One-hit Wonders

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting the Beethoven scholar, Jonathan del Mar. I was just about to give a performance of Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, so we fell to talking about composers, like Monti, who are known for one piece only, or who composed one work whose reputation is head and shoulders above anything else they have written. Why does this happen? And does it affect the composers concerned?

Monti wrote his Czardas in 1904 for violin or mandolin and piano and it has subsequently been re-arranged for every other instrument under the sun. Although he wrote full-scale ballets and operettas, it is this short encore reimagining the Hungarian csárdás dance which has graced concert platforms the world over; its fluctuations of pace are perfectly judged and its appealing tunes turn out to be just what is required on multiple occasions.

Whether Monti was pleased with the success of his creation is not recorded but in the case of Max Bruch we know that he felt aggrieved by the runaway popularity of his Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1866, it is the perfect example of a Romantic concerto. Without preamble it draws you in with the most seductive of melodies and mixes the tender and poetic with the bold and uplifting. Bruch wrote two other violin concerti which he considered equally fine but they never took off in the same way, leading him to say in frustration of the first, “I cannot listen to this concerto any more!”. His view may have been coloured by the fact that he sold the manuscript for a small sum, so received no royalties from his hit. Of his 200 or so other works, the Scottish Fantasy has also entered the canon but not to the extent of the first violin concerto, whose melodies sound so natural it’s as if they have always existed.

Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto similarly exhibits all the prerequisites of a Romantic piano concerto. Originally a film sound track, the music was deliberately designed to mimic Rachmaninov because the film directors couldn’t afford the royalty payments for the real thing. Its huge popularity has enabled the Warsaw Concerto to separate from the film, Dangerous Moonlight, and to enjoy a long life of its own in the concert hall.

There seems to be something about the concerto format which inspires a composer of second rank to outdo themselves: Hummel wrote his Trumpet Concerto when he inherited Haydn’s position at the court of Prince Esterhazy. Perhaps Hummel had his predecessor in his mind whilst writing because as an effective vehicle for the Classical trumpet, the concerto is as good as any….. except perhaps the Haydn.

Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is requested so often that solo guitarists can weary of being asked to play it. Rodrigo himself was a pianist, but in his guitar concerto he drew skilfully on Spanish traditions of guitar artistry whilst evoking the perfumed gardens of Aranjuez, creating the ultimate expression of Spanish culture. Despite a lifetime of composing successful works, including concerti for flautist James Galway and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, the guitar concerto of 1939 is far and away Rodrigo’s best-known piece.

Unmistakable local colour can be a reason for a work’s enduring success; George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad poetically evokes the English landscape, using folk-inspired musical language reminiscent of Butterworth’s friend, Vaughan Williams. Sadly George Butterworth’s death in the First World War brought his composing career to an untimely end. Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne similarly draw on folk songs for their sultry, folkloric evocation of that beautiful area of France.

Great melodies define the above works and Lionel Bart showers us with so many melodic jewels in Oliver! it’s as if he gave away all his best material in this 1960 musical (written with the help of Eric Rogers, as Bart couldn’t read music). Perhaps Bart’s penchant for partying took its toll – he was bankrupt by 1972 – but maybe if you write a work of genius like Oliver!, it will always be next to impossible to reach those heights again.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had a magnificent international success with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898. By the 1920’s its staging was an annual event in the London musical calendar, with families trooping up to the Albert Hall in their thousands to sing along. The Hiawatha sequels never gained the same following but the composer should have had his fortune made by the original’s huge sheet music sales. However he had sold the original manuscript outright and wasn’t entitled to royalties.

Composers clearly don’t always realise they’ve written a hit but when Carl Orff finished Carmina Burana, he told his publisher to burn all his preceding works. Orff was in no doubt that he had found his mojo in this masterpiece where modern and ancient worlds collide; it was popular from its first performance in Frankfurt 1937 and still today is box office gold.

Being remembered for a light scherzo movement was the plight of Henry Litolff, the prolific composer and pianist, whose trilling, dancing Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No.4 in D minor is often played as a separate work in concert programmes. The same fate befell Paul Dukas who was by all accounts intensely irritated by the phenomenal success of his scherzo, L’Apprenti Sorcier, which he felt obscured the appreciation that might otherwise have come his way as a distinguished professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, teacher of Messiaen and Rodrigo, and thoughtful composer of largescale orchestral works.

Italian composers Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni despite active, successful careers, are both today considered ‘one opera’ composers and indeed their two works, Pagliacci and Cavelleria Rusticana, are often performed on the same bill under the affectionate title ‘Cav and Pag’. Both works sum up the Verismo style of Italian opera and centre on dramatic tales of adultery.

Dame Ethel Smyth’s reputation too now rests mainly on one operatic work, The Wreckers, a Cornish tale of shipwrecks and looters, which faced many obstacles due to the sex of its composer.

Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel has been outstandingly popular since its debut in Frankfurt in 1893. It was the first complete opera to be broadcast live in the UK. Written at the suggestion of the librettist Adelheid Wette, the composer’s sister, who wanted a Christmas entertainment for her children, it appeals to all generations. Was there something about this particular collaboration with his sister that made all the difference to Humperdinck? Maybe. His seven other stage works never achieved the fame of this one.

Like Humperdinck, Gustav Holst was a great teacher. He wrote The Planets during the First World War whilst teaching at St Paul’s Girls’ School where he was a pioneer in women’s education. Never one to court publicity, Holst was known to complain about the enduring popularity of The Planets and the spell it cast over audiences, who didn’t always warm to his more austere later works.

The length of a work doesn’t seem to affect whether it will tower over others; a short, perfectly-formed miniature puts some composers on the map for all time – Macdowell’s To a Wild Rose, Pachelbel’s Canon, Satie’s Gymnopedie, Widor’s Toccata, Allegri’s Miserere spring to mind.

Modernist examples of the one piece phenomenon might include Terry Riley In C or John Cage’s 4’33’’ The audacity of each of these works was ground breaking at the time and has put them in the history books at least.

Sometimes in this tale of one-hit composers, the one famous piece has brought joy to its creator, sometimes annoyance, sometimes riches, often tantalizingly not. Usually in their special piece they have nailed that elusive thing, a melody or musical idea that speaks to everyone, and sometimes this is aided by particular collaborators or by the particular time and place of composition, or simply by a combination of ideal factors coalescing at the right time.

What we do know for certain is that these works have all brought pleasure to succeeding generations of music lovers, whether they pleased their creators or not.

Do add your own examples!



  1. Interesting article! The British composer Edgar Bainton wrote chamber music, concerti, several symphonies, and much else – but seems to be remembered only for his anthem ‘And I Saw a New Heaven’ – a beautiful piece of church music which lasts about 5 minutes.

    1. Author

      Yes that’s a beautiful piece. He must have been feeling particularly inspired!

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