18 May 2022

How classical music influences other genres

From Nine To Noon, 11:05 am on 18 May 2022

Music commentator Kirsten Zemke joins Kathryn Ryan to look at the influence classical music has had on other genres - from disco to rock and even rap.

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Zemke says she is reminded of Chuck Berry’s 1956 lyrics ‘Roll over Beethoven, And tell Tchaikovsky the news’ which signalled that rock music was just as legitimate as classical.

“There’s been this slight disparity between sort of popular music and classical music as one sort of distrusting or not approving of the other. But there’s these weird mixtures, I’m a little up in the air about them.”

Walter Murphy – A Fifth Of Beethoven (1976)

This disco instrumental was a soundtrack for the Saturday Night Fever film and has since been reimagined a couple of times and merged with other genres, Zemke says.

“What do people think? Is it an abomination? Would Beethoven roll over? Would he go ‘what are you doing?’ or would he say it’s all fair game and music is fun and how creative that people can mix what seems like disparate objects.”

But in fact, the song topped the charts at the time and people enjoyed the fusion.

Elvis Presley – It's Now or Never (1960)

O Sole Mio - a well-known Neapolitan song written in 1898 - became a rock hit in 1960 with its tune being used in Elvis’ song.

“Such an odd mix,” Zemke says. “It’s not like an obscure operatic tune either, you know, even if you don’t know that much opera music, this is one of the more famous tunes and somebody thought it would be clever and it would work with a sort of beat, although it was a nice sort of swing-y cha cha beat, and having Elvis sing it in 1960.

“So this was the very time that Chuck Berry was talking about.”

Jethro Tull – Bourée (1969)

The British rock band’s flute-based instrumental was influenced by Bach’s fifth movement from Suite in E minor for Lute.

Zemke notes it was not uncommon for those wanting to study music, regardless of genre, to have to delve into classical.

“So not all rock musicians, some would pick it up by ear, but some trained originally in classical, because as a child, if you want to take lessons or want to go to uni, classical [was] the only music being taught and so we get this weird prog rock movement in the late ‘60s, where they were trying to mix these two musical influences in their life.

“Classical did have actually the really exaggerated flamboyant soloists, rock did not invent that. So they always have their own rock stars, so it seems like a natural fit to have this early playful dynamic soloists charming an audience.”

Nas – I Can (2003)

This hiphop song samples Beethoven’s Für Elise for a serious message.

“He sort of takes that melancholy of the melody to make it empowering and sweet and then also to talk about genius, that a little tune like that is genius and I guess he’s trying to spark the next generation,” Zemke says.

Sting – Can She Excuse My Wrongs? (2006)

Not only did the musician learn to play the lute, but he also recorded a whole album based on John Dowland’s music, which Zemke notes is actually pre-classical.

“It’s just him putting some of his rock style and energy but showing that he can still have the technique and prowess to do classical and maybe bring it to a new audience.

“You think of the lute players travelling around and telling stories and poems and songs and sharing the news, because he has that sort of big voice.”

Louis Clark and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hooked On Classics (Part 3) (1983)

“This could qualify as abomination,” Zemke says of the multi-million dollar-earning album, which remixed classical compositions over a disco beat.

“But oh my gosh, it was so huge and there were so many reversions and follow up versions … and you can listen to the tune changes, they jam a lot in there, to an awful beat, yet people liked it.”

Kirsten Zemke is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Auckland's School of Social Sciences.