Timeline: The Beatles Meet Classical Music

Saturday, February 08, 2014 - 09:00 AM

The Beatles in 1964. Their catalog has changed hands from EMI to UMG. (wikimedia commons)

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:

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Comments [4]

It's fun to see the King's Singers referenced on the timeline. I was only 10 at the time of the Beatles' TV debut, but I remember thinking how nice it was to hear real vocal harmonies.

DD~~

Feb. 10 2014 01:02 AM
danosongs from New York, NY

Paul has a history in classical music such as releasing the Liverpool Oratorio. Definitely the influences of classical took their rock arrangements to another level!

Feb. 08 2014 07:45 PM
Carol Jochnowitz from Manhattan

I'm a little surprised that the examples you give below of Beatles/classical hybridization didn't include an LP album from the 60's called "The Baroque Beatles Book," consisting of characteristically Baroque treatments of Beatles music and including such features as "Cantata for the Third Saturday after Shea Stadium," etc. We used to enjoy playing it for people who professed to look down on rock music and had no idea, until we told them, what they were in fact listening to.

Feb. 08 2014 03:51 PM
Josh from New York

Check out Francois Glorieux Plays the Beatles, each song in the style of a famous composer (i.e "In My Life" in the style of Brahms, "Can't Buy Me Love" in the style of Gershwin/Prokofiev).

Feb. 08 2014 11:34 AM

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