Roll over Beethoven, and tell Uematsu the news

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You were probably only aware of one music chart controversy last week, but another has been raging for nearly a month and shows no sign of reconciliation. This dispute has generated some equally poisonous words, but from a surprising source; the genteel listeners of Classic FM.

Every Easter, Classic FM compiles its ‘Hall of Fame’. With voting figures regularly surpassing 150,000, this annual list has a good claim to be Britain’s, if not the world’s, most authoritative poll on popular classical music tastes. Many listeners were, however, shocked this year to find that top five regulars Beethoven and Mozart had been dislodged, not by Verdi, Wagner, or Tchaikovsky, but by Nobuo Uematsu and Jeremy Soule, two men who respectively write the music for Final Fantasy and the Elder Scrolls series of video games.

The reaction to the poll has been astounding to say the least. Comments range from the dismissal of video game music as being “randomly generated” to lamentations that this represents “the end of Classic FM”. Even Classic FM itself could be accused of stigmatising the vote, with John Suchet , the host of the weekday morning show, actively urging listeners to vote next year to change the rankings if they’re not happy, which is somewhat more direct than the language used to describe the works of Rachmaninov and Vaughan-Williams which have haunted the top three since the chart’s inception.

The pieces selected are also somewhat troubling. Whilst all other composers have their works divided into symphonies, concertos and so in a bid to get multiple entries in, Uematsu and Soule have had their entire bodies of work summed up in one entry; for Uematsu, that means hundreds of hours, spanning thirteen separate games is equated to the 14 minutes of The Lark Ascending, its nearest rival. It is the same case for films. Howard Shore’s collaboration with Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings, the highest charting film score at Number 20, is lumped together, as if such dissonant pieces as “Concerning Hobbits” and “Minas Morgul” were the same.

Of course, the “outraged listeners” are correctly pointing to the fact that this has only happened because of a Facebook campaign to raise the profile of modern composers in the gaming industry. However, this isn’t an outright aberration; whilst Soule’s work jumped over 200 places from the previous chart, Uematsu has frequently appeared within the top 20. Whilst the campaign seems to have caused the opposite of its intended objective, with some of the more extreme critics calling for a separate chart for “lesser music” next year, the issue of perception that it raises is significant.

Most of the attacks on Uematsu and Soule revolve around the suggestion that scores composed for modern entertainment, be it for films or games, are somehow less worthy of recognition than “the classics”. This sort of statement requires one to look at the past with the most rose-tinted of glasses, ignoring the simple fact that music has always been composed for mass entertainment and money.

If any of the composers placed on a pedestal by the “purists” of Classic FM lived in the modern age, they too would be composing music for new media. Spielberg himself acknowledged this when asking John Williams to compose the score for Schindler’s List; he turned to Williams because all the composers he wanted were dead.

The critics also forget that the next generation of classical listeners often first experiences the music through film or television; Silence of the Lambs gave a boost to Bach through a grisly take on his Goldberg Variations, and The Apprentice regularly pairs Prokofiev with Hans Zimmer. Music written for games shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it because of its provenance, and, as a great fan of both Soule and Uematsu, I can only hope that this affair can give these men the accolades they deserve. Give some of their work a listen. You never know, you might just enjoy it!

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