The ABC’s Classic 100 Twentieth Century is over and it was every bit as frustrating as I expected it to be. Let me count the ways.
1. Frustration. Is “20th Century” a period or a state of mind?
Choosing a whole century as a category, especially one as stylistically diverse as the 20th, was always going to problematic. For some – including me – “20th century” means “modern” on some level, and by extension a lot of musical works written after 1900 are throwbacks or 20th-century only by a technicality.
In the past, apart from the classic “general” polls, Classic 100 has polled for a genre, a composer or an instrument a clearly defined stylistic period. [Correction: there has never been a poll for a stylistic period.] Not this time. And if anything, it made the result less focused, less meaningful and, I suspect, less satisfying for nearly everybody. (See point 3)
2. Frustration. The unfair advantage of old age.
Aka, the Gerontius effect. Acquiring favourite status inevitably takes time, especially in a deeply canonical art form such as classical music. For the repertoire that’s more than a hundred years old, age is immaterial. But when you’re comparing music that’s, say, 111 years old, with a piece that might have premiered last year, the newer piece is at a disadvantage.
The situation can be influenced by programming and promotion – I’m thinking of the clever way the Christopher Lawrence/Felix Hayman “Swoon” spot used to sneak in, with audience approval, all sorts of works that would normally have met with resistance on the grounds of youth and unfamiliarity.
But mostly, the older a 20th-century work is, even if it approaches the “nasty modern music” end of the spectrum, the more fans it will have acquired. That’s one reason why the scattergraph for this poll shows a downward linear trend. That’s why the confronting (in character, not necessarily in style) Rite of Spring made it into the top ten, while other less-confronting but much newer works were ranked lower. Or perhaps The Rite of Spring is just better music…
3. Frustration. (Or Amusement?) A polarised audience.
It was to be expected there would be parties throwing up their hands in disgust at the “dreadful noise” of Messiæn and others equally disgusted by the presence of backward-looking romantics such as Elgar. That’s the 20th century for you.
I could have treated it as a frustration, but the crux of the matter can be found in point 1 and this was really just the inevitable side effect. So I followed along via the social media and laughed.
4. Frustration. The vagaries of the Long Tail.
What didn’t make me laugh were some of the bizarre rankings at the bottom end of the list. (And towards the top too.) Given the very small polling sample (7,000 I believe, which must be barely 1 per cent of ABC Classic FM’s national reach) this is also not very surprising. I had to keep telling myself: “Small sample. Popularity contest. Small sample. Popularity contest.”
But despite the affirmations, I swore a bit when the Warsaw Concerto outranked Lieutenant Kijé; when ALW’s Requiem ranked higher than both Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and Elgar’s Violin Concerto; when a folksong arrangement by Grainger came in three places ahead of Daphnis et Chloé (!!!!).
Of course, you see what’s happening here: I’m taking a poll that was unashamedly about “favourites” (and for which I myself was quite careful to choose my favourites) and I’m assessing the results against values of relative quality, importance and greatness. “Small sample. Popularity contest…”
5. Frustration. Insidious Albion.
This last frustration is purely a matter of personal taste. There are great works by English composers; I even shortlisted some. I just found it disheartening to see English music dominate the top 100. Especially so much English music of the pleasantly modal, folk-music inspired, stirringly hymn-like variety. But that’s just me. I have a serious bias towards the Russians and the French. And if there’s going to be folk inspiration I want wicked rhythms and wonky harmonies à la Bartók.
ABC Classic FM has shared the 100 runners up.