There’s something tragic about the one-hit wonder. Take Vanilla Ice: despite the ubiquity of his 1990 hit song “Ice, Ice Baby,” he had to start hosting a reality home improvement TV show called “The Vanilla Ice Project” on the DIY network in 2010, and his Wikipedia biography refers to him as a “handyman” first and as a rapper second. Classical music, of course, has plenty of one-hit wonders too. I made an admittedly subjective list of the top 10.
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) – “Symphonie fantastique” (1830)
In 1827, a troupe of English actors traveled to Paris to present Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Their performance met with great success. One side effect of the triumph: Berlioz fell madly in love with the production’s Ophelia, an actress by the name of Harriet Smithson. He poured his soul out to her in love letters, which she preceded to ignore. In 1830, he wrote his “Symphonie fantastique,” an orchestral piece that channels his melodramatic obsession with the actress into musical motives both triumphant and macabre. Sure, Berlioz wrote magnificent operas like “Benvenuto Cellini” and “Les Troyens.” The “Symphonie” is still pretty much the only thing he’s known for. And his later marriage to Smithson—she eventually answered his letters—wasn’t happy enough to compensate.
Johann Strauss The Elder (1804–1849) – “Radetzky March” (1848)
The corn, the corn, the corn marches / the corn, the corn, the corn demonstrates / Very famous, and sensational / Tasty, tasty, from Bonduelle
While Johann Strauss The Younger, the king of waltzes, made a name for himself with a catalogue of catchy dance tunes, his father only managed a single hit. He didn’t even live long enough to collect royalties from this German TV spot, which sets—forgive me—corny lyrics and animated vegetables over the instantly recognizably melody. Adding insult to injury, the ad isn’t even for fresh vegetables, but for soggy canned ones: a perhaps unintentional statement about the quality of Strauss’s piece.
Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) – “Andrea Chénier” (1896)
Giordano also wrote another opera called “Fedora.” But today we only really know his hit, “Andrea Chénier,” a fictional story that takes place during the French Revolution. The piece is mainly known for the fabulous aria “La mamma morta,” a favorite of glamorous opera galas. The aria was also featured in the 1993 AIDS film “Philadelphia.”
Gustav Holst (1874–1934) – “The Planets” (1914-16)
Wagner, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Holst’s “The Planets”—these are the composers who made Hollywood film music what it is today. Namely, bloated, unoriginal, and second-rate. (And yes, before you start, I know that John Williams is the exception. Don’t @ me.) But Holst’s “The Planets” was also visionary in another way. When he was working on the brilliantly orchestrated music, Pluto wasn’t considered a planet, and so he didn’t “set” it. That looked like a mistake from 1930 to until August 2006, when Pluto did enjoy planet status; but that was revoked when other, equally large bodies were discovered outside of Neptune’s orbit. Holst was vindicated. Unfortunately, as good as some of his other pieces like the “St Paul’s Suite” are, they will still be eclipsed, so to speak, by the martial violence of “Mars” and the exhilarating melodies of “Jupiter.”
Charles Gounod (1818–1893) – “Méditation sur le premier prélude de Bach (Ave Maria)” (1859)
It takes gonads to take a Prelude from the first book of the “Well-tempered Clavier” and put a melody on top of it. That’s exactly what Gounod did in 1859, with the words from the Ave Maria. Is the result kitsch? The musicologist Carl Dahlhaus (1928-1989) thought so, though he defined the term with the words “sagging romanticism”; the “Ave Maria” is a lot of things, but “sagging” certainly isn’t one of them. Instead, it wears its heart on its sleeve. In any case, this piece is a wedding classic, though it might enjoy a better reputation if the groom’s pianist cousin hadn’t had such an exciting time at the rehearsal dinner….For the sake of fairness, I should point out Gounod’s opera “Faust,” a decent piece that’s played fairly often, was premiered in the same year as the “Ave Maria,” in 1859.
Carl Orff (1895–1982) – “Carmina Burana” (1935-36)
Orff was mentally “hijacked” by the “Carmina Burana,” a collection of texts and songs from the 12th century, in 1934. They had been printed in 1847 and fascinated him no end. Orff would soon add musical ideas redolent of a fictitious “Middle Ages” to the literary work, characterized mostly by heavy percussion. He hoped that bacchanalian dances would transport audiences back around the campfires of tiny villages; that enchanting songs would recall the courtly affairs of knightly lovers or the pagan scheming of the old gods. He hoped in vain. The only part of “Carmina Burana” that anyone really remembers is the slightly fascist opening chorus, “O Fortuna.” A German boxer named Henry Maske—alias “The Gentleman”—even used the music as his entrance song, until the Orff estate told him to knock it off. He later switched to “Conquest of Paradise,” a track by the Greek New Age producer Vangelis, which wasn’t exactly an improvement.
Samuel Barber (1910–1981) – “Adagio for Strings” (1938)
In 2004, BBC listeners crowned Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as “the saddest piece of music in the world.” Since then, its reputation as “America’s secular hymn for the grieving dead” has only taken off. Barber himself, perhaps frustrated by the failure of the rest of his music to make a similar mark, tried to rehash the piece in 1957. He arranged the music, originally conceived for string quartet, for a choir singing the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass. In other words, like Gounod, but with his own stuff. He tried to make a secular piece into something sacred. Nice idea—still, it was too little, too late.
Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) – Canon in D Major (1694)
This piece by quintessential one-hit wonder Pachelbel was likely composed for the organist Johann Christoph Bach’s (1671-1721) wedding. (Johann Christoph was Johann Sebastian’s older brother.) It’s the world’s most famous sequence of falling perfect fourths; it’s also the piece that can boast the most youth orchestra desecrations per year. Pachelbel was such a one-hit wonder that not even the Gigue that follows the Canon gets performed. The simple yet legendary harmonic progression would later influence artists such as the Bee Gees, the Pet Shop Boys, and David Bowie. Much like Pachelbel’s Gigue, a rather excellent setting of the Magnificat the composer made will most likely remain forgotten.
Jules Massenet (1842–1912) – Meditation from the opera “Thaïs” (1892-93)
Put “Meditation” and “Thaïs” into YouTube, and you’ll get several hundred thousand hits. That’s enough so that you could listen to the piece for your entire life—though you would undoubtedly be choosing to make your life irrationally painful. The intermezzo music for violin and orchestra, usually performed with piano, is really very pretty, but like Pachelbel’s Canon, it’s been butchered enough that no one really feels like hearing Massenet’s original opera any more.
Franz Xaver Gruber (1787–1863) – “Silent Night” (1818)
And not just because it’s almost Christmas. Gruber must be the single biggest one-hit wonder in classical music history. “Silent Night” continues to be extraordinarily popular all around the world. Who wrote it? Well, a priest named Joseph Mohr is responsible for the so-called “lyrics,” and a certain Franz Xaver Gruber for the unforgettable “music.” Heard anything else by Gruber? No, neither have I. UNESCO even bestowed the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage on the song. Which is totally fine, I swear.
Best of the Rest:
- Bedřich Smetana, “Vltava” (1882). This doesn’t qualify because Smetana’s opera “The Bartered Bride” is quite popular with opera houses, though “Vltava” is the far catchier piece of music.
- Maurice Ravel, “Bolero” (1928). The piece would have deserved a spot in the top 10 due to sheer infamy. The (endlessly repeating) tune is by far Ravel’s most recognizable. So why isn’t he on the list? Simply because he’s a magnificent composer, and I thought it would be insulting to lump him with the others.
- George Bizet, “Carmen” (1875)? No way! First of all, even within his most famous opera, there are multiple stand-alone hits: the overture, the outstanding “Sequidilla,” and the obligatory “Habanera.” Besides, his earlier opera “The Pearl Fishers” has gorgeous moments too, like “Je crois entendre encore” and Zurga and Nadir’s duet. Not even close.
- Modest Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874). Yes, but…“Boris Godunov” is stunning, and performances of it aren’t exactly rare.
- A few more also-rans: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel” (coming in at, let’s say, 13th place), Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor (not even really by him), the Minuet in E-flat Major from Luigi Boccherini’s String Quintet G. 275 (his Fandango is also pretty rock-and-roll), Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” (the “Gnoessienne No. 5” is better), Carla Maria von Weber’s opera “Freischütz” (I wouldn’t want to offend the clarinetists), the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (the opera itself is almost never played), and the March No. 1 from Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (see the Cello Concerto, “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations,” and the “Salut d’amour”). ¶