Picasso said (allegedly), ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal.’ Well, knowing a little bit about him, he probably stole it. Or was that Banksy?
Anyway, the point is simple. Every creative person is forced to engage with the past, whether they like it or not, whether they’re conscious of it or not. None of us lives in a vacuum. However, a problem arises because none of us can identify every single influence on us. What we sincerely believe to be innovative or peculiar to us can instead be a half-remembered, half-regurgitated soundbite picked up from a talk show while passing through a department store TV showroom. Or something. The ‘genius’ in Picasso’s quip is one who not only knows exactly where they steal from but also how to use it to make something truly innovative.
Many presume that the worlds of symphonic halls and Music Halls of Fame are separated by light years of mutual ignorance and other cultural barriers. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Scratch the surface and there is much more overlap—or ‘cross-over,’ to be completely on-trend—than you might realise. Stealing proceeds with abandon. So here are a few fun examples (though not all are successful, in my view!). One of your go-to whistles just might have a far grander pedigree than you knew.
Adagio Cantabile from Sonata No. 8 in C minor (Pathétique, Op. 13)
—Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, German)
Alfred Brendel (piano)
The stealer: “This Night” by Billy Joel (An Innocent Man, 1983)
This is one of only a tiny handful of Beethoven sonatas that I learned in its entirety back in the day—and was utterly depressed when I went back to it last week after a gap of too long. Arhghgh. My left hand? Practically useless now. Oh well.
It’s just as well the likes of Alfred Brendel made such great recordings. I find the whole of this sonata overwhelming (in a good way). Pathétique does not mean what you might assume. Beethoven is not declaring that this is a useless attempt at a composition; rather that it is full of pathos. It is heart-breaking. And that is especially true of this, the central of the three movements. It is no surprise that it has found its way into hymn books and psalters, funeral marches and, here, Billy Joel, no less.
You think Billy’s just going down the tried-and-tested doowop road, and he does it pretty effectively. And then all of a sudden, he bursts into Beethoven in the chorus with ‘This night…’ To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced on this one—but you have to admire the pluck. Evidence of the rule (first coined by J. I. Packer, of the Christian gospel, I think) “To add [to it] is to subtract [from it]”.
Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D (BWV 1068)
—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German)
Gottfried von der Goltz, Petra Müllejans (violins), Freiburger Barockorchester
The stealer: “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procul Harum (1967)
I don’t think Bach had much time for skipping light fandangos or turning cartwheels across floors—but it’s certain he would have felt pretty seasick if he had. But this ‘Air,’ which is gorgeous in its own right, inspired one of the weirdest and most successful singles of all time (vying with “Bohemian Rhapsody” on both counts). 10 million copies is not to be sniffed at.
An ‘air’ might be a song (as in an anglicised form of an operatic ‘Aria’), or it could be a song-like composition, in that it might have the structure and melody of a song but without texts. (Mendelssohn would compose nearly sixty, which he called ‘Songs without Words’). So perhaps this is why Procul Harum’s ingenious appropriation of Bach’s work seems so much more convincing than Billy’s Beethoven burglary. But one thing we can state categorically: that brilliant believer in Leipzig had no need of narcotics to express his genius—it’s a moot point whether or not Procul Harum could have done so without them!
The creation, though, seems to have gained many identities since its composition. It is much beloved of adolescent boys who find its alternative title (‘Air on a G String’) eminently snigger-worthy. For whole swathes of the British population it is indelibly linked with Hamlet cigars. For decades (probably) it was the soundtrack to many adverts depicting people finding themselves in awkward scrapes for which the only possible solace can only be a cigar. Trying to leave all of that to one side is tricky. But try. Because it is an exquisite piece of music in its own right.
‘Vesti La Giubba’ (‘Put on the costume’) from Pagliacci (‘Clowns’)
—Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919, Italian)
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor), Giuseppe Patane (cond.), National Philharmonic Orchestra
The stealer: “It’s a Hard Life” by Queen (The Works, 1984)
This is the only opera that Leoncavallo is known for today, and it is nearly always performed with the one that inspired it, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavallieri Rusticana. Neither is full length and both are in Italian and composed just a couple of years apart, so the combination is tried and tested. (By the way, to bluff your way with opera buffs, just wax lyrical about the last time you saw and were ‘utterly transported, darling’ by ‘Cav and Pag’.)
This aria concludes the first act and is sung by Canio the Clown in his dressing room, just after discovering his wife’s infidelity. He is devastated but ‘the show must go on’ and there’s a paying audience out there. So, he forces himself into costume and make-up—the archetypal cheery clown who masks internal despair. Pavarotti shows how it’s done. But then, unsurprisingly (to us now especially if you’ve seen the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic), so does Freddie Mercury. Queen had referenced Pagliacci in their 1975 A Night at the Opera album, but in this song, they go full-on diva-fest (just dig up the song’s official video). Thematically, the song is entirely in harmony with Leoncavallo’s, which probably explains the success of this appropriation. As well as the fact that Freddie always was a diva-cum-tortured-clown himself…
Prelude No. 4 in E Minor
—Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849, Polish)
Martha Argerich (piano)
The stealer: “Exit Music For A Film” by Radiohead (OK Computer, 1997)
Chopin was a pianist of unique ability, both as a performer and composer, and his output prolific. Before his death at 39, he wrote nearly 250 individual pieces for piano, many of which are almost universally recognised as masterpieces.
The 24 Preludes was Chopin’s homage to Bach, who himself had written 24 Preludes and Fugues.
- Why 24? Well, think of a piano. Take any note at random and then then go up the keyboard a perfect fifth at a time (in other words, 7 semitones, an interval fundamental to all western music). Keep doing this and you’ll find you eventually cover all 12 notes in a western scale. Since the two most common scales are the major and minor, when you combine them, you get a total of … woah… 24 different scales (or key signatures).
- Why Preludes? Fair question. In Bach they clearly prefaced the fugue written for each key. For Chopin, we can only imagine; as far as we know each is just a prelude to the next prelude…!
But they are basic works in every professional pianist’s kitbag. And as well as presenting all kinds of challenges and difficulties (like most of Chopin—I can’t really play any of it properly), they are just toe-curlingly, exquisitely sublime.
But even though I knew them well (or thought I did), and despite being in awe of Radiohead since being hooked on The Bends in 1995, I really didn’t catch the dodgy dealing with this OK Computer track. I had a niggling sense of familiarity but thought little more of it. Until I read something a few years later which exposed the theft. And what a superb job it is too. I think Frederic would have been happy (though the singing style would not perhaps have been to his taste). But what do I know?
Allegro Molto (3rd movement), Symphony No. 5 (Op. 82)
—Jean Sibelius (1865-1957, Finnish)
Sir Colin Davis (cond.), London Symphony Orchestra
The stealer: “Since Yesterday” by Strawberry Switchblade (1985)
I can’t claim to be a big Strawberry Switchblade fan. In fact, I remembered their name and the fact that they were an English 80s girl band and that was it. Everything else I had to Wiki—including the fact that they were actually Scottish and just a duo. But I vividly remember hearing this song come on the radio and being totally gripped. Well, I was only 15. I suggest you listen to that first, before the symphonic movement. It wasn’t the song itself, but that synth brass intro. There was something about the intervals and joy it expressed. Listening to it now (for the first time in perhaps 30 years), it seems like classic disposable 80s pop. For which I’m now… well… meh.
I didn’t know about Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer, then. But Strawberry Switchblade did. And they stole from him, lock, stock and chord-sequenced barrel. At least, they preserved the composer’s orchestration for that sequence. Sort of. But once you get to know the Symphony as a whole, and this movement in particular, you’ll hopefully see why Sibelius’ triumphant score needed nothing extra. Strawberry Switchblade perked up my ears, so I’m grateful to them for that. But in all honesty, they did so by gilding the lily.
If you didn’t know it, I hope the symphony grows on you, and in time, you come to see why his 5th is one of my favourite symphonies by anybody ever. And ever since I’ve known it, the temptation to ‘air conduct’ (even while driving) is overwhelming. Getting the final bars right is fiendishly tricky… but go on… resistance is futile.
Lieutenant Kijé symphonic suite (Op. 60, 1934)
—Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953, Soviet/Russian)
Claudio Abbado (cond.), Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The stealers: “Russians” by Sting (The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985)
“I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake
Soviet cinema inspired some remarkable soundtracks. For all its propagandistic value (to its state commissioners), some wonderful music was produced. As I mentioned in #4, the more you get to know early 20th Century orchestral music (and Russian particularly), the more you hear the roots of modern Hollywood soundtracks. At the forefront of that extraordinary wave of creativity was Sergei Prokofiev. His score to the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky is stunning in its own right (written four years after the one in focus here).
But Lieutenant Kijé was Prokofiev’s first film score and it is brilliant. He drew together the key elements into a concert suite of five movements for orchestra. The film is a biting satire about a bureaucratic slip of the pen that creates a fictitious soldier and thus exposes the idiocy of Tsarist rule along with the trembling courtiers too compromised or corrupted to speak truth. The political resonances haven’t exactly disappeared…
Prokofiev captures the wit and pathos of the story beautifully. As a result, this little suite is one of his most popular works; you’ll probably recognise all kinds of moments. Both Sting and Greg Lake do grand jobs of incorporating Prokofiev’s music (from the 2nd and 4th movements respectively) without the remotest sense of contrivance. The Emerson, Lake and Palmer song is great (though I love Bono’s cheeky lyrical tweak in the U2 cover). But I remember being very affected by Sting’s song when it came out. The Cold War was still officially on the cusp of becoming hot and one half of the world threatened to nuke the other into oblivion. For a glibly cocooned western teenager, the notion that people in the Soviet Union might actually love their children seemed revelatory…
Finally, a quick bonus. You will know, I’m sure, Pachelbel’s (in)famous “Canon in D.” Even if you didn’t know its name. The reason? Because it crops up everywhere. And I mean everywhere. This is has done the rounds, but I still love it.
Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant (disclaimer: there are a few not-safe-for-work words, but in the circumstances, I’m sure you’ll empathise)
This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.