Plus ça change …

… plus ça reste la même chose.

Centuries do not die.  The spirit of an age leaps generations to plant itself in another.  Music is its greatest telltale.  In particular, rhythm.  And nothing changes – it’s all been done before.  You may hear echoes of ethnomusicology bearing down on you here, but we don’t actually need to go very far up the ivory tower to find examples.  Picture this – an audience assembled in finery for a show, actors and musicians leaping in bright costumes to jungle rhythms, all strewn with lighting effects and a musical score by a popular musician.  A clash of Western showbiz and ‘native’ authenticity, propelled onto the stage by the thrill of the exotic, musical innovation, and promising ticket sales.  With a heartwarming story right at the epicentre of the spectacle, we’ve a hit on our hands.

1.  Rameau and Disney

I am describing not only Disney’s production of The Lion King, still showing at the Lyceum Theatre in London, but also Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, first staged in 1735 in Paris, and still performed in similar style.  The Western World has reacted to the Third World with the same joyous and rhythmic exoticism for centuries.  There’s no ‘copying’ alleged here – just a revelation of excitement in the primitive beating of drums, shared by the French in the 1700s and the Americans three centuries later.  The staging, the rhythm, the costumes – in both shows they spring from the same source.  And the audience came in droves on both occasions.

Take a look at the two productions.  The music and staging, but particularly the rhythm, are all virtually interchangeable:


2.  Handel and Wonder

The ebullience of the baroque survived off the stage, too.  Master Handel’s sheer virtuosity and intense energy created one of those rare pieces of music that expresses pure joy in a form both elegant and accessible.  The piece is “Happy We”, from Acis and Galatea, written in 1739.  And who better than the BBC Proms to bring it to the ears of many, in 2007, in the recording below.  The rhythm and joy of this piece is inherited by the equally baroque and saccharine Stevie Wonder, in “Isn’t She Lovely”, written for his daughter in 1976.  In the recording below he performs live, also in London, in 2008.  Again, the underlying rhythm (listen to the electric bass in particular!), the tonal worlds and of course the sentiment, are of one spirit:


3.  Allegri and Blake

Another ‘spirit of the age’ that leapt a few generations is the mystical appeal of a soaring boy treble.  The tale begins in Renaissance Rome, where in about 1620 the composer, Allegri, was comissioned to write the music for the Miserere, sung during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.  Such was the beauty of the music, which lasts for 15 sublime minutes, that it was declared it was not allowed to be copied and heard anywhere else, under penalty of excommunication.  They hadn’t bargained on a young Mozart hearing the piece on a visit to Rome, and then transcribing the whole thing from memory the following day …  A somewhat similar soaring high phrase can be heard in Howard Blake’s appealing 1982 music for Briggs’ Snowman, sung by Aled Jones.  Again – it’s not a question of copying, just the same inspiration being found, four centuries apart, by the simple power of a high fourth when sung by a boy treble.  Here are the two lines for comparison (adjusted), in this track:


4.  Ravel and Mika

Something even more recent also shares a rhythm and spirit – one of the most famous rhythms in classical music – and finds itself planted within a recent pop song.  The earlier work is by Ravel, the celebrated “Boléro” (1928) – and it fits rather well both in tone and rhythm with Mika’s “Grace Kelly” (2007).  This is no copy – it is another survival of rhythm and musical forward-motion in two completely separate eras.  The underlying rhythm is entirely in common, and much of the lyricism in the overlay too:


5. And to finish …

The real conclusion here is that the same music, the same rhythm, the same spirit, can be re-used from age to age, so long as it is refreshed for each generation.  A beat or a line will survive for centuries, preserving the atmosphere of an earlier time, like air bubbles in ice drifts, and it is not a case of copying – it is a subconscious process of renewal.  And so, some tidbits to finish.

First, a refreshment of Chopin’s Nocturne, not by sticking a drumbeat or electric guitar behind it, but by embedding it, unadapted, whole and pure, within a piece of pop music.  Courtesy of Muse – if you’re in a rush, just skip to 3:20 and listen to the end from there, to hear how the two styles are slowly mixed –


Second, a cheeky little exercise of mine in classical counterpoint, mixing Charpentier’s “Te Deum” (1688) with Steve Stevens’ electric guitar solo in the movie theme of “Top Gun” (1986) – it almost works …


And third, a personal favourite of mine from Kit and the Widow – with a hat tip to Jack Blumenau – comparing certain pieces of classical music to recent West End and Broadway show songs … Enjoy!

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Note: all copyright in the mixed tracks/videos rests with the original producers of the unmixed versions.  Downloading has been disabled.


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