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Pop Goes Classical!

Bruno Emmanuelle
Microphone at concert scene

In 1999, I picked up the studio phone during my air shift. “WCRB Air Studio.”

“Hello, Laura? This is Javier. You don’t know me, but I’m a cabby here in Boston and I usually listen to you when I’m driving people around the city. I just want to ask if you’ve heard Santana’s newest album yet?”

“Hi Javier. Supernatural? Yeah – I bought it just last night! I only had time to hear the track with Lauryn Hill, but just based on that I think he’s going to win a Grammy. Why?”

“Because I want to know if the song 'Love of My Life' is classical music that I heard you play on WCRB. Can you listen and tell me if I’m hearing things?”

I went home and listened. Javier heard right! Within seconds of “Love of My Life” starting, I recognized it as the gorgeous third movement from Brahms’s Symphony No. 3! I searched the liner notes, but was dismayed that there was no mention whatsoever of Brahms anywhere. That means that unless some of the 30 million people who have bought that album also know Brahms, 30 million people don’t know that they are listening to, and loving, classical music.

That’s not the first time I have encountered the classical-becomes-pop situation. In 1994, I led a WCRB listener trip on a cruise through the western Caribbean. One of the on-board talks I gave was “Pop Music Inspired by Classical.” Most of the fellow travelers knew the pop versions, but many also were surprised to know they were based on classical music.

Here are a few examples of the genre cross-overs. See how many you recognize!

In 2019, Maroon 5 released “Memories.” You may recognize it as based on Pachelbel’s Canon in DThe lead singer is Adam Levine.

Here’s Jean-Francois Paillard conducting the original, with the Kanon Orchestre de Chambre.

The Pachelbel Canon has been used also as the music base for the popular Christmas song, “Christmas Canon” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra from their 1998 album, The Christmas Attic.

The British girl group Little Mix released its second album, Salute, in 2013It contained a song titled “Little Me,” and sampled the gorgeous Pavane by Gabriel Fauré. To me, the lyrics (which you can read if you scroll below the video) capture the emotion Fauré must have intended to convey just with his melancholy melody.

Here’s the official Little Mix video.

And here’s Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Fauré’s original.

There are numerous recordings of Fauré’s Pavane, and I must have about 2-million of them. One of my favorites is played on Celtic harp!

Billy Joel was already making a name for himself after his 1971 album, Cold Spring Harbor, but he became a household name with his 1973 hit single “Piano Man,” which rose to No. 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 back in 1974. Other top hits came in rapid succession, including “Uptown Girl,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Tell Her About It,” “Innocent Man,” “The Longest Time,” and the list goes on and on.

Despite having all these hits and the fame that came with them, Joel once told a CBS interview “I have not forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” In his song “This Night,” he paid homage to the great composer, borrowing from the second movement of the Piano Sonata No. 8, the “Pathétique.” You’ll hear it at approximately 1-minute in.

By the way, Billy Joel credits Beethoven on the album with being one of the writers of the song.

Here’s Daniel Barenboim playing the original.

Rap also recognizes Beethoven’s genius. One of my favorite songs from the genre was by Nas in 2003 from his album God’s Son. “I Can” is based on Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” and you’ll hear it as a young girl starts to play the piano about 12 seconds in.

I love that Lang Lang performs “Für Elise” by taking the tempo slower. So many pianists rush through it, like kids performing at their first piano recital. He plays it with the intention Beethoven must felt when he wrote the piece for a woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Frédéric Chopin’s music has also been “borrowed” for pop. His Fantaisie-impromptu was the basis for a song called “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” It was published in 1917 and instantly became a Vaudeville hit. Although “everyone knew it” for years, it wasn’t until the 1941 movie, Ziegfeld Girl, when Judy Garland turned it into a pop ballad.

There were many other singers who turned that song into hits for themselves, including Perry Como, a duet version with Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes, and a gentle-yet-broken-heart version with Jane Olivor from the 1970s.

Here’s Daniil Trifonov playing a gorgeous rendition of the piece in a casual setting. The “Chasing Rainbows” theme comes in at 1:45.

By the way, Chopin never wanted the Fantaisie-impromptu published! He worried that people would think it was too similar to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and wanted the piece destroyed. A friend had it published posthumously, six years after Chopin’s death. We are all the luckier for that.

Barry Manilow also was a Chopin fan, incorporating the Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28, No. 20, throughout the power ballad “Could It Be Magic.” There are a number of stories about how the hit song came to be – one involving too much wine one afternoon in 1971. Regardless of how it came to be, Manilow credits Chopin as a co-songwriter. There is a YouTube version of this song which is the official album track, but I really like this live performance, as Manilow talks about Chopin at the beginning:

Here’s a concert performance with Seong-Jin Cho.

Singer-songwriter Eric Carmen had back-to-back hits in 1976, and both were based on themes by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The first of the singles was “All By Myself,” which was based on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Although there are many YouTube versionsI like this one because it is twice longer than the standard radio version, and it gives Carmen a chance to show off his classical piano training.

Pianist Yuja Wang plays the whole piece here with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. The actual theme used by Eric Carmen was in the second movement, which begins at 11:49.

“All By Myself” reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts and No. 12 in the U.K.

His follow-up single, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” was taken from the beautiful Adagio, the second movement melody, in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

Here’s the original Adagio movement, with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

And how about that Brahms-Santana I mentioned at the top of this blog? Here’s how Carlos Santana blended Latin beats, funk, and Brahms in “Love of My Life:”

Claudio Abbado leads the Berlin Philharmonic in the original version as Brahms envisioned.

There are many more examples that I’ll save for a Part 2 at some point. Meantime, I hope you’ll share this list with folks who say they don’t know classical music, or don’t ever listen to classical. Then watch their faces when they realize that they actually do!

CODA: One more! Here is the girl group, The Toys, with their 1965 big hit, “A Lovers Concerto.” This is their version of the song first released by bandleader Freddy Martin in the 1940s. The entire song is based on a piece Johann Sebastian Bach included in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, a compilation music book gift for his wife. Barbara Harris is the lead singer, joined by June Monteiro and Barbara Parritt.

Love the bust of an 18th century composer on the set! The piece was always assumed to be by Bach, but scholarly research now credits the original as being by Christian Petzold. Here’s Lang Lang playing the Minuet in G, BWV Anh. 114.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.