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Schubert the not so great

Posted by Richard on  UTC 2019-06-02 14:03

  • Is Schubert a great composer?
  • It depends what you mean by 'great'.

There may be readers who can assign Schubert a position on some absolute scale of musical greatness, perhaps in respect of innovation, imagination and musical cunning or whatever criteria they might choose as aspects of musicality. They shouldn't expect any contribution from me, since such evaluations are quite outside my skillset. The question is not about musicological understanding.

Also, if Schubert's music floats your boat in whatever measure, you can choose to esteem or venerate him to whatever degree you wish. The question is not about personal taste, which is one of the few intellectual and emotional freedoms still left to us these days. The shrine in the corner of your living room can stay.

But what about that strumpet Fame? – or 'name recognition' as we like to call it in these diminished times.

Suppose we were to ask a group of people in English-speaking countries whether or not they had heard of the composer Franz Schubert, how many do you think would say 'yes'? I have never seen any results from such a survey but I could imagine that there would be a large group who answered with a slightly baffled 'no'; a smaller group that said 'yes' – but with an anxious look on their faces in fear of further questions about the music he wrote; an even smaller group who could answer with confidence and finally a tiny group of enthusiasts who would volunteer whole lists of works without prompting.

Probing questions such as 'who composed Hagars Klage' would be mastered by only a tiny minority. If you can supply the date wotsisname composed it you are definitely one of the Ringholders.

Of course, this is all fatuous speculation, not intended to be taken seriously at all.

The question 'is Schubert a great composer?' was provoked by a German acquaintance. He is a very well-educated and cultivated music lover of catholic tastes, brought up in a musical family and now with a collection of around 5,000 CDs. He recently thanked me for introducing him to Schubert. He had certainly heard of him and probably knew the basics, but never treated him as an object of particular interest.

Which provoked some pondering: how far outside some imagined mainstream can Schubert really be?

I must stop asking myself questions for which I have no answers. Let's try another tack instead. Around Easter every year the UK radio station Classic FM publishes a 'Hall of Fame'.

The annual Classic FM Hall of Fame is the largest poll of the world's favourite classical music. Every January we ask you to get in touch to tell us which are your three top pieces of music. Then, come Easter, we count down from Number 300 and reveal the new Classic FM Hall of Fame.

Online.

The methodology of 'ask you to get in touch' is a bit vague, so the results of this poll have to be treated with great caution. It seems unlikely that Classic FM can ensure that all responses come from unique respondents. The bombastic phrase 'world's favourite classical music' suggests in fact that the responses could come from anywhere in the world.

The erratic way in which particular works jump around in the rankings from year to year also underlines the need for caution. Even if the results were only gathered from the UK, that would be one more caveat we had to consider.

It is safe to say, though, that compared with the huge global reach of pop music, classical music is a minority pastime. This is confirmed by Classic FM's listening figures. In any week, on average 10% of adults in the UK listen to it, for 7.3 hours per week on average giving it a a market share of all radio broadcasting in the UK of 3.8%.

For comparison, BBC Radio One, only one of the many mainstream and niche popular music stations in the UK, is listened to by 17% of adults for on average 6.3 hours per week and has a market share of 5.7%. Were we to go to the trouble of listing the listening figures for stations offering non-classical music in all its flavours, this figure would become very large indeed.

Readers who are concerned that we take a relatively easy-listening station such as Classic FM for our measurements should note that BBC Radio Three, once the single standard-bearer of classical music and arts broadcasting in the UK, is currently listened to by 4.0% of adults for on average 6.1 hours, giving it a market share of only 1.2%.

Whatever you may think of Classic FM's strategy of playing a relatively unchallenging classical repertoire of music in bite-size segments, it seems to meet a need, as evinced by the number of people who actually choose to listen to it for an average of 7.3 hours a week.

Nor should we be snooty about a 'classical music' station which plays film music. There may not be overall traditional structures of movements and variations in such music, but in terms of emotional impact, particularly the massive emotional impact of the remembered visual component, such music can surpass many traditional classical pieces.

The other key figure in the above statistics is not the market share but also the amount of listening per week: in this respect Classic FM is listened to on average for 7.3 hours, BBC Radio One for 6.6 hours.

Listeners to the ivory antenna that is BBC Radio Three can only stand it for 6.1 hours a week. Your author can remember a time when the station called itself the Third Programme and its main musical diet consisted of Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stockhausen, with the odd Britten opera thrown in as light relief – always a good reason to have your tranny under the bedclothes, your 'only friend through teenage nights'. In comparison, 7.3 hours sounds like success to me.

In addition to the annual Hall of Fame, Classic FM produces an aggregated list of the annual results, the 'Ultimate Hall of Fame'. Bearing in mind all the caveats mentioned above, let's see how Schubert does in this 'list of lists'. Of the 300 entries in total, he achieves seven entries, nearly all, apart from one, are sprinkled through the final two thirds of the list. The comments are theirs, not mine:

  • 77 Piano Quintet in A major D.667 ('Trout')
    The highest of Schubert's 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame, this peaked at number 27 in the first chart back in 1996 and slipped to its lowest ever position of 182 in the most recent poll.
  • 112 String Quintet in C major D.956
    The second highest of Schubert's 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame. This was at its highest in the first Hall of Fame at number 56 but it dropped to its lowest ever position of number 228 in the most recent countdown.
  • 139 Symphony No.9 in C major D.944 ('Great')
    The fifth* of Schubert's 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame. This has appeared in every chart, peaking at number 82 in the first Hall of Fame in 1996.
  • 185 Symphony No.5 in B flat major D.485
    The fourth* of Schubert's 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame. This has appeared in every chart across the 20 years and reached its highest position of number 112 in 1997.
  • 198 Symphony No.8 in B minor ('Unfinished') D.759
    The third* of Schubert's 7 entries had been a feature of the Hall of Fame since it began in 1996 but hasn't appeared in the chart since 2013.
  • 242 Ave Maria D.839
    The second* of Schubert's 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame. This has appeared in every chart apart from in 1998 and it reached its highest position of 186 in 2011.
  • 288 Impromptus Op.90 D899
    Schubert has 7 entries in the Ultimate Hall of Fame — the same amount as Handel and Wagner — and this is the first* of them. After appearing in the first Hall of Fame in 1996, this then dropped out of the chart in 1997 and didn't return until 2011, and it's been in the top 300 every year since.

* Classic FM treats this as a countdown list, so from their point of view the worst results come earlier.

The irony of Schubert, the Liederfürst, being represented by only one Lied is striking. It is fair to say that, since art songs in German comprise much of his output, the take up of that substantial proportion of his work in the English speaking world was always going to be very limited. Ave Maria is the exception, in that it was composed to match the original English lyrics in a conscious effort by Schubert to break into the English-speaking market. It appears that he succeeded.

Summarising the summaries: from the comments supplied by the station it appears that all of Schubert's works listed here have been slithering down the annual lists over the years. How this is affected by Classic FM's decision to follow the taste of their listeners (the advertiser is king!) is imponderable, but that expression of taste is real. In the 2019 listing, the first movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, D. 485 comes in at 279, one place ahead of the music from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Who are we to grumble? Taste is taste.

Some pieces by the big names make strong showings, as one would expect: Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 gets to No. 3, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op.73 ('Emperor') No. 4. We have to go down to No. 77 to find Schubert's top scorer, the Piano Quintet in A major D.667 ('Trout'). All in all, Mozart has 20 entries in the list, Beethoven 17 and poor old Schubert staggers in with only 7.

We also have to remember that, unlike BBC Radio Three, Classic FM gives its listeners bite-sized portions of music – stick with it and something you might prefer will be along in a few minutes. Whatever you do, don't switch channels. Thus when the entry says Schubert Impromptus D.90, it really means one or other impromptus from the four. In the annual lists the entries specify particular movements, but the Schubert fans among our readership are already depressed enough so we shall spare them those details.

If we think that Schubert is a little badly treated by Classic FM's voters we should consider the bizarre punishment they mete out to some other quite well-known composers: Liszt has only one entry, the 'Hungarian Rhapsodies' at 236, somewhat disrespectfully being given the title of an 'Ultimate Hall of Fame One Hit Wonder'. Chopin does slightly better, getting three entries, the most popular of which comes in at No. 57, the Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor Op.11. His works are also slithering down the order – this work is currently No. 142 in the most recent list. Robert Schumann gets only one entry, the Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 at No. 172, yet another Ultimate Hall of Fame One Hit Wonder.

Compared to these meagre results the big names reliably pull in the punters, as we have already noted. Mozart, with 20 entries, is the most popular composer in the Ultimate Hall of Fame, his top result is No. 3. Beethoven trails with 17 entries in total with a top result coming in at No. 4.

The purists and musicologists who visit this website (despite the persiflage we sometimes direct at them) will be shocked yet again that we should take the listener poll of an easy-listening radio station as a measure of Schubert's contemporary 'greatness'.

Well, it is a fact: of the 55 million adults in the UK who listen to the radio each week, around five million of them choose fairly regularly to listen to classical music – presumably whilst they are doing the ironing, reading the paper, driving a car or just pottering about. In the annual Hall of Fame we find great breadth of interest, but little depth – the bright pebbles are picked up from the beach and all the others are left unturned.

But the serious fans of music in general and Schubert in particular shouldn't be upset about this, for the same holds true in every field of human knowledge. There is a big difference between the number of those who casually use the term 'black hole' and those who can actually do the maths.

We might however hope for some improvements in the various biographical summaries about Schubert that Classic FM offers on its website here and here. It is touching to read them describing Schubert as a 'great composer', despite their listeners only listing him for seven pieces out of three hundred, but we wonder, when we read biographical notes such as this, whether they are actually writing about the Franz Schubert we on this website know:

Schubert began both a law degree and his Symphony No. 5 in the same year. In this instance at least, it was the degree rather than the music that would remain unfinished. At nineteen, this might well have been the piece that caused him to break off from his planned law degree. This symphony is a real product of its time it could almost be by Mozart, given its youthful exuberance.

Note to 279 Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, D. 485: I. Allegro.

So what does all this counting and listing mean? Probably not very much in any strict empirical sense, but it might be a hint that calling Schubert a 'great' composer, given how few of his pieces are chosen by those mildly interested in classical music, may be overstating his broad modern significance.

In a comment on the 2019 list (on the Symphony No.9 in C major D.944) Classic FM writes of the 'Schubert fiends' who think this work 'great', implying that somewhere or other there are such 'fiends'. The word was so unexpected I had to read the sentence three times. To any other fiends out there reading this, we have been rumbled.