was Paul Mealor’s Wherever You Are. This work is clearly only at such a high position in the Hall of Fame because it has been popularised by the “Military Wives”, a choir that initially featured in a BBC television series, and became the Christmas number one in the UK singles chart (that is, the pop chart). I find it hard to believe many people would vote for Wherever You Are because they consider it one of the best pieces of music ever written. Rather, they have voted for it because they saw the TV series, or because they like it at the moment in the way that people buy the Christmas no. 1 single. It isn’t actually that good a piece of music from a purely musical point of view, and it isn’t really classical music. It’s a song. I don’t mean any disrespect to Professor Mealor. In fact, I’m sure he’s a much better composer than this. After all, he was commissioned to write music for the royal wedding last year and has several pieces in the Hall of Fame. This simply isn’t his best work.

The Hall of Fame has always been a rare refuge from the pervasive celebrity and personality culture that is far too common in every other aspect of life. Perhaps they need to subtly tweak the eligibility criteria to ensure it remains true to its origins, although admittedly I can’t see an easy way of doing that. If the Hall of Fame just becomes a clone of the weekly classical chart, or even the pop chart, I see little point in it continuing in its present form.

Stephen Thompson has a full listing of the Hall of Fame for this year and every year since it started in 1996 on his website, which is a lot easier to follow than the official Classic FM site.

13 responses to “Classical music poll descends into farce”

  1. Josh

    Hear hear.

  2. Lynn Barks

    This is a completely pointless post unless it actually explains HOW such criteria would be defined. If you’re so clever, how would YOU ensure that these pieces of music didn’t make it into the chart? When does something become ‘unclassical’ and therefore ineligible? What would the rules actually be? Or does it just come down to the fact that you don’t like what’s happened and are throwing your toys out of the pram?

  3. Jonathan

    Some ideas: nothing that’s been in the pop chart for the last year; nothing that’s been (no. 1) in the classical chart for 1 (or N) year(s); nothing commissioned for performers previously promoted on TV.

    Of course, they don’t actually publish any raw data or the formulae that they use to calculate the positions in the chart, so as far as we know it’s all made up anyway. Perhaps they boost certain pieces at the behest of the record companies. Perhaps “Wherever You Are” was actually at no. 1 and they fiddled it to prevent an even bigger farce. So perhaps they could make a few judgements themselves behind the scenes – no published criteria necessary!

  4. Lynne Barks

    Nothing that’s been No.1 in the classical chart for a year?! Are you off your rocker?! This is a CLASSICAL MUSIC CHART! So, if something amazingly popular, which the general public love (AND BUY!!!!!) gets to No.1 and stays there, it then can’t be No.1 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame? CLUELESS.

  5. Jonathan

    I think the Hall of Fame and the Official Classical Chart serve different purposes. The former is for people’s all-time favourite music, and the latter is a snapshot of what’s currently popular, favourite performances and artists, etc. If a single new recording can see a piece thrust right to the top of the Hall of Fame, something’s wrong.

  6. stephen

    Well i think that it was never set out to he the greatest music of all time but infact what you like at the time for example one of the presenters voted for Skyrim. The only one i don’t agree with is the army wives or what ever they are called that was pop music. Who are we to say what will be remembered in 50 years time some of the game and fil music along with Embers by that new women composer i can’&t remember the name of were all very good. And just think will remember john williams or hans zimmer in 50 years time who knows and does it really matter it is just a bit of fun!

  7. Russ

    I think the idea of ‘nothing written in the last year’ is an ideal solution. If it is indeed worthy of being in the ‘top 300’ , then it will make the list next years list wont it ? If people have forgotton it within a year, then good riddance.

  8. Mark

    Came across this website via a search for Classic FM stuff – just wondering, could you quantify what’s wrong with people who may have never previously listened to the chart before voting for the first time? What if they become regular listeners as a result? Is that then allowed?

    As a popularity chart, surely anybody should be welcome to vote? Could it just be that some of these newer tracks are actually more popular with the general public overall than some of the older classics?

    Sour grapes, much?

  9. Jonathan

    The problem isn’t so much that they aren’t previous listeners, but that they only voted because of campaigns to get particular pieces of music into the chart (be it game music or Military Wives). Many of those people have no interest in any of the other music in the chart, they just spent a few seconds voting and may not have listened to the chart at all. Then the chart becomes not a poll of the nation’s favourite classical music, but of which record company or promoter has the best marketing department.

  10. Colin B

    I just found this when looking up information on this year’s chart. I find it an interesting piece, but no voting chart is immune to short-term populism. However, what will be interesting is seeing where they come on this year’s chart – if they make it in at all. There hasn’t been as much of a drive to get pieces in this year. However, listening to it there has already been one new entry of a piece of video game music that wasn’t even campaigned for, so I think that video music is defiantly in the charts to stay, although maybe not as high, but the top film music is Lord of the Rings, which is normally in the top 50, and consistently so, so something like Final Fantasy could replicate that.

  11. P Baden

    Here’s a sortable/searchable list for 2015:

  12. Tim A

    Jonathon Rawle has not even touched on the fact that most of the presenters on Classic FM do some quite hard “selling” of certain pieces of music in the run up to voting time, which must influence some of the listeners. Nor does he mention the influence had by that which is chosen to be played on Classic FM.

    Given that just over 10% of the top 300 is film/tv/games related I feel they should have their own chart and there is a similar case for the 10% of contemporary composers, not all of whom match up to the dictionary definition of classical music.

  13. David Rule

    Einaudi? Classical???

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