I was responding to a comment from yesterday’s post and was reminded of the Omniscient Mussel’s exercise in Beethoven numbers. What had begun as an informal personality test (the speedy, musical alternative to the Myer-Briggs) became the source for a statistically invalid but entertaining assessment of the popularity of Beethoven symphonies. (This was in response to a post from Ben, the Classical Convert, who had been examining the view frequencies of Karajan’s Beethoven symphonies on YouTube.)
At question in yesterday’s discussion was the ascendency of Beethoven 9 and whether it would score the No.1 spot.
My reaction was “please no!” For all that I recognise the importance and significance of this particular Beethoven symphony, it’s not one that I ever feel the urge to listen to and I would be unlikely to pay to hear it in a concert. (The Seventh, on the other hand, I find irresistible; it appeals to my sensibilities and ways of responding to music. My Beethoven number, incidentally, is 736521489, allowing for small shifts in the internal rankings.)
As you’ll glean from my comment on Miss Mussel’s post, I suspect that we have a self-fulfilling prophecy going on with the Ninth. Concert promoters would perhaps like the Ninth to be “the one”, and so we’ve all been complicit in building a mythology around it. But I suspect that many in regular concert audiences actually prefer other Beethoven symphonies more, and I’m quite certain that most musicians prefer other Beethoven symphonies more (not because they’re jaded but because the other symphonies give greater satisfaction).
That said, in ABC Classic FM’s original Classic 100 (any genre) Beethoven 9 was the top ranked of any of the symphonies, at No.3. The Pastoral came next at No.6, after that the Eroica and the Fifth, way down at No.40 and No.42; the highest ranked non-Beethoven symphony was Mahler 5 at No.43. (Apparently we don’t like symphonies all that much.)
If this were our guide, then the top ten in the Classic 100 Symphony should be Beethoven 9, 3, 6, 3, 5, Mahler 5, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony with Organ, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Mahler 2, and Mahler 8 and at No.10 Beethoven 7, would be the runner up and making the chances of my favourite reaching No.1 very slim indeed.
But interesting things can happen. At No.1 in that original survey was Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – a well-deserved accolade for a sublime piece of music. The adagio from this concerto was also the top ranked “favourite Mozart moment” (or rather, “Which moment of Mozart’s music can’t you live without?” as the question was put). So you’d reasonably expect the Mozart Clarinet Concerto to be at the top – or at least in the top five – of the Classic 100 Concerto. Not so. The leaders there were Beethoven’s Emperor, Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 (he wrote others, you know) and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The poor Mozart Clarinet Concerto had been relegated to No.6, which wasn’t all that surprising unless you knew of its earlier triumphs.
And this is what makes me think that Beethoven 9’s original success won’t necessarily carry over to the Classic 100 Symphony. What listeners choose when they’re asked to focus on a particular genre may be quite different from their generalised favourite “piece of music” or “musical moment”. Perhaps narrowing things down, and comparing apples with apples, encourages us to be more objective, slightly less concerned with what simply moves our spirit or gives us pleasure (what we like) and slightly more concerned with concepts of “greatness” and the intrinsic value or importance of a work. Clearly what turned up as simply our favourite piece of music didn’t do so well when we make it part of a comparison of concertos. And perhaps the iconic and mythological power of the “Ode to Joy” – which is what I suspect many people were really voting for in that first survey – similarly won’t stand the test as we pronounce upon our favourite symphonies.
At least, says Thomasina wickedly, I hope not!
(An astute twitterer from the Melbourne choir scene has come to the conclusion that Beethoven’s Ninth will not be the No.1 symphony, since the MSO Chorus has not been booked for the concert in which the top symphony will be performed live in its entirety. This seems like a pretty smart as well as appealing conclusion.)