The Pop Classical

Little Glee Monster ©

Little Glee Monster

In a sense, the thing furthest away from Classical music is pop music. But, in another sense, the two kinds of music are far closer than you think!

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by sound. Luckily, in the 21st century, unless you run into a jack hammer or other industrial sound, we can choose our own soundtrack. You can listen only to the most arcane of musical genres or go with the wide range of everything available today.

Let’s look at classical music and where it shows up in Pop music. We were watching NHK, the Japanese national news channel, and up popped a song sung by Little Glee Monster. This five-voice J-Pop ‘girl’ group is known for their close harmony singing and in ‘Jupiter’ they even start out as an unaccompanied ensemble. Can you recognize the music?

Gustav Holst ©

Gustav Holst

Take the title, Jupiter, and then think of what classical music might fall under that name – ah, Holst’s The Planets (not the Mozart’s symphony). For Holst, Jupiter was the Bringer of Jollity, and the melody used up by Little Glee Monster is actually much faster and more jolly in its original. Listen to the melody at 01:07 and comparing with Little Glee Monster’s slowed down version makes it into a different kind of melody.

Holst: The Planets, Op. 32: IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra; Roger Norrington, cond.)
The start to the English pop group Take That’s 2009 hit “Never Forget” was the equally unforgettable start to Giuseppe Verdi’s “Tuba Mirum” section of his Requiem Mass. The mass text, “The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound, through the sepulchres of the regions, will summon all before the throne,” or in this case all before the stage for the performance of “Never Forget.”

Take That ©

Take That

In its original, the sense, without the video, is much more solemn.

Verdi: Messa da Requiem: Tuba mirum (Carlo Colombara, bass; Hungarian State Opera Chorus; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi, cond.)
Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini © Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini
© Wikimedia Commons

When Gabriel Fauré wrote his Pavane in F sharp minor, Op. 50, in 1887, he was sending up the classical pavane – he made it not about the dance but about the interaction between the dancers. He wrote it originally for piano, but its version for voices and orchestra is how it’s best known today.

Fauré: Pavane, Op. 50 (Netherlands Chamber Choir; Limburg Symphony Orchestra; Ed Spanjaard, cond.)


In the work, Fauré created a beautiful flowing melody that has been taken up as the background for a number of pop songs. We start in 1999 with French singer Norma Ray’s hit “Tous Les Maux D’Amour” (All the Problems of Love), set at a masquerade party; the next year S Club 7 transformed her song into a claim for the good side of love in “Natural.” In 2013, Little Mix released “Little Me” saying that “If I knew then what I know now” all women would be more powerful even from their childhood. All three songs use the mordant sadness of Fauré’s dance about a lost past to underscore their varying messages.

One of the problems with pop music is that its vocal range tends to be quite small – usually around a fourth. When you use as your inspiration a song by Beethoven, picking one with a limited range makes all the easier. Beginning with its title, you can tell immediately what Beethoven they chose: Road to Joy.

J S Bach © Wikimedia Commons

J S Bach
© Wikimedia Commons

The glorious thing about Beethoven’s original is that tremendous built through this entire movement – bigger, louder, more joyous!

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral”: IV. Ode to Joy (James Morris, bass; Westminster Choir; Philadelphia Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, cond.)
One of the great contributions of pop music to classical is the crossing of styles. The British/Australian instrumental group Sky’s 1980 work “Toccata” used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as a start, but then played it on harpsichord, synthesizer, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Sped up and given a backbeat, it hit No. 5 on the charts.

E. Power Bigg’s 1988 recording pulled out all the stops to create a work that brought the most out of the organ. You miss the big crashing chords in the harpsichord/synthesizer version!

Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (E. Power Biggs, organ)
Beethoven for empowerment! The rapper Nas, in “I Can” warns both girls and boys that they can be what they want to be, not through wishing or drugs, but through hard work and knowing history.

Beethoven given a bit of short shrift by Nas, as it’s only the opening section that’s played, but it’s an interesting public service announcement for leading a clean life that should include music.

Beethoven: Bagatelle in A Minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise” (Ichiro Nodaira, piano)
And so it goes in the world of pop – classical music set to words, used to set a scene, used to emphasize a feeling, or used as a reference for the power of music to save your life. The power of the past to inspire the future!

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