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Many Classics Borrow from the Masters of Classical

When Chuck Berry sang “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” the line appeared to be drawn. On one side was classical music: staid, stodgy, the stuff your music appreciation class forced you to hear. On the other side, popular music, in this case the then-relatively new genre of rock ‘n’ roll: wild, fun, the stuff you danced to when school finally, finally let out for the day.

As usual, things aren’t quite that simple. Pop music has borrowed from (or ripped off, depending on your perspective) classical music for decades. Besides, at least some of what’s now in the classical canon was “pop” music in its day.

In honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday on Jan. 27, let’s look at just how blurred the line between pop and classical is.

Mozart, it turns out, is an appropriate starting point for this subject. Composers of his time were often supported by patrons – rich and powerful individuals or institutions for whom the composer wrote music. Consider this the rough equivalent of a performer signed to a major record label.

Mozart, then, was indie. He “lived or died by what the public wanted to hear,” according to Howard Goodall, a British composer and presenter of classical music programs on radio and television.

In an interview published on The Guardian’s website, Goodall said Mozart knew “great tunes were what people were drawn to, and that if he enticed and delighted his audience he was more likely not only to get another commission, but also people were more likely to return to hear his works a second and third time if his tunes were memorable.” Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.

There’s a reason works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. still are listened to today, and it’s essentially the same reason people still listen to songs by The Beatles: People like them. They have hooks, those little melodic bits that get stuck in your memory and make you want to hear a piece of music again and again.

That’s also why popular music composers continue to be influenced by (or just outright steal from) classical works.

(Another reason is that music written centuries ago isn’t copyrighted. Borrow from a Lennon-McCartney tune, you pay. But Mozart and Beethoven’s works can be pillaged gratis.)

French composer Jacques Offenbach wrote The Tales of Hoffman, which Opera Tampa will present in February. He also wrote the comic opera Geneviève de Brabant, which contains a section that most of us would recognize as the U.S. Marine Corps hymn. (Offenbach also wrote the high-stepping Parisian chorus line favorite “Can-Can.” If nothing else, his range was impressive.)

Some other examples of pop borrowing from classical:

Eleven years after Berry announced the classical-rock divide, the Top 40 was awash with Bach, as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” paired enigmatic lyrics with quotes from “Air on a G String.”

Even the mighty Beatles weren’t above borrowing from the classics. “Because,” from Abbey Road, was based on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” albeit with the chord sequence played in reverse.

The King of rock ‘n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley, sang the melody of Eduardo di Capua’s “‘O Sole Mio” with new lyrics on his hit “It’s Now or Never.”

Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” is structured around Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Opus 28. (“Could It Be Magic” also was a hit for Donna Summer, subject of the musical “Summer,” which was presented here at The Straz in January.)

Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is the source for Jack White’s guitar riff on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

Hip hop quotes from the classics as well: Nas’ “I Can” appropriates Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” while Coolio uses birthday boy Mozart’s “Dies Irae” on “Coming 2 America.”

There’s no telling what Mozart would make of Coolio, but he knew a hit when he heard one. Were he alive today, Mozart likely would be in the studio with a deck full of beats and some melodies guaranteed to stick like glue in your brain. Give the people what they want.

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