This is a post about lists, and it’s going to get specific about making lists about music. If you are not of the High Fidelity school of music discourse this post may irritate. Discontinue use if irritation persists.
Lists reflect those who make them, but they also reflect the list-making process. A To-Do list might be broken down into things to do before lunchtime, things to do before the weekend and things to do before Christmas, as a way of managing different priorities. A shopping list might be organised according to retail establishments, or even by way of supermarket aisles. Even books list contents by chapter, by title, alphabetically or by author name. There are all kinds of ways of organising the lists we make.
A radio station I rarely listen to recently compiled a list, as voted by its listeners (and me), of the 20th century pieces of classical music most cherished by its listeners (and me).
The enthusiasm for lists seeming to be universal, particularly amongst readers of blogs and consumers of music (see High Fidelity link above, and cf Rage programming, any hit parade/countdown music presentation format, and hints for bloggers), this appears to be a winner of a broadcasting idea. Lists are a starting point for debate and discussion, and all curation is (at heart) sophisticated list-making, so there seems little to lose in such an endeavour.
But a great list needs clear definition. Favourite Compositions for Viola in Quintuple Time. Favourite Compositions for Piano by South American-born-and-raised composers. Favourite Art Music Compositions for non-orchestral instruments composed 1996-2000. And so forth. Generally speaking, the more specific the confines of the list the more intriguing the results.
And this ABC Classic FM top 100 20th century classical music pieces featured an unhelpful looseness of definition in two key ways.
1. Time Constraints. So the 20th century either began on January 1, 1900, or on January 1, 1901. Decide which and be brutal at excluding works not within the arbitrarily decided starting point. Yes, this means that works composed in 1899 were not, in fact, 20th century works at all. And a century lasts 100 years, not 110 or 111. So works composed after December 31, 1999, or after December 31, 2000 (keep it consistent with the decided-upon starting date) shouldn’t have been included either. Unless you change the name of the list.
2. Intention/Reception/Production. The 20th century saw a diffusion of musical styles and consumption, and the term ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ has come to represent a particular subset of styles and consumption models. The final list included works composed for film/performed by orchestra: an interesting cross-roads of what constitutes classical music. Brilliant and demonstrably popular film scores were not included, one assumes because of their unsymphonic approach. TV themes of similar popularity and interest also went unnominated. Musical theatre entries told the same story, the scored-for-symphonic-orchestra-and-composed-by-legitimate-classical-conductor West Side Story featured in the list, but nothing else from this genre. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that if it’s symphonic in ambition it probably counts as classical music in this list-making process.
So what if we made some different parameters for the construction of a 20th Century Classic 100? What if we broke it down a little in the voting process, and then compiled an über-list from the results?
How about this: vote for up to 3 in each of the following categories; the same composition can be included in as many categories as you please; dates of composition are strictly from January 1, 1901 through to December 31, 2000.
4. Orchestral for the Concert Hall
5. Small Ensemble/Chamber
6. Non-orchestral instrumentation/forces/media
8. Opera/Music Theatre
You can vote for as few pieces as you like, or for as many as 30. The most voted-for pieces will make it into the top 100, irrespective of category.