Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He produces the Café Concerts series and the podcast/show Conducting Business. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Timeline: The Beatles Meet Classical Music
Saturday, February 08, 2014 - 09:00 AM
It was 50 years ago Sunday that the Beatles touched down in U.S. for the first time, making an appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and performing several shows including one at Carnegie Hall. Within a year, the Fab Four began to cross the once rigid boundaries between rock ‘n’ roll and classical music, as they explored classical forms, textures and themes. Below is a timeline that outlines some of the major intersections between the Beatles and classical music.
We asked Beatles scholar and New York Times music writer Allan Kozinn how the Beatles first came to incorporate classical sounds into their songs. “They grew up listening to the BBC, which played classical music,” Kozinn explained. “Vaudeville was in the theaters along with different types of light classics. They had a sense of what classical music was in their musical psyche. They gravitated towards rock ‘n’ roll but they knew what classical music was.”
Kozinn continued: “When they began recording, they wanted to think of themselves as a self-contained unit, with the exception of [producer] George Martin playing certain things. When Martin proposed bringing in orchestral musicians, string players, I think they first rebelled. But the time that it seemed to make most sense was in 1965, during the sessions for the 'Help' album when Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday.’”
Conceived as a spare ballad about a breakup, Martin proposed adding string players to enrich the acoustic guitar solo. McCartney was at first hesitant, fearing an easy-listening-type sound. But he eventually agreed and sat down with Martin to co-write a string quartet arrangement. "If you listen to ‘Yesterday,’ there’s some very appealing cello writing in particular,” noted Kozinn. “The voice-leading in there is just fantastic."
The Beatles went on to create “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with its amalgamation of vaudeville, jazz, electronics, Indian music and a sizable orchestral sound, and experimental works like "Revolution No. 9." Meanwhile, classical musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler paid homage to the Beatles in various ways. Below are several more examples. Please share your own in the comments box at the bottom of the page.
Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach, Discusses The Beatles' use of Bach: