Thursday, August 18, 2016

The A La Carte polls

If you go to the Google Sites page Nereffid supplemental, you can see the results of several months' worth of polls I conducted on TalkClassical last year and this.
TC users (some of them, at any rate) like to produce "recommended lists" that rank favourite works; just recently I hosted the Pre-1700 Works list. But the way these are done requires that participants have to choose which work to favour over another, and there's often going to be a clash between what you personally prefer and what you think should be on a list (for example, there's the desire to spread things round, and not let one composer dominate). When the Post-1950 Works list started, I was somewhat troubled - first because the voting system was terrible and second because some participants stated clearly that post-1950 music of a certain sort was not welcome (ie, Shostakovich). Round about this time I also started to become more interested in the notion of the classical "canon" and how one might go about quantifying it.
So I hit on the notion of a basic poll, where the voter is faced with a list of works and must simply pick the ones they like; putting all the results together would effectively produce a "recommended list" but without the complication of any individual having to rank anything. One interesting aspect of this is that a work that gets plenty of votes is not only well-liked but also well-known. There would no doubt be many works that might be seen as canonical by a handful of people but to the wider listening public they would be unfamiliar - and post-1950 works are a prime example. My original notion was that the polls would each focus on a particular year, so that bit-by-bit I could produce a list to reveal which post-1950 works people really liked. After a couple of dozen polls I got the feeling that some voters just didn't bother participating if it was an era they had no interest in (it's a curious thing; I added the "I don't know any of these works" option to overcome this, but it doesn't seem to encourage everyone), so I switched to themed polls and then, not wishing to put so much intellectual effort in if it wasn't going to pay off, just randomized lists of works. I got past 200 polls but they appeared to be running out of steam so I called a halt; but that was over 2,600 works, with at least 30 people (usually quite a few more) offering an opinion on each one.
There are the inevitable quirks you get when the polling population is different for each poll, and certainly the TC population overall has a few quirks too, but the collated results are largely what one might expect. Back in February, when I passed 2,000 works, I started a discussion thread on the topic.
It turns out that, yes, Shostakovich does seem to dominate post-1950 music!
One of the most fascinating discoveries was that - bearing in mind that TalkClassical's active members are by definition people who are enthusiastic about classical music - only 20% of the works were liked by at least half of the voters. Bear in mind too that the polls covered practically all of the "canonical" works (I didn't get all Beethoven's piano sonatas in, for instance, but that's the highest level of omission I'm talking about). And only 5% of the works (130 of them) were liked by at least two-thirds of voters. And of those 130, 43 are by Beethoven and Mozart! So what on earth is the canon? Surely, for instance, La Traviata and Parsifal are part of it? Well, they were liked by about 42% of voters in the A la carte polls, putting them well below Mendelssohn's 1st string quartet, Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, Chopin's op.41 Mazurkas, Bach's Toccata in C minor BWV 911... Clearly, the canon can't be defined by votes alone, and there are numerous other factors involved (vocal works generally are less popular than orchestral music in the polls; and some composers are so popular that even when I invented a fake Bach cantata it got enough votes to put it in the top three-quarters of the overall rankings!). But still, the undeniable implication of the poll results is that a work that is considered canon may well be unliked or unknown by a majority of self-professed classical music enthusiasts.
This post has gone on for a bit; if I remain in a posting mood there'll be plenty more analysis and vague thoughts to come...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A history of classical music in 64 names

I could list all the top 10 most-recorded composers born per decade since 1500, as discussed in the previous post, but that would be rather dull, I feel.
So instead here's the most-recorded composer born in each decade since 1400, plus a handful of earlier ones. Just because I can.

Warning: some birth dates are of course estimates!
11th century: Hildegard von Bingen
12th century: Perotin
13th century: Alfonso X, 'El Sabio'
14th century (first half): Guillaume de Machaut
14th century (second half): Guillaume Dufay
1400s: Gilles Binchois
1410s: Conrad Paumann
1420s: Johannes Ockeghem
1430s: Antoine Busnois
1440s: Alexander Agricola
1450s: Josquin Desprez
1460s: William Cornyshe
1470s: Clement Janequin
1480s: Ludwig Senfl
1490s: John Taverner
1500s: Thomas Tallis
1510s: Alonso Mudarra
1520s: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
1530s: Roland de Lassus
1540s: William Byrd
1550s: Giovanni Gabrieli
1560s: Claudio Monteverdi
1570s: Michael Praetorius
1580s: Girolamo Frescobaldi
1590s: Tarquinio Merula
1600s: Giacomo Carissimi
1610s: Johann Jakob Froberger
1620s: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer
1630s: Dietrich Buxtehude
1640s: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
1650s: Henry Purcell
1660s: Francois Couperin
1670s: Antonio Vivaldi
1680s: Johann Sebastian Bach
1690s: Giuseppe Tartini
1700s: Baldassare Galuppi
1710s: Christoph Willibald Gluck
1720s: Antonio Soler
1730s: Joseph Haydn
1740s: Luigi Boccherini
1750s: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1760s: Luigi Cherubini
1770s: Ludwig van Beethoven
1780s: Carl Maria von Weber
1790s: Franz Schubert
1800s: Felix Mendelssohn
1810s: Giuseppe Verdi
1820s: Johann Strauss II
1830s: Johannes Brahms
1840s: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1850s: Giacomo Puccini
1860s: Claude Debussy
1870s: Maurice Ravel
1880s: Igor Stravinsky
1890s: Sergey Prokofiev
1900s: Dmitri Shostakovich
1910s: Benjamin Britten
1920s: Astor Piazzolla (or, as noted in the previous post, Gyorgy Ligeti if you prefer!)
1930s: Arvo Pärt
1940s: John Rutter
1950s: James MacMillan
1960s: Lowell Liebermann
1970s: Eric Whitacre
1980s: Nico Muhly

Classical music goes up, classical music goes down

I've been messing about with the big database (well, spreadsheet) of composers that I first started to keep about a quarter-century ago. Turns out it really needed updating... Joaquin Rodrigo's death in 1999 hadn't been noted, for example!
A more recent addition to the spreadsheet was a column for the number of recordings of each composer's music on Arkiv. I've found this to be a handy pointer as to a composer's "significance" (maybe someday I'll write a proper post on my thoughts regarding "great composers" and popularity). It's not a perfect measure, because of course it depends on the number of recordings in stock at Arkiv at a given moment, not to mention on Arkiv's ability to tag everything correctly, and the fact that browsing versus searching can give slightly different results. But anyway, on a broad level it works fine.
So then it occurred to me, why not see who are the most-recorded composers of a given birth cohort, let's say each decade, which was a matter of a few minutes' work. Interesting results, if you're interested in ranked lists of similarly aged composers, but could they be used to tell a bigger picture? The graph above says yes. (Double-click to enlarge it)
Let's look at the blue line first, which uses the left-hand y axis. What I've done here is looked at the 10 most-recorded composers born in each decade, added up all their recordings, and divided by 10 (i.e., it's the average number of recordings for those 10 composers). You can see it bobs up and down a bit, and when you know when the best-known composers were born it starts to make a lot of sense. The huge peak for the 1680s corresponds to Bach and Handel (and Telemann and D Scarlatti); the 1750s and 1770s peaks are due to Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, the 1790s are Schubert and Rossini, and the even huger peak for the 1810s is for Verdi, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Wagner (in that order). It bounces a bit, more, then after the 1870s (Ravel and Rachmaninoff) it drops again but this time doesn't really recover; the 1920s represents the lowest point since the 1760s. Who are the two most-recorded composers born in the 1760s? Cherubini and Danzi. And the 1920s? Piazzolla and Ligeti (if you don't wan't to include Piazzolla because tangos aren't classical enough, then it's Ligeti and Malcolm Arnold). And the decline continues, with the most-recorded composers born in the 1960s being about as well-recorded as those born three or four centuries earlier. 
(Caveat, though I don't think it's significant enough to affect the general picture: the closer we get to the present day, the less likely it is that my composers database reflects the overall state of classical music; for instance, most of the 1980s-born composers in the database are those I'm interested in. The reason I don't think this is a problematic issue is that my data-gathering involved finding "significant" composers via Arkiv, so while I may have omitted hundreds of worthy contemporary composers, they're not people with a large number of recordings. Obviously, that number of recordings is an acceptable proxy is something we're taking as read, but it's not unreasonable to say that for younger composers it's not as relevant).
But the red line on the graph adds more depth to the picture. This one, which uses the right-hand y axis, is simply a count of the number of composers who have 30 or more recordings listed on Arkiv. The 30 is somewhat arbitrary, I grant, but there's no particular "correct" number, so let's go with that. It corresponds to over 700 composers, so it covers a lot of ground. For instance, the composers born in the 1500s who fall in that group are Tallis, Luis da Milan, Luis de Narvaez, Gombert, Morales, Tye, and Arcadelt (but not Juan Vasquez, Hans Neusiedler, or Girolamo Cavazzoni) - comprehensive enough, I think.
So what are the results here? A quite differently shaped graph. Aside from the peak in the 1680s (which includes, it must be noted, such non-household names as Loeillet and Heinichen), the graph trends upwards from the beginning of the 19th century all the way to the generation of the 1890s (from Prokofiev down to Leifs and Sorabji) and despite a drop holds itself steady up to and including the generation of the 1930s (from Pärt to the geographically coincident Tormis)... and then it drops, then drops again.
What's happening here is that, whereas the blue line shows that the top composers active from the beginning of the 20th century have been less well-recorded than their 19th-century predecessors, the red line shows that many more composers active in the 20th century have been recorded compared with the 19th century. Not too surprising, I hope: the "great" composers of the past loom large, and resemble the true planets as defined by the IAU in as much as they've cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit, whereas there still hasn't been a full reckoning of the composers of the recent past, and as for today's composers - who knows?
But is that the sole reason for the drop over the course of the 20th century? The decline is rather swift, after all. If we reconvene in 100 years time, how will the graph have changed? Will the 20th century now show a similar pattern to previous centuries, with a greater focus on a smaller number of composers? Or will the thing people call "classical music" still refer to the period between Bach and Shostakovich, with the rest as interesting but relatively unpopular outliers? Depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you are, or for that matter how much you care for (or about) new music.