BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is a treasure trove of listening ideas, featuring a searchable archive of guests’ choices dating back to 1942. Guests choose their music for a variety of reasons, sometimes love for the music itself and sometimes based on association and memory. Either way, it’s in the nature of the program that the selections are intensely personal, and it’s this that makes them such a rich source of musical inspiration.
Digging around the internet for Top 10s of classical composers, there’s the expected consensus that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are the Big Three. Phil Goulding’s The 50 Greatest Composers is pretty representative in having this triumvirate followed by the usual suspects of Wagner, Haydn, Schubert et al (see below for full Top 20).
By way of comparison, I typed in the names of the composers from Goulding’s top 50 to check their popularity on the Desert Island Discs site. The following shows the ranking of each composer in terms of the number of DID guests who chose one or more of their pieces among their eight selections, compared to their Goulding rank (as of October 2011).
|DID rank||Composer||Goulding rank||No. of guests|
The Big Three are upheld by Desert Island Discs, with a solid lead over the rest of the field. Reflecting the British connections of most of the guests, Elgar is at no. 6, despite failing to make Goulding’s top 50, and the standing of Britten and Vaughan Williams is similarly boosted. Italian opera is very popular among DID-ers, with Verdi and Puccini scoring much higher than in Goulding. Haydn and Schumann, top 10-ers for Goulding, have less of a place in the hearts of the programme’s contributors. A few guests have a strong preference for a single composer. For example, James Ellroy chooses five pieces by Beethoven. Enoch Powell chooses four by Wagner…
Rock and pop artists fare relatively less well. A random sampling shows that the Beatles were picked by 250 guests (lower than 10th-placed Wagner). Others include Bob Dylan (92), Elvis (81), Led Zeppelin (5), Madonna (4), and Beyonce (0). Presumably, guests are often contemplating a long time spent hearing the same eight pieces of music on a hypothetical desert island when they make their choices, and the numbers must be at least partly a reflection of the relative strength of classical music to bear repeated listening, but perhaps also of its greater associative powers over long periods of time.
If she ever reads this, Madonna should note that more people (including Jo Brand) chose Brahms’s wonderful Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale than her entire catalogue. Ha!