S is for Songs from the classics

This swing version of the Lizst rhapsody was a major influence on several aspiring arrangers, including Billy Strayhorn and Billy May.

When I was 11 or 12, I took piano lessons for a little over a year. I wasn’t very good, though I did practice. I will say that it was useful for singing. My piano teacher was Mrs. Hamlin, the organist at my church at the time, who was like family; her parents were my godparents, and her sister’s son was my parents’ godson.

One day, I was laboriously trying to play the Bach Minuet in G, which, incidentally, I had danced to in second grade. Mrs. Hamlin said, “It’s like A Lover’s Concerto by the Toys.” At that very moment, I had no idea what she was talking about, though, of course, now I do.

Actually, I first owned A Lover’s Concerto as a cover version by the Supremes on their I Hear A Symphony album, which also contained their version of Stranger in Paradise from the 1953 musical Kismet, which poached Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.

As it turns out, there are a LOT of pop songs that are based on classical music. Some are very obvious, such as Nut Rocker by B. Bumble and the Stingers, based on Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker, or a couple songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy, and Night on Disco Mountain by David Shire, the latter based on Mussorgsky.

Others may be more subtle. The J. S. Bach piece O Sacred Head, Now Wounded could be the musical inspiration for American Tune by Paul Simon.

Here’s a lengthy list of songs from the classics, which, of course, are in the public domain, and, as such, are not subject to copyright restrictions. This list is slightly shorter but is more in-depth. There are a half dozen songs here, but there are samples of each version.

The one example I found on no list was The Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Liszt (heard here) which “was also the basis for a popular song, ‘Ebony Rhapsody’ by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, introduced in the 1934 film Murder at the Vanities. In the film, it was played by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, who also recorded it. This swing version of the rhapsody was a major influence on several aspiring arrangers, including Billy Strayhorn (who later became Duke Ellington’s composing partner) and Billy May (who later recorded ‘Ebony Rhapsody’ with Nat King Cole).

ABC Wednesday – Round 8

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

25 thoughts on “S is for Songs from the classics”

  1. A terrific post as always, Roger! Love the music, your memories and the information, too. Always great when we can make the most of our memories and in a positive way. Enjoy!

    ABC Team

  2. I never realised there were so many songs based on the classics. ABC is teaching me more than my ABC

  3. Great post. We used to play games matching popular to classical songs on long driving trips with the kids. They actually have really good ears – better than mine – I also took piano lessons and practiced although my pieces always sounded more like klunking than playing…

  4. So true, so true! So many pop songs have been based on classics. Owners are too long d=gone dead including heirs, so copyright infringement is not an issue.
    I believe that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is based on something Mozart wrote. So, I guess the genre can be expanded to folk too. Hadn’t thought about it til now.

  5. Hi Roger that’s a very interesting piece of information about classical music transformed into pop songs. I know that Bach also used themes of colleagues and composed new works from these themes. He often played Händel’s compositions first and then started to do his own music, though I don’t think he used Händel’s music.BTW what is Bach doing with a guitar? 😉
    You have a wide range of knowledge.

  6. I know I will learn something new each week when I visit. Nice to know the old classics never go out of style.

  7. Fabulous, Roger!
    My father was a musician, but I was musically inept, so Dad said the best thing he could do for me was teach me how to listen. I remember him telling me about Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Franz Liszt. (Now I want to check out the lists you mentioned here.)
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

  8. Back when he wasn’t insane and took his music seriously, Eddie Van Halen used to throw in quotes from classical music in his solos. I remember an interview in which he indicated that he was a big fan of Debussy.

    Speaking of “Lover’s Concerto”, there’s a wonderful scene in “Mr Holland’s Opus” when Mr Holland, realizing that his original approach to teaching music hasn’t worked at all, decides to engage his students by using popular music in his classes.

  9. Delightful read. I don’t know much about music, except that I enjoy it. Your posts always intrigue me with their depth…

  10. Very interesting post, Roger. I guess I am addicted to the classics and it was nice to be reminded of all the ties to popular music – I still play the piano at least half an hour every day, – a lot of Scott Joplin for Charles, but also a lot of the old popular pieces from the early 1900’s and my fingers still remember the classics I learned when I was studying for piano exams. It’s like riding a bicycle…..muscle memory.

  11. I took a couple years of piano and failed miserably. Funny thing is, I really enjoy good classical pieces. I’m in awe of their composition and how all the parts work together to make such beautiful music.

  12. Your post is very informative that I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know much about classical music. Good job on your post.

  13. pretty cool stuff Roger. I enjoyed going through the list from your link and recognizing some of my favorites.

  14. Played the piano from an age where my feet couldn’t reach the pedals. My piano teacher did them for me, and she continued to ‘do’ them for me even after my legs could properly reach and my feet could press them. A back-seat driver is a mild annoyance compared to a piano teacher with her foot on the pedal.

  15. I’m finally getting around to visit!

    I always love visiting – you have such fascinating information! I love so many of the clasics – thanks for all those links!
    have a wonderful week!

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