articles / Pop Culture

Summer of Love: When Classical Music Meets Pop

With KUSC’s classical music celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love this weekend, it got me thinking about the influence of classical music in popular music. Musical borrowing is something that has occurred ever since there has been music. Bach made keyboard transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi and others; Handel reused his own music; Tchaikovsky liked the Flower Song from Bizet’s Carmen so much he incorporated it into his 6th Symphony; and Stravinsky famously once said, “A good composer doesn’t imitate; he steals.”

Below are a few of my favorite quotations of classical music in pop music. This is, in no way, an exhaustive list—I’d love to hear what your favorites are. Please leave them in the comments!

A Whiter Shade of Pale: We’ll start with one of the anthems of the Summer of Love, released in May 1967, and quickly made its way onto the Billboard pop charts. The bass line and harmony are certainly derived from Bach’s Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, but maybe don’t tell the grumpy fellow who posted this YouTube video.

They: Here’s another song that wouldn’t be what it is without the influence of J.S. Bach. Welsh singer Jem’s first single from her debut album (2005) samples the Swingle Singers’ version of Bach’s Prelude in f-minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier.

All You Need is Love: Ever wonder what all those musical references are at the end of this Beatles classic? One of them is the Invention No. 8 by J.S. Bach.

Lady Lynda: One more song inspired by the music of J.S. Bach. This one pretty much speaks for itself.

The Lamp is Low: A song, based on Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, from the 1930s that has been recorded by everyone from Glenn Miller to Ella Fitzgerald to Tommy Dorsey to Frank Sinatra to Doris Day to Carmen Lundy. But Mildred Bailey made the first recording of the song and many people agree her rendition is still the best.

I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You: Whether you like Elvis’s original (1961), the classic UB40 version (1987), or this quirky take by TWENTY ØNE PILØTS (2012), chances are you’ll love (or at least appreciate) the *real* original 1784 version of the song, Plaisir d’amour, by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, which has been recorded by everyone from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf to Kathleen Battle to Joan Baez.

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The grief of love lasts a lifetime.

My Reverie: This 1938 song, based on Debussy’s 1890 piano piece Rêverie. As recorded in 1961, it is a spectacular vehicle for the voice of Ella Fitzgerald.

Think: Here’s one that goes the other way. Aretha Franklin’s 1968 feminist anthem inspired composer Julia Wolfe, who took the piano riff from the opening and used that as the basis for her 1993 multi-movement work for six pianos called my lips from speaking.

In Time/The Story of a Starry Night: I mentioned Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony above. This 1961 hit from Steve Lawrence uses the romantic theme from the first movement of the 6th. Glenn Miller (and Robert Goulet and Maureen Moore and Della Reese et al) used the same Tchaikovsky theme for The Story of a Starry Night.

Don’t You Know: Speaking of Della Reese…her biggest hit, don’t you know, was adapted from Musetta’s Waltz, from Puccini’s La Boheme.

All by Myself: The first of two Eric Carmen songs based on the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. This one uses material from the slow movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto. A few months later, Carmen released Never Gonna Fall in Love Again, which is based on the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony. He said he didn’t realize Rachmaninoff’s music wasn’t in the public domain, but the Rachmaninoff Estate sued Carmen and the two parties reached a settlement where Carmen would send the Rachmaninoff Estate 12% of the royalties he earned on each of those two songs.

I could go on……but I want to know what some of YOUR favorites are! Please leave them in the comments.

Written by:
Brian Lauritzen
Brian Lauritzen
Published on 06.02.2017