To Lark or not to Lark?
It’s the yearly question in Settling the Score: Will ‘The Lark Ascending' alight on the top spot once again?
English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ musical ode to the song of the skylark, with its gentle pastoral soundscape and soaring solo violin line has worked its way deep into the hearts of music lovers around the world, and particularly here in New Zealand. Many times over the years that RNZ Concert has run this annual poll of your favourite classical music, ‘The Lark Ascending’ has ended up in the number one spot.
For those who love it, it’s an acknowledgment of the shared love of Vaughan Williams’ serene strains.
Yet for others…a good number of them…it’s a source of frustration. “It’s time for ‘The Lark’ to descend” is the common cry to RNZ Concert’s Facebook page, studio texts, and email address. The frustration has led to some to suggest there should be an “anti-vote” where the audience can vote for the work they least want to see on the Settling the Score list.
The team here at RNZ Concert wants to encourage the love of classical music, not discourage it, but we can understand some listeners’ frustration. If ‘The Lark’ is always going to be at the top, why bother voting at all?
1) Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece hasn’t always taken the top spot. Handel’s 'Messiah', Strauss’ 'Four Last Songs', Sibelius’ 'Symphony No 5', and Schumann’s 'Concert Piece for Four Horns' have all been #1 in previous Settling the Score countdowns.
2) The purpose of Settling the Score for listeners to hear…a broadcast lasting 12 hours as we countdown as many of our listeners’ favourite works that we can squeeze in. This year that will be Labour Day (Monday 28 October) from 7 am to 7 pm. If ‘The Lark’ should ascend once more, that’s one quarter hour at the end of 12 hours, and the rest of the day will have hours of glorious music.
With only one week left to vote in Settling the Score, there are already some surprises in our polling data. You might well shout “Spoilers!” for what follows, but never fear, history has shown that the largest influx of voting occurs in the final week, so what I’m about to share could change dramatically.
‘The Lark Ascending’ does indeed has some strong winds behind it, but so do other works.
Strauss’ 'Four Last Songs' also seems to hold a special place in the hearts of listeners, and it’s the perfect music for those craving emotional depth and balm for the weary soul. With the passing of the great American soprano, Jessye Norman, whose interpretation of the songs is legendary, Strauss’ final utterance may receive the boost needed to take it to the top of the list.
Other favourites are there as well, like Elgar’s 'Enigma variations' and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, but there's another composer in the running who we don't often see in the countdown: Franz Joseph Haydn.
This is thanks, largely, to a conversation that our breakfast host Cynthia Morahan has been having with Daybreak listeners. She commented on Haydn's absence from the countdown and her listeners took that as a call to rally around Papa Haydn. Currently two of his many, MANY, works are strong contenders: 'The Creation' and his first 'Cello Concerto in C major'. You might not be surprised that Haydn’s inventive and tuneful depiction of the creation of the world, in the tradition of Handel’s Messiah, is leading the charge, but the dark horse in this year’s race is Haydn's Cello Concerto No 1. Its existence wasn’t even discovered until the middle of the 20th century, but the charming and graceful work for the tenor of the string section clearly delights lovers of the Classical master.
Made in New Zealand
Kiwi works traditionally struggle to get enough backing to make it into the Settling the Score list. Douglas Lilburn’s 'Overture Aotearoa' is often the representative work, but this year listeners seem to be gathering around another of his compositions as well, the ‘Four Canzonas’.
Gareth Farr is another home-grown favourite, particularly his 'From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs', with its evocative orchestral colour and thrilling percussion.
And when it comes to women composers who struggle for recognition in the male-dominated list, it's Kiwi women who get votes, with regular support for Dame Gillian Whitehead and works like ‘The Improbable Ordered Dance’ and ‘Resurgences’, as well as rising star Salina Fisher’s ‘Rainphase’. This year there also seems to be a lobby advocating for Janet Jennings and a recent release of her music on Atoll called play-pen.
Most popular composers
But what of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart? These are the three composers who receive the most votes for their collective works. Currently Beethoven has received the most votes across a number of works, but you might be surprised to hear that his Violin Concerto is outperforming traditional favourites like the Ode to Joy and the Emperor Piano Concerto. This may be because of a powerful performance by the German violinist Augustin Hadelich with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the end of last year.
At the end of two weeks of voting, Haydn is second only to Beethoven for total number of votes, but he’s being chased hard on the heels by Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. Will he keep up the pressure?
Where does this leave voters in the final week?
If you're one of those who truly don’t want to see ‘The Lark’ win again, your challenge is to think about other works that have the same resonance with your fellow listeners as ‘The Lark’. With three votes, you can choose to vote strategically and for your personal favourites at the same time. And if you're a die-hard Lark fan, stand proud, because you can bet that even if it's not the top spot, it will be flying high this year.
No matter what, RNZ Concert will bring you 12 hours of listener favourites, glorious music each and every one.