Ralph Vaughan Williams

Top 50 Classic Countdown

Top 50 Classic Countdown

To celebrate our 50th anniversary as a radio station, Bath Hospital Radio presenters Ian Martin and Nicholas Keyworth bring you their Top 50 Classic Countdown. It is your definitive guide to the best in classical music. The show aired on Saturday 30 May at 9pm.

Here are your top 50:

1 Ralph Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired by the poem ‘The Lark Ascending’ by George Meredith which portrays the song of the skylark. Written in 1914 just before the outbreak of the Great War the original is just piano and violin but by 1921 he had re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra. The critic from The Times wrote, “It showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along.” Today it regularly tops the charts of our all time favourite classical music pieces many classical music charts and to lead us in to Bath Hospital Radios No 1 here are the opening lines of The Lark Ascending.

He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound,

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

2 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine kleine Nachtmusik – ‘A Little Night Music’ is Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major), K.525, from 1787. As usual Mozart was busy on several other compositions at the same time including his opera Don Giovanni. Mozart’s widow Constanze, sold the work as part of a large bundle of his compositions to a publisher in 1799 although it was not published until 1827.

3 J S Bach – Toccata And Fugue In D Minor

One of the most famous works in the organ repertoire, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 is a work with irresistible energy and drive attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach. However, as no original manuscript of the work exists in Bach’s hand a number of scholars have challenged whether this piece is actually by him. It wasn’t actually published until 1833 through the efforts of Mendelssohn, a great champion of the music of Bach.

4 Wolfgang Amadeus MozartClarinet Concerto

Mozart originally conceived this concerto as a work for the Basset Horn (commonly know in musical circles at the Basset Hound!). However his virtuoso soloist Anton Stadler eventually convinced Mozart that the piece would be more effective for the newly invented clarinet. And thank goodness he did as the Basset horn soon feel out of favour. Stadler premiered the concerto in Prague in 1791

5 Edward ElgarEnigma Variations: ‘Nimrod’

One of Sir Edward Elgar’s best-known large-scale compositions the Enigma Variations of 1899 are dedicated to “my friends pictured within”. Each variation is an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances. Here is Nimrod, the Old Testament patriarch described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”. The German name for hunter is Jäger and it is likely that this variation is a depiction of Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar’s friend and music editor at his London publishers, Novellos.

6 Johann Strauss – On The Beautiful Blue Danube

Another instantly recognisable work, The Blue Danube is the unofficial national anthem of Austria and it is traditionally broadcast by all public TV and radio stations exactly at midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s international popularity was reinforced by its prominent use in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the waltz is heard as a space plane docks with a space station. Johann Strauss II wrote the Waltz in 1866 and despite being one of the most consistently popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire Strauss is reputedly said “The devil take the waltz, my only regret is for the coda—I wish that had been a success!”

7 Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

This colossal work was completed by the German composer Carl Orff in 1936 and is based on 24 poems from the medieval collection Carmina Burana. These texts dating back to the 11th century and cover topics ranging from the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking and gambling. Despite initial nervousness from the Nazi regime about the work, since the 1960s Carmina Burana has been well established as part of the international classic repertoire.

8 Ludwig van BeethovenSymphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’

Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the countryside surrounding Vienna. The first sketches of his 6th Symphony – the pastoral – is clearly inspired by such a picturesque setting. But interestingly he was composing it at the same time as the much more fiery 5th Symphony. Both symphonies were premiered together in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna in 1808.

9 Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra

Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is a tone poem by Richard Strauss, composed in 1896 inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel. The work has been embedded in the classical repertoire since the initial fanfare – entitled “Sunrise” – and was popularised in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

10 Jaques Offenbach – Orpheus In The Underworld: Infernal Galop

Another controversial piece next described by the critics of the day as ‘a coarse and grotesque parody, full of vulgar and indecent scenes that give off an unhealthy odor’. Orpheus in the Underworld is a light operetta by French composer Jacques Offenbach. Dating from 1858. The “Infernal Galop” from Act II, Scene 2, is famous as the music for the “can-can”.

11 Gregorio AllegriMiserere

Miserere is a setting of Psalm 50 “Have mercy on me, O God”) by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Composed around the 1630s during the reign of Pope Urban VIII it was intended for use as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday. The service would normally begin at dusk and during the ritual, candles would be extinguished one by one, save for the last candle which remained alight and was then hidden. Magical!

12 Mozart – Overture to the Marriage of Figaro

The original play, The Marriage of Figaro was at first banned in Vienna because of its licentiousness. Luckily Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte managed to get official approval for an operatic version which eventually achieved great success in 1784. The Imperial Italian opera company paid Mozart 450 florins for the work – three times his annual salary when he was a court musician in Salzburg.

13 Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 9 ‘The Choral’

Beethoven’s 9th symphony was commissioned by The Philharmonic Society of London but premiered in Vienna in 1824. This was the composer’s first appearance in 12 years with a hall packed with an eager audience. By now virtually completely deaf, Beethoven insisted in being on the stage throughout and shadowing the conductor beating time to an orchestra he could no longer hear. The whole audience acclaimed him through five standing ovations five times with handkerchiefs, hats and hands in the air, so that Beethoven could at least see the ovation gestures. Here is the final Ode to Joy.

14 Edward ElgarCello Concerto

Elgar was working his one and only cello concerto during the summer of 1919 where during the previous years he could hear the sound of the artillery of the First World War rumbling across the Channel from France. But he started writing it a year earlier when in hospital recovering from an infected tonsil. Unfortunately, the concerto had a disastrous premiere as it was under-rehearsed but since the 1960s wonderful recordings by Jacqueline du Pre and Pablo Casals have given this work the recognition it truly deserves.

15 George Bizet – Carmen: Les Toreadors

The Toreador Song is one of the most famous arias from the French composer George Bizet’s opera Carmen. Sung by the bullfighter Escamillo with the cheering of the crowds celebrating the fame that comes with victory. Bizet actually “invented” the four-syllable word ‘Toreador’ as the correct term Toreo would not not fit with the music.

16 Aran Khachaturian – Gayane: Sabre Dance

The “Sabre Dance” is a movement in the final act of Aram Khachaturian’s 1942 ballet Gayane where the dancers display their skill with sabres. Musically it is based on Armenian folk music. This piece has become hugely popular as covers by pop artists – particularly in the US and its use in a wide range of films and TV series over the decades. It has also particularly popular with figure skaters and it has been describes as ‘one of the catchiest, most familiar—perhaps most maddening—tunes to come out of the 20th century.’

17 Grieg – Peer Gynt: Morning Mood

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg wrote the incidental music to Ibsen’s play  Peer Gynt in 1875. Morning Mood depicts the rising of the sun at the beginning of Act IV although probably not as we imagine it today: In the play Peer Gynt is up a tree in a grove of palms in the Moroccan desert where he has been stranded. He is trying to protect himself with a broken-off branch from a swarm of apes!

18 Max BruchViolin Concerto No. 1

Ever since Max Bruch conducted the original first performance of his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 in 1866 the work has been subject to complicated legal wrangles. At the end of the First World War, Bruch was destitute and had failed to enforce the payment of royalties for his other works because of chaotic world-wide economic conditions. He had already sold the score of the concerto outright to publishers Simrock for a small lump sum. However he sent an original copy of the score to the duo-pianists Rose and Ottilie Sutro in the US so they could sell it and send him the money – but he never received any of the money. The Sutro sisters decided to keep the score themselves, although they claimed to have sold it, and sent Bruch’s family some worthless German paper money as the alleged proceeds of a fictitious sale.

19 Gustav HolstThe Planets ‘Jupiter’

Our most local composer, Gustav Holst was born just up the road in Cheltenham and his 7 movement orchestral  suite The Planets op32 was written during the midst of the first world war. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst, One notable exception though is that of planet Earth.

20 Samuel BarberAdagio for Strings

In 1936, the US composer Samuel Barber arranged the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11 for string orchestra to create this Adagio for Strings. When Barber sent an orchestrated version of the Adagio for Strings to Arturo Toscanini, the US conductor returned the score without any comment at all. However, it was reported that Toscanini did not look at the music again until the day before he gave it its premiere. Initially, the critical reception in the New York Times was positive, but the reviewer was reproached by other critics who claimed that he overrated the piece. Ah well, here it is today, full of pathos and cathartic passion at number 20.

21 Edward Elgar – Pomp And Circumstance March No. 1

The title of Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March is taken from Act III, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’ First performed in 1901, it belongs to the era before the events of the First World War which shattered people’s beliefs and ways of life. Elgar recycled and modified the music in 1902, as the Coronation Ode for King Edward VII and the result has since become a regular fixture at the Last Night of the Proms.

22 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky1812 Overture

Commemorating defence against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Festival Overture in Eb major Op. 49 debuted in Moscow in 1882. It has also become a common accompaniment to fireworks displays, including those in the United States during Independence Day celebrations. The overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and a brass fanfare finale.

23 Johann PachelbelCanon

Like so many other works written by composers before the 18th century, this Canon by German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel remained forgotten for centuries and was only rediscovered in the 20th century. It was used in the pop charts of the 1990s when it was frequently incorporated as part of commercial hits such as Pet Shop Boys cover of “Go West”, and Green Day’s “Basket Case”.

24 Franz Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor

Between 1846 and 1885, Franz Liszt wrote a set of 19 piano pieces influenced by Hungarian folk tunes – or so Liszt thought. Actually many of them were in fact written by members of the Hungarian upper middle classes, or by other composers. Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 is the most famous.

25 Felix Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream: Wedding March

In 1842 Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music, Op. 61, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The Famous Wedding March forms the intermezzo between Acts IV and V. It was popularised in 1858 when Queen Victoria’s daughter, The Princess Royal had it played for her marriage to Prince Frederick William of Prussia

26 Ludwig van BeethovenSymphony No. 7

Beethoven conducted the premiere of this patriotic work in Vienna in 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. He wrote it when he himself was recuperating from ill health in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice. The second movement, Allegretto, was the most popular movement and had to be encored.

27 Camille Saint-Saens – Symphony 3 in C minor (Organ Symphony)

This highly original work by french composer Camille Saint-Saëns was actually commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in England in 1886. What makes it unusual is the use of keyboard instruments and orchestra with virtuoso piano passages, brilliant orchestral writing characteristic of the Romantic period, and the sound of a cathedral-sized pipe organ – hence its name, The Organ Symphony.

28 Edvard Grieg – Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.16

This concerto, with its famous flourishing introduction is the only concerto by the Norweigian composer Edward Grieg. He wrote it in 1868 aged 24 during on of his visits to Denmark where he liked to benefit from the warmer climate.

29 Antonio Vivaldi – The Four seasons

In 1723, Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. wrote these four violin concertos each resembling its respective season. Each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet which describes the music in details with phrases such as “The barking dog” in Spring, and “the drunkards have fallen asleep” in Autumn.

30 George Frideric Handel – Messiah

German composer Handel came to London in 1712 at the behest of King George II who gave him the  the office of Composer of Musick for the Chapel Royal. Despite being rather limited in his spoken English, The demand for texts in English rather than Italian, German or Latin texts must have persuaded Handel to set to work on this great Oratorio which he completed in an astonishing 24 days in advance of its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Here is the joyous Hallelujah Chorus

31 Nicolai Rimski-Korsakov – Sheherezade: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

Sheherazade is a dazzling and colourful symphonic poem from 1888 by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It is based on The Arabian Nights, or ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, which figured greatly in the history of Imperial Russia.

32 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Requiem in D Minor, K.626

The composing of Mozart’s Requiem is shrouded in controversy and intrigue. It was written in Vienna in 1791 in response to an anonymously commission – but Mozart never finished the work and it was completed another composer, Franz Sussmayr.

33 Leo Delibes – Lakmé: Flower Duet

Today the “The Flower Duet” might be synonymous as the musical theme used on British Airways advertising with the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline”. But it is actually a duet for sopranos from French composer Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé, first performed in Paris in 1883. The duet takes place between the character Lakmé who is the daughter of a Brahmin priest, and her servant Mallika, as they go to gather flowers by a river.

34 Paul Dukas – Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Many of us will recognise this one from the Walt Disney 1940 animated film Fantasia but The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is actually a symphonic poem from 1897 by the French composer Paul Dukas. It is based on a poem by Goethe of 1797 and is subtitled: “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe”.

35 Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No14 in Cm Op27 (Moonlight)

Music critic Ludwig Rellstab in 1832 likened the effect of the first movement to that of ‘moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne’ and it became known as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. However, enormous controversy broke out that the work should be labeled in such an romantic manner. Nevertheless, it stuck and this is the name by which it is now universally known.

36 Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No 2 in F Major Op102

A touching father and son partnership with Dmitri Shostakovich’s second Piano Concerto. It was composed in 1957 for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. Maxim premiered the piece during his graduation at the Moscow Conservatory. This concerto is sometimes rather dismissed – mainly because of its uncharacteristically cheerful nature, much more so than most of Shostakovich’s works. Indeed, barely a week after he had finished writing it, the composer himself wrote that it had “no redeeming artistic merits”. Perhaps Shostakovitch wanted to pre-empt any public criticism. In any case, today it stands as one of Shostakovich’s most popular pieces.

37 Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake

More ballet music from Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with Swan Lake op20. Fashioned from Russian folk tales, it tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Despite the poor reaction to the première by Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, Swan Lake has become one of the best loved ballet scores in the repertoire.

38 Gabriel Faure – Requiem – Pie Jesu

French composer Gabriel Fauré premiered the first version of his Requiem in D minor, Op. 48 in La Madeleine, Paris in 1888. It’s a short setting of the Catholic Mass lasting 35 minutes in seven movements, the most famous  being the central soprano aria Pie Jesu. ‘Pious Lord Jesu, Give them rest’

39 George Gerswin – Rhapsody in Blue

Now to the USA for one of the most popular of all American concert works, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano and jazz band. Written in 1924 it combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects and established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer.

40 Johann Sebastian Bach – Brandenburg Concertos

Bach’s Brandenburg concertos are widely regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era. They were presented to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, as a gift in 1721 – probably because Bach was rather hoping for a job in his Berlin court. Unfortunately, Christian Ludwig simply didn’t have the musicians in his ensemble to perform the concertos. So the score was never played and remained in the library until they were rediscovered over a hundred years later in 1849.

41 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Ave Verum Corpus

This setting of the Ave verum corpus text was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in 1791. Mozart wrote this for his friend Anton Stoll, who coordinated the music in the parish of Baden bei Wien, near Vienna. Mozart was always multitasking – at the same time he was in the middle of writing his opera The Magic Flute  Die Zauberflöte, AND travelling back and forth to a spa in Baden to visit his wife Constanze, who was expecting their sixth child.

42 Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto no 1 in Bb minor Op 23

Following heavy criticism from the pianist, Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky revised his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 three times before he was finally satisfied, the last being in 1888. Rubinstein then became a fervent champion of the work and it has become one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky’s compositions and among the best known of all piano concerti. The lushly romantic first theme was also used by Orson Welles’s in his famous radio series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

43 Sergei Rachmaninoff – Symphony no 2 in E minor Op 27

This massive work, which premiered in St Petersburg in 1908, takes an entire hour to perform in its full version. In the 1940s & 50s it was often cut down to 35 minutes.

44 Maurice Ravel – Bolero

Ravel’s Bolero was a sensational success when premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1928, built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on snare drums. On top of this are two hypnotic alternating melodies. But two years later when Toscanini conducted a row broke out over the tempo with Ravel accusing the conductor of taking it “too fast”, to which Toscanini responded “It’s the only way to save the work”.

45 Pyotr Ilych Thaikovsky – Nutcracker: Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy

The original production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet was premièred at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892 as a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta was not a success. Nevertheless, the Nutcracker today enjoys enormous popularity especially around the Christmas season. In the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy the score is noted for its use of the celesta – a delicate keyboard instrument which plays little glass chimes.

46 Sousa – Stars & Stripes Forever

Military man John Philip Sousa rose through the ranks of the U.S. Marines to the rank of lieutenant commander. Being independently wealthy, he donated his entire naval salary minus one dollar a year to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund. As a composer he is known as the “American March King”. As a result of a 1987 act of the U.S. Congress, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ composed in 1897 became the official National March of the United States of America.

47 Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony no 5 in C minor Op 67

One of the best-known compositions in classical music. Premiered in 1808 at a mammoth 4 hour concert in Vienna consisting entirely of Beethoven premieres, and directed by Beethoven. Samuel Morse used the rhythm of the opening – “dit-dit-dit-dah” – for the letter “V” in Morse Code; the phrase “V for Victory” has been in general use for a long time. For this reason, the BBC, during World War Two, prefaced its broadcasts to Europe with those four notes, played on kettle drums.

48 Georges Bizet – The Pearl Fishers 

Bizet’s most famous Opera is of course Carmen but one of his best-loved tunes doesn’t come from Carmen at all – it’s this duet for tenor and baritone from his other opera, The Pearl Fishers. The two characters acknowledge that they’re both in love with the same woman, but they’ve both decided to give her up as an act of friendship. Anyway, it does’t end well and the opera ends in a life and death struggle, with their whole village burning to the ground!

49 Felix Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E Minor

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto remains one of the most regularly performed and most loved of all instrumental concertos. Beethoven heard him play in 1821 and made a prophetic entry in one of his conversation books: “Mendelssohn – 12 years old- promises much.”

50 Mussorgsky – Night on Bare Mountain

The Night on a Bare Mountain – or ‘Bald’ Mountain – is a tone poem or musical picture by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky from 1867. It’s literal translation is St. John’s Eve on the Bare Mountain and it takes as its theme the witches’ sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve. Although Mussorgsky was proud of his youthful effort, his mentor, Balakirev refused to perform it. and it was never performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime. However, in 1940 the work obtained perhaps its greatest exposure through the Walt Disney animated film Fantasia

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