Diving Deeper into Spotify

Continuing from the previous post on Spotify classical music playlists, we’re now turning to Spotify’s all-orchestra playlist.

Orchestra 100: Spotify Picks

  Orchestra 100 If Average US Orchestra
Tracks 100  
Women 2 (2.0%) 8
People of Colour 2 (2.0%) 6
Women of Colour none 2
Living 8 (8.0%) 16

Oddly enough, given Apple Music’s stronger UI and metadata for classical music, it didn’t have an equivalent first party “all-orchestra” playlist like this one. In a sense, this should be the most comparable playlist to the average US orchestra season since it only focuses on orchestral repertoire.

Like Spotify’s Classical Essentials, this playlist has significantly fewer composers who are women or people of colour compared to the average US orchestra season, and no women of colour composers at all.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Choros No. 8

Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5, 1887 – November 17, 1959) was a Brazilian composer, conductor, cellist, and classical guitarist described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music”. Villa-Lobos has become the best-known South American composer of all time. A prolific composer, he wrote numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works, totaling over 2000 works by his death in 1959.

This is part of a larger series of pieces named after chôro, “music played by an ensemble of Brazilian street musicians (called chorões) using both African and European instruments, who improvise in a free and often dissonant kind of counterpoint called contracanto.” 1 I’m quite fond of the fact that the beginning sounds a bit like the warm-up that happens onstage before most concerts start.

It seems that Villa-Lobos is played much less often by US orchestras now than during his late lifetime. In his 1951 book “The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste”, John H. Mueller wrote “Among the composers [of Latin America], Villa-Lobos of Brazil is the most noted and enjoys a statistically perceptible rank in the repertoire.” 2

However, the League of American Orchestras Repertoire Reports note only two programs featuring pieces by Villa-Lobos in 2012/13 and no programs in 2011/12. The Institute for Composer Diversity analysis from 2019/20 (which included slightly more than twice as many orchestras compared to the League reports) notes eight performances of pieces by Villa-Lobos. The only major symphony featured in either source was Oregon, who included Villa-Lobos’ Uirapurú in their 2019/20 season.

Part of the explanation may be related to US foreign policy? It’s possible that the Good Neighbour Policy espoused by President Roosevelt contributed to interest in South American composers; in turn, after the fall of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas in 1945, Villa-Lobos was able to travel again, and his Wikipedia page notes that he “made regular visits to the United States”. If I can find an analysis of US orchestral repertoire that follows on from the time period of Mueller’s book, it would be interesting to see if there was a decline in performances of Villa-Lobos’ work brought on by a return to more interventionist South American US foreign policy with the onset of the Cold War.

One other fun comment on Villa-Lobos from Mueller’s book: in a section about audience reactions, he writes about how the tastes of conductor Leopold Stokowski were sometimes at odds with those of his audience. A Schoenberg performance apparently elicited a “shower of forthright hisses” from the audience, after which Stokowski “turned to his audience and defensively pleaded freedom of expression for the artist.” Mueller then tactfully notes that “Those who agreed with him applauded; those who preferred freedom of expression for the audience made known their opinions by a contrary sign.”

Stokowski later performed this piece—Chorôs No. 8—resulting in a similar audience reaction. Presumably having learned that arguing with the audience did no good, “on this occasion [Stokowski] invited the disaffected members of the audience to leave “and smoke the classic cigarette.”” 3

Final note: I recently discovered an album of Villa-Lobos Choral Transcriptions performed by the São Paulo Symphony Choir and Valentina Peleggi and really enjoyed it. I would highly recommend you give it a listen!

Toru Takemitsu: A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden

Tōru Takemitsu (武満 徹, Takemitsu Tōru, October 8, 1930 – February 20, 1996) was a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory. Largely self-taught, Takemitsu was admired for the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre. He is known for combining elements of oriental and occidental philosophy and for fusing sound with silence and tradition with innovation.

You know, I’ve listened to this one several times, and I don’t think I like it; it’s too abstract for my tastes. It seems to be one of Takemitsu’s more well-known pieces for Orchestra, and one of the ones I had heard of already before doing this project.

If you do like this style of music, then let me shill for my employer and recommend you check out an album of four of Takemitsu’s early orchestra pieces from 1969, with the TSO conducted by then-Music Director Seiji Ozawa.

Louise Farrenc: Symphony No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 36: I. Adagio - Allegro

Louise Farrenc (née Jeanne-Louise Dumont; 31 May 1804 – 15 September 1875) was a French composer, virtuoso pianist and teacher.

This is the second piece we’ve looked at by Farrenc; the third movement from her Nonet in E-Flat Major, Op. 38 was on Spotify’s Classical Essentials playlist. This symphony was written two years earlier than the Nonet.

By self-admission, Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 is the only symphony by a female composer on Tom Service’s 2014 Guardian series on “50 Greatest Symphonies”. In Service’s article on Farrenc’s symphony, he says the final movement is his favourite. I think mine is the first — the boisterous theme that comes after the slow lead-in is a top-tier example of “big C” classical drama.

The Role of Commercial Recordings

In his article, Service noted that there were only two commercial recordings of Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3: one from the North German Radio Philharmonic (the one featured on this playlist) and another from the Orchestre de Bretagne. Two more recordings have since been made by the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg in 2018 4 and very recently by the Insula Orchestra in July 2021.

It’s interesting to watch how the availability of commercial recordings has started to catch up with changes in orchestra programming to feature more diverse composers. For example, Florence Price became a household name for many orchestras in 2020/21, while at the same time only her first symphony had more than one recording. Now, as of September 24, Deutche Grammophon is releasing a recording of Philadelphia Orchestra playing symphonies 1 & 3 conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. There’s still only the one recording of Symphony No. 4 by the Fort Smith Symphony, but hopefully more are on their way.

There are still some gaps to fill: earlier in the year I did some back-of-the-napkin math, and about one-third of the most-played orchestra pieces by women composers have no commercial recordings at all; most notably Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), although you can find some recorded performances of it on YouTube. Maybe this is a small part of the puzzle — even if you had curators at Spotify and Apple Music whose programming choices were more in line with the average US orchestra, there are still a sizeable number of pieces that aren’t in the catalogue yet.

Kaija Saariaho: Du Cristal

Kaija Anneli Saariaho (Finnish: [ˈkɑi̯jɑ ˈsɑːriɑho]; née Laakkonen; born 14 October 1952) is a Finnish composer based in Paris, France. … In a 2019 composers’ poll by BBC Music Magazine, Saariaho was ranked the greatest living composer.

Saariaho studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg, and Paris, where she has lived since 1982. Her research at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) marked a turning point in her music away from strict serialism towards spectralism. Her characteristically rich, polyphonic textures are often created by combining live music and electronics.

Like “A Flock Descends…” this one is also a bit abstract for my tastes, though I find myself liking it more, and I would definitely be interested in hearing it live. In particular, the description on Saariaho’s website mentions that the piece has “an important part for synthesizer” which isn’t immediately obvious to me; 5 maybe being able to see the synth player press the keys would be a good clue as to which sounds are analogue and which are digital.

The piece is actually a two-parter of sorts: …à la Fumée is meant to follow, though it’s clear that Saariaho thinks that each can stand alone, and in fact they were each commissioned for two different orchestras. Like with Du Cristal, there’s an electronic element to à la Fumée, with electronically modified alto flute and cello soloists. There were a couple moments where the solo instruments sounded like they were using an effect or filter, but like with Du Cristal, it’s very subtle.

I think the difference in how I feel about this piece compared to “A Flock Descends…” is that despite both being abstract (by which I mean neither has any clear melody), Du Cristal feels like it has a clearer structure created by the differences in intensity and instrumentation, whereas I don’t think the musical ideas in “A Flock Descends…” come together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I will admit, in both cases, I like each piece a little more after every repeat listen, so who knows, maybe after two dozen plays, I’ll change my mind and think “A Flock Descends…” is great.

Up Next

Because I’m increasingly adding long digressions to these deep dives, it seems like I’m going to have to get through the rest of the Spotify tracks one playlist at a time. Up next is Classical Sleep, where there are some interesting connections to wider conversations about streaming platforms, including metadata and how artists get paid, and the whole universe of streaming-first artists fostered by Spotify. In-between the digressions, there will also be interesting music to listen to.

Playlist, Methodology, and Data

You can listen to all of the pieces featured in this playlist analysis series here: Spotify: Classical Deep Dive - Spotify & Apple Music.

Full methodology notes for all my music posts can be found via the Main Methodology Page.

Details and data for the streaming service playlists analysis can be found on the Streaming Analysis Methodology Page.

More details about how I used the data from the Institute for Composer Diversity to create the comparison to US orchestra mainstage seasons can be found on the ICD 2019/20 Season Analysis Methodology Page.

  1. Source: Chôros on Wikipedia 

  2. Page 265. 

  3. Page 359 of The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste 

  4. From their bio, it seems like the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg claim to be the NBA all star team of European orchestras, but maybe that’s just marketing. 

  5. If I were to guess, I think you can hear it around 11:00?