I know everyone’s just itching for them, and I promise to have the last 3 lists up soon – very soon! I’ve just had a lot of what you might call projects to attend to recently, and these lists actually take a lot of work!
In the meanwhile, enjoy the tantalizingly brief episodes of RECEPTION, a new web series by my good friend and frequent collaborator B. W. Slocombé. BWS takes an artistic glimpse into his own life as a receptionist at a high caliber LA production company:
Sometimes you’ll be standing around chatting with friends at a party or even strangers at the dentist’s office and the subject of Favorite Composers comes up. You’re stunned and thrilled and you run through 500 years of musical history in your head and inevitably the question arises: such-and-such a piece is one of my favorites but does that mean that such-and-such composer is one of my favorites? Did he even write anything else?
And usually it just seems too far-fetched or embarrassing or irrational, so another composer gets passed over – or worse, ridiculed – just because he had the misfortune of having a huge success at one point in his career, something most of us would kill for!
No more! Here are my top 10 One Hit Wonders:
1. Carl Orff (1895 – 1982)
For those who have ever even heard of him, Carl Orff is remembered solely for his cantata Carmina Burana. For the hundreds of millions of other people who have heard the opening of this piece (and, more and more frequently, parodies of it) in every action film trailer, they simply think of it as evoking the Epic.
And the piece really is on an epic scale: it’s well over an hour long and requires hundreds of people to perform it.
The classical elite tend to poo-poo it because it’s rough and raunchy and lacking in counterpoint and other niceties, but when it comes right down to it, it’s got some attractive tunes, interesting orchestration, and it’s certainly as entertaining a spectacle as you’re going to see.
Poo-poo we may, though, Herr Orff’s unseemly relationship with the Nazi regime, the details of which remain unearthed. Perhaps providing the anonymous soundtrack for a cavalcade of lowbrow genre pictures is an appropriate purgatory for such an icky person.
2. Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934)
To be fair, Gustav Holst is known for more than just The Planets. But only among two groups of people: 1) string orchestra students in middle school and 2) band students in middle school. OK fine, high school too. The former because of his endlessly charming St. Paul’s Suite and the latter because of his two folksy Suites for Military Band.
But to the rest of us (or, more accurately, to the rest of you), he is known for that cosmically delightful orchestral suite, The Planets. And why not? It was a very unique idea for a tone poem, it’s gorgeous, and it works equally well in the concert hall and the plane’arium.
It’s worth noting that the World Astronomical Society (or whatever it’s called) spurned another would-be One Hit Wonder when they downgraded Pluto to Dwarf Planet status. The Hallé Orchestra had commissioned a certain pretender named Colin Matthews to write a “Pluto” movement to “complete” the cycle of the planets. Your author is not ashamed to admit that he took a certain pleasure in this spurious composition being downgraded to Dwarf Music status.
3. George Enescu (1881 – 1955)
Befitting the title of this list, I know precious little about the lives of most of these composers. The one little insight that I have about Mr. Enescu is that he composed his big hit, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 at the tender age of 18, it was a huge success, and he resented it for the rest of his life.
I would have to guess that Enescu is Romania’s most famous composer, largely because I can’t think of a single other one. Can you?
This piece is one of the many that make Pops Concerts worth doing.
First off, can I just say that (1844 – 1937) is pretty amazing lifespan? This guy overlapped with Robert Schumann and Steve Reich. Not to mention he would have been a full-grown adult when the electric light bulb was introduced and could have seen television prior to his demise (though one assumes he didn’t.)
Maybe it was all those electric currents in the air, or maybe it was when they finally got into his organ (the one he played. At church. This isn’t getting any better…) but there’s something so catchy about that Toccata from his Organ Symphony No. 5:
Since we engaged in some minor slander (or, at the very least, hearsay) concerning Carl Orff’s relationship with the Nazi regime, let’s take this chance to shed a softer light on Herr Biebl’s activites. Yes, he did fight in the German Army during WWII. However, he was drafted and his service lasted only a few months before he was detained and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Michigan for 3 years. So not exactly blameless, but no Carl Orff either.
His big hit, an all-male a cappella setting of the Ave Maria gained international attention because of Chanticleer. The recording I submit for your enjoyment comes not from their ultra-pristine reading of it however, but from the Dale Warland Singers. Perhaps those boys at Kurt’s new school will do it next on Glee.
7. Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805)
I am proud to count among my friends many superb cellists who may take issue with my calling Boccherini a One Hit Wonder. But that would be such egregious partisanship towards a ‘cello composer’ that I trust they won’t dabble in such provocations.
We non-cellists may recognize this, the so-called “Celebrated” quintet:
I almost included Pietro Mascagni on this list item with Leoncavallo, since their respective hits, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci are so frequently performed as a double bill. I decided not to include Mascagni though, not because of the overly fawning descriptions from the Wikipedia Mascagni-ites [ps. memo to those people: methinks the lady doth protest too much...], but because there is nothing in Caveleria that even approaches the worldwide recognizability of “Vesti la Giubba”:
Monsieur Dukas personally had a lot to do with his status as a one-hitter – like Brahms before him, he was such a perfectionist that he ended up destroying many of his works. With only a handful of published pieces, the odds were very low that any one of them would hit it big.
And none of them might have were it not for Walt Disney. Mr. Disney deserves a lot of credit for his imaginative choice of repertoire for the original 1940 Fantasia. His choice of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was obviously a win-win deal though – not that he could really enjoy his newly found popularity, but Mr. Dukas’ name does live on, and Mr. Disney got one of his most marketable images out of this particular episode.
As long as we’re talking about Paul Dukas, I should mention that his ballet La Péri is a personal favorite of mine, and I’d very much recommend it to fans of “Apprentice”.
10. Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706)
I couldn’t NOT include Pachelbel on this list, but I could at least make him last. Any string players reading this will know the reason for my ‘tude re: Mr. Pachelbel: we have been forced to play his mega-hit Canon in D at least since we were in middle school, but it feels more like since the dawn of time.
And if it weren’t so over-played, it would be an easy piece to love. It’s both festive and tear-jerky. Its incessant repetition makes it seem like it slips in and out of eternity. Ironically, its excessive length makes it seem like it lasts for all of eternity. But really guys, it’s not as insipid a piece as we’re all led to believe.
Now, for those of you who are just plain sick of it, allow me to refresh your years by introducing unto you the GREATEST WEB SITE OF ALL TIME. Some evil genius, possibly named H. Miller, has created a site devoted to the “warped canon” – midi versions of the Canon in every tuning system known to man!
So, how are we judging these composers? Is it by the quality of their “hit”, or by their other compositional achievements? Like I said, I’m not so familiar with many of these gentlemen’s oeuvres, so I’ve mainly based my collection on the quality of that one super-famous piece.
What qualifies as a ‘hit’ is also a slight conundrum. Obviously on this list, I have gone for mainstream awareness (“O Fortuna”) but I also included some pieces that are hits of a much more modest variety (the Biebl “Ave Maria”). So, take that all into account and argue amongst yourselves!
Should you accept this challenge, the choice is yours of how to proceed: make your own list of Top 10 One-Hit Wondrous Composers, or replace some of mine with your own suggestions. Just tell us who you are taking off the list, and be aware that you will really hurt their feelings.
This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all. I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were. The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.
You’ll pick it up as you go along.
1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes
Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz. I use them in my own music all the time. And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr. He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)
He is rightly fêted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:
2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music
Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game. The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing. There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic. Certain composers specialized in one or the other. Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.
Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:
What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are. He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write). His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.
I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret. It’s much like a Saloon Song.
Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage). So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man. I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense. As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.
5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music
OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.
Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.
[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word 'bayan' of which I'm wholly unaware. If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what 'bayan' might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for 'bayan', but I strongly recommend against it.]
So, we’ve established that much. Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it. Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia. Great start. He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory. He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition. He committed suicide at the age of 33.
He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:
In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence. These pieces were not written for dancing. They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.) Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.
We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom. We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.) There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.
It’s all just so funny and charming and gemütlich:
OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well. And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else. But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?
8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings
I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations. Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.
This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre. So chew on that one for a while.
For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas. They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes. Who wouldn’t like that?
No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies. And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t. And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever. But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?
I mean, come on:
This is easily the most ridiculous list so far. [Just you wait!] But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:
1) Make your own damn list
2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps...]
3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt Weill was of Cabaret Songs!