Not fade away: which classical pieces are most popular?

A lucky few can follow their favourite groups and repertoires around the world. The rest of us have to take our chances when we can

How much music can you fit into a lifetime? How often can you hear the pieces or performers that thrill or move you the most? How easy is it to expand your horizons by exploring new repertoire? In theory you could do it all day if you wanted to, assuming that you listen to recordings or radio or stream music online.

But it’s not the world of electronically reproduced music I have in mind. My question is how often can you hear, in the flesh, on your home turf, a particular symphony, say, by the likes of Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich or Brahms?

If you live somewhere like London, Vienna or Berlin you will be spoiled for choice by these cities' great institutions, and the leading orchestras and performers of the day will appear more often than in Dublin, Lisbon, Toulouse or Cologne.

If you have the funds and time, you can of course travel, and maybe even become a kind of classical music groupie. Some well-heeled retirees choose to do exactly that. I met a group of them when I interviewed conductor Nicholas McGegan at the Göttingen International Handel Festival. They hailed from the US and were following him around from performance to performance.

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Local operators

The rest of us may have to settle for what comes our way on the local musical scene. Take last Friday's concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Nathalie Stutzmann. The major work was Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), settings of texts from the collection of folk verses first published in 1805 by Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano.

The performance of these songs, with their picture-book innocence, fairy-tale truth and fantasy and sense of everlasting childhood was a delight, with characterful singing from mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and baritone Stéphane Degout, with Stutzmann on hand to make sure the orchestral writing always sounded delectable.

I may have found myself appreciating the songs all the more as it is so long since I last heard them live. There were performances in Dublin in 1998 and 2004, but I was on leave for the first and in Belfast covering a John Tavener weekend at the Belfast Festival for the second. If the next gap is as long as the last, it will be 2028 before they feature again in Dublin.

There was a time when I hardly thought about how frequently particular pieces or particular composers feature in our concert life. But then I read sociologist John H Mueller's The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste (1951), and his wife Kate Hevner Mueller's Twenty-Seven Major American Symphony Orchestras: A History and Analysis of Their Repertoires, Seasons 1842-43 through 1969-70 (1973).

The first book deals with the big picture of how composers' popularity has waxed and waned, how some reach a high and never seem to fade (Mueller lists Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach), how others stabilise at a lower level (Haydn, Handel, Weber, Gluck) and some never recover from the almost inevitable posthumous dip in popularity (Spohr, Raff, Lindpaintner, Kalliwoda, Hummel and Gade).

Mueller has charts for those who were growing in popularity up to 1950 (Mahler, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartók, Hindemith and Vaughan Williams top the list), and those who were dropping out of favour (Schumann, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Liszt and Anton Rubinstein).

130 years in 400 pages

Hevner Mueller is even more fond of graphics and tables, and she devotes nearly 400 pages to a detailed breakdown – by composer and work – of the repertoire of her chosen orchestras over nearly 130 years.

The Wunderhorn songs, which I am sure have grown in popularity since the book was published, featured complete only twice, with the New York Philharmonic in 1967 and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1968.

Trawl through the list and you will come across some extraordinary gaps. No performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1915 and 1955, none by the New York Philharmonic between 1927 and 1950. There are no such gaps for Schumann's Piano Concerto or Tchaikovsky's First, but the symphony orchestras of Boston, San Francisco and Cincinnati each have just one listing of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite (for 1908, 1950 and 1956, respectively).

Lovers of Bruch’s hugely popular First Violin Concerto would have drawn long blanks, between 1921 and 1950 in New York, 1939 and 1968 in San Francisco, and 1951 and 1969 in Detroit. Pachelbel’s Canon gets just one mention (Chicago, 1936), and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons don’t show up until 1927 in Saint Louis.

Mueller shows how, in the 1920s, Ernest Bloch accounted for 20 per cent of all performances of American music, and in the 1940s Aaron Copland accounted for 10 per cent. And Hevner Mueller’s listings for Beethoven and Wagner in book are both roughly the same length, dwarfing everyone else at 16 pages each.

Friday's NSO programme opened with some gorgeously pliable Wagner, the Tannhäuser Overture and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Hevner Mueller's listings for the overture run to more than 350 performances, with the Liebestod featuring even more prolifically. The balance in Dublin also hugely favours these Wagner excerpts over the Wunderhorn songs.

To the winners go the spoils. For the rest, take your chances when you can.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com