19 September 2006

Steal The Very Best

Great Modern Song Writers
Mussorsky, Chopin, Debussey, Rimsky-Korsakov & Tchaikovsky

Yesterday on Imus he rebroadcast his sidekick playing the Fantasy Impromptu by Chopin. Then Imus said, "That's a pretty melody in there". Now with him you never quite know if he is being disingenuous or doesn't know anything about his subject. That pretty little melody became the popular song, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows". Chopin's compositions have always been a good source for great songs including "Till The End of Time" and "Could It Be Magic".

If you are going to steal, do it from the best whether it is Perry Como's "Moonlight Love" with the theme from Debussey's Claire de Lune or Procol Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale" based on a Bach orchestral suite. Everyone gets into the act including the Beatles: "All You Need Is Love" and Blackbird originated with Bach and Beethoven.

Whole musicals have been snitched by the creative with my favorite being Kismet which originated in Borodin's Polovetsian Dances. Sometimes a writer even steals from themselves. Richard Rogers thought it was a shame to waste a lovely melody like "Beneath The Southern Cross" from the Victory at Sea Suite and put it into Me and Juliet as "No Other Love".

The habit continues with current composers such as The Korgis, Mary K. Blige and The Red Hot Chili Peppers who know a good song when they hear one written by Rachmaninov, Grieg or Pachelbel.

The next time you think you won't like classical music, take a closer listen, you might be surprised to hear Billy Joel running through your brain since he likes to shoplift from Brahms.


colorado bob said...

Jamie I always heard it this way :

"if you're gonna steal....Steal from the very best."


Jamie said...

True, but I was talking about the songs not the source and you have to be careful even when plagiarizing Picasso. :-)

enigma4ever said...

wow..that was so amazing....I would never have noticed this....wow...

9/11 survivor (sort of) said...


Well... there were my actual friends Bob and Chet who wrote lovely songs on their own but excelled in adapting other composers -- Borodin in Kismet, Grieg in Song of Norway and (at the behest of Frank Loesser) Rachmaninov in their multiply titled Anastasia/Anna/Anya.

They had one amazing foul-up which may be their best collaboration... possibly because the composer was inconveniently both undead and unconvinced of any point to adapting his existing work.

He was Heitor Villa-Lobos (who did a fair amount of re-imagining Bach in the mountains of Brazil). He signed a contract to let his music be used by Wright and Forrest in a musical. So they sent him the book and some lyrics.

And he wrote a complete score for them.

Magdalena is their least known piece. But it's also their best.

Also, let's not forget Paul Simon's deliberate resetting of Bach's seeking-the-release-of-death cantata into An American Tune...

And -- long before Leonard Bernstein made himself Mahler's second incarnation, schisms and all -- how the great, great, great final movement of Mahler's Second Symphony became the best song of longing during WWII, "I'll Be Seeing You".

(And, of course, there's Bernstein who rewrote Tristan -- starting with the opening doomy tritone chords -- into West Side Story, complete with the Liebestod at the end.)

Jamie said...


Thank you for the additions. I had a whole lot more that could have been put in, but I thought I would let the experts like you comment on some of the others. Have to admit that I did mean to include the Paul Simon and just forgot, so I'm glad you got it in there.

9/11 survivor (sort of) said...


A couple of years ago I joined in putting together a benefit show of Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals That Never Were -- songs taken out of context that seemed to belong even more elsewhere.

My part was No Other Love which I feel is such a strong and powerful song with such a sense of earth and sky and water (from the original melody) and two people struggling to connect their love (from the lyric) that I made it a love song between Odysseus (on Kirke's island) and Penelope (home on Ithaca) with a great painted cyclorama of earth, sky and sea we dug up in a warehouse.

It really worked better there: it expresses the greatest yearning R&H ever reached in a love song and needs to belong to the right characters.

By the way... do you know their version of Steinbeck's Doc and Suzie from Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday?

It's called Pipe Dream.

9/11 survivor (sort of) said...


Oh, I forgot -- Rodgers' god was Brahms and when he was entirely on his own in No Strings he opened the show with a gorgeous paraphrasement of the opening of the second movement of his Second Piano Concerto -- "The Sweetest Sound".

AlanBoss said...

And let's not forget Andrew Lloyd Webber and Danny Elfman, both of whom have "stolen" very well for much of their work.

If you have a taste for classical and a bent toward pop culture (and a sense of humor helps) look around for two CDs... "Heigh-Ho Mozart" and "Mozart TV." I don't know if they are still in print, but they are great fun. The end results of one of the major music schools (don't remember which) composing class assignments, the first adapts the music of Disney as if written by the classical composers. The second, the same assignment using television theme songs.

9/11 survivor (sort of) said...


Webber keeps having to pay for it out of court: both Rizzoli (Puccini's publisher) and Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Inc. nailed him on "Memories".

Elfman's more of an absorber who turns (like, say, Bernstein) what he loves into his own. But I doubt he could quite imagine himself without both Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota.

And I remember Heigh-Ho Mozart! There were also in the 80's a series with titles like "What if Bach/Beethoven/Chopin Wrote The Beatles".