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.