You've Heard That Song Before!
Says Martin Moritz
As with so many misunderstandings, invariably riddled with misconceptions, false assumptions and half-truths, it was generally accepted that the worlds of classical and popular music were sworn enemies. These labels were deliberately conceived so as to differentiate them and in the process created an unfathomable gulf between them. However, a truce in hostilities was declared, albeit a conditional one, and so, inevitably, suspicions still remain.
What real difference is there between them and perhaps more importantly what does one define as popular? Beethoven’s Fifth is a classical work but it is also very popular. As is Messiah and Swan Lake. The unlikely Carmina Burana, a fairly obscure work by an even more obscure composer, is now familiar to millions, courtesy of a TV ad., and would Saint-Saens ‘Organ’ Symphony be as popular as it is now if it had not been featured in a film about a pig who longs to be a sheepdog?! So each fulfils the criteria of being both ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ but that conclusion is far too simplistic.
A label is often a convenient yet misleading device. It ties up disparate strands all too neatly making an unwieldy knot which then occupies a ‘pigeon hole’. How we all love ‘pigeon holing’! To be precise and irritatingly pedantic, the ‘catch all’ term ‘classical’ specifically embraces Baroque, the Romantic period, Chamber, Lieder, Oratorios, probably Opera, and the fearsome word itself, Classical , which actually covers the age of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries. And does that imply that everything else is ‘popular’? Well, what about jazz? Is that ‘popular’? Not being ‘classical’, the easy option is to often classify it under ‘popular’. Modern Jazz is ‘serious’ music, perceived as intellectual as well as elitist. These same descriptions apply to Classical music. By comparison, does this suggest that ‘popular’ music is none of these and therefore is lightweight, undemanding and not to be taken seriously? Well, the two have met amicably and in the process the supposedly frivolous sibling acknowledged the melodic and approachable content of its older, more profound, relative.
Popular, mainstream, music is a voracious guzzler of other musical forms. Consider folk, blues, country and even the unspeakable rock ‘n’ roll, each has been washed in musical detergents to make them whiter than white. And the classics, a word itself which has now become so debased, have become homogenised too.
Let’s commence with Rachmaninov. In 1918, George Cobb was compelled by a friend to create an impromptu rag while they were dining out and he chose Rachmaninov’s by then famous, or more probably infamous, Prelude in C Sharp Minor as his inspiration which he called Russian Rag. To his great surprise, the grim-looking and foreboding composer was also present in the restaurant and said to Cobb after he had heard it, "Nice rag, but you’ve got the wrong rhythm". Not the reaction that one would have expected. Almost thirty years later, both Freddy Martin and Sinatra would have a hit with Full Moon and Empty Arms, adapted from the third movement of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto.
Chopin would be another obvious choice and who better than Perry Como to sing his innately romantic music. Till the End of Time , an adaption of the Polonaise in A flat, sold more than a million copies in 1945 and, hard on its heels, was I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, based on the Fantasie Impromptu in C major. In 1950, Jo Stafford would record No Other Love (not to be confused with Ronnie Hilton’s hit some six years later written by Rodgers and Hammerstein)) which had the Etude No.3 in E as its source. And let’s not forget Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic (Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op 28).
Equal fair game was, unsurprisingly, Tchaikovsky. Tonight We Love took the First Movement of the Piano Concerto No.1, complete with piano, and gave Freddy Martin a massive US hit. Two Swing maestros, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, offered their contributions with Moon Love (Fifth Symphony – 2nd Movement) and Our Love (Romeo and Juliet – Overture), respectively. Far less inhibited was Nut Rocker by B Bumble and The Stingers and perhaps a discrete veil should be drawn over The Move’s Night of Fear (1812 Overture). However, Annie’s Song from John Denver restored the balance using the Fifth Symphony as its basis.
Two composers whose raison-d’etre would appear to be adapting classical melodies , adding lyrics to them and then creating successful musicals were George Wright and Edward Forrest. For ‘Kismet’, first staged in 1955, they used the music of Borodin, resulting in such songs And This Is My Beloved; Baubles, Bangles and Beads, and most notably, Stranger in Paradise. Grieg’s music formed the basis for ‘The Song of Norway’ and for ‘The Great Waltz’ their inspiration was Johann Strauss. In the same vein, Eric Maschwitz and Hy Kraft utilised music by Dvorak for their 1956 musical ‘Summer Song’. Whilst discussing Dvorak, mention must be made of the glorious and timeless Goin’ Home, drawn from the slow movement of his ‘New World’ Symphony, and forever associated with Paul Robeson.
Was nothing sacred? Most certainly not if you happened to be Spike Jones who brought his, shall we say, individual touch to such gems as the William Tell Overture (as did a more restrained David Whitfield for the title tune of a TV series); The Dance of the Hours (step up Alan Sherman and the equally comic Hello Muddah, Hello Fuddah); Liebestraum, The Blue Danube and, improbably, None But the Lonely Heart.
The great Beethoven was not immune either. Ken Dodd singing the slow movement of his Pathetique Sonata in the form of More than Love might strike many as heresy but how many tore their hair out after experiencing Miguel Rios and his Ode to Joy? And is the melody a fitting anthem for the European Union? Who felt that an overdose was the only course of action immediately having endured a disco version his Fifth Symphony? Should a statute of limitation been enforced before the even more sacrosanct Mozart fell victim to Mozart 40 by Waldo de Los Rios?
To the purists, this cross fertilisation will always be anathema. How dare one deface the Holy Grail! The reality is that these adaptations and arrangements have given the original melodies a much wider reach than the more limited one they have. It is not really a new lease of life but rather but more of one being made aware of music that one might or, indeed, would not be familiar with and perhaps, as a result, lead to seeking out the classical original. The comparison should be, at best, enlightening and, at worst, unhelpful. Music must not be placed on a pedestal - popular music is as valid as its classical counterpart with the caveat that there are unworthy elements in both. As a final thought, consider the fact that had not the classics been explored for a wider audience, we would never have had The Wombles and their Minuetto Allegretto, displaying an insightful grasp of Mozart!
This article first appeared in Journal Into Melody, issue 194 December 2012