The one hit wonders of classical music
Last night's peripatetic peregrination through the wild, wonderful world of recorded music (courtesy of Spotify) brought me to a series of albums called "One Hit Wonders." You've no doubt heard the term, which usually (as here) refers to the artists who made the pop record charts on only one occasion, never to make as big a noise again. One can fairly infer a touch of sadness and even condescension in the "one hit wonder" label, as if the artists were more to be pitied than celebrated. But just check out Volume 4, devoted to such early '60s smashes as Don & Juan's "What's Your Name," Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love," Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," the Elegants' "Little Star," and the Bobbettes' sublime "Mr. Lee." These are some of the coolest platters of all time, conferring at least a degree of immortality upon their artists. And that's more than most of their contemporaries could claim.
Though it doesn't have any charts to top, classical music has its "one hit wonders" too. In all sub-genres, there are classical composers remembered today, even if dimly, for one and only one piece. Opera surely has them, including Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana), Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci), Amilcare Ponchielli (La gioconda) and Engelbert Humperdinck (Hansel and Gretel). Sometimes, the hit isn't even the whole opera, it's a sole excerpt, such as the Overtures to Donna Diana (by Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek) or Zampa (by Louis-Ferdinand Hérold), or vocal numbers like "Im chambre separée" from Richard Heuberger's Der Opernball . One of our favorite piano CDs, Philip Martin's "The Maiden's Prayer and Other Gems from an Old Piano Stool" contains several one-hitters, such as Christian Sinding ("Rustle of Spring"), Anton Rubinstein ( Melody in F), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (Minuet in G) and the non-exactly-immortal Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska, composer of the sentimental chestnut that gives the CD its name.
The symphonic repertoire gives us such solitary successes as Johan Halvorsen's "Entry of the Boyars," Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov's "Caucasian Sketches" and Hugo Alfvén's Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, "Midsummer Vigil." Not that they didn't write other good stuff, just nothing else you're ever going to hear more than once in your life. For concertos, we've got Henryk Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 1, Henry Charles Litolff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4 for piano (especially its Scherzo) and the Trumpet Concertos by Johann Baptist Georg Neruda, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the recently-deceased Alexander Arutiunian.
Some composers are best-known for piece they didn't really compose, like Tomaso Albinoni and his Adagio (concocted by Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto) and Tomaso Vitali and his once-popular Chaconne (real composer unknown). Others had their one big hit mistakenly (or sometimes intentionally) misattributed to a better-known composer, like Jeremiah Clarke's "The Prince of Denmark's March" (aka Henry Purcell's "Trumpet Voluntary"), Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's "Bist du bei mir" (usually attributed to J.S. Bach) and Roman Hofstetter's "Serenade" (from a set of string quartets palmed off as Joseph Haydn's). Then, friends, there's Johann Pachelbel and his ever-loving Canon. No accounting for it; there just is.
Again, I don't intend to pity or condescend to the above composers. After all, by virtue of their hit, they're still in the 99th percentile of all composers when it comes to enduring acclaim. In most cases, we go at least a little beyond their best-known work in WFCR's programming. But neither is "one hit wonder" a title to envy or aspire to. Perhaps that's why some composers, like Jean Sibelius (Valse triste) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (Prelude in C-sharp minor) developed bad attitudes about their biggest hits, fearing that these supposed trifles would overshadow their bigger and better stuff.
Any other one-hit wonders that I forgot? Let me know; we'll dig 'em up and play their biggest hits for you.
(Illustrations: Harold Dorman, left, Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska, right)