The Beatles were masters of sourcing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. This eclectic mix of source materials is what made their sounds so fresh, all-encompassing, and as a result, entirely original.
One of the key elements of their creative oeuvre was the realm of classical music. Within classical music is the backbone for pop structure, however, it is often under-utilised by many modern artists. The Beatles, on the other hand, absorbed every tune that they could, and put them in a creative spin to see what magic came out on the flipside.
Paul McCartney, in particular, is a lover of the old art form, having dipped his toe in the waters of composing many times since his first foray in 1991 with the Carl Davis and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for an eight-movement piece. However, even from his early work, it was clear that his output befittingly shared a kinship with concert hall classics.
Below we’re delving into five Beatles smash hits that were inspired by classical music in the second sense of the word.
Five Beatles songs inspired by classical music:
‘Penny Lane’ inspired by Johann Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major’
John Lennon once said, “Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.” It is a mantra for idleness, and the tale of ‘Penny Lane’ proves that even frittering away hours watching TV can prove fruitful.
Paul McCartney was curled up on the sofa watching TV when he happened upon a performance of ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major’ and his ears were twisted by the distinctive sound of the piccolo. “I actually saw the player,” McCartney once said, “David Mason, and I saw him playing ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ or something like that. For that piece you use this thing called piccolo trumpet because there’s some very high trumpet notes, so I said to George Martin ‘What was that funny little trumpet I heard in the ‘Brandenburg Concerto, it’s a great sound’ and he said, ‘maybe it’s just what we need for the ‘Penny Lane’ solo’, and that was that.”
‘Because’ inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’
Part of the beauty of The Beatles is the extent to which their music has permeated the collective song sheet and become a touchstone in so many lives. This ubiquitous transcendence into our wider lives can also be said of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, a piece of music that even a deaf deep-sea fish has gladly heard. The link between The Beatles and the classical piece is a little more direct when it comes to ‘Because’, as John Lennon once explained.
“Yoko was playing ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano,” John Lennon told David Sheff. “She was classically trained. I said, ‘Can you. Play those chords backwards?’ and I wrote ‘Because’ around them.” While the song deviates quite largely from its initial inspiration, Lennon’s story offers a fascinating insight into the creative process of songwriting.
‘Blackbird’ inspired by Johann Bach’s ‘Bourrée in E minor’
When Paul McCartney was performing live at the O2 Academy in Liverpool back in 2010, he treated fans a guitar rendition of Bach’s Bourrée before explaining that he thought it could be a piece of music that would give hope to those struggling in the Civil Rights Movement at the time ‘Blackbird’ was written.
“We had a little party piece to show people that we weren’t as stupid as we looked,” McCartney once said, “and it was by Bach […] we liked how the bassline and melody were going at the same time […] so we truncated it and adapted it years later.” And with it, one of the most beautifully sweet songs of all time was crafted.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ inspired by Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’
With its sumptuous, syncopated melody and the beguiling entwinement of Albert Camus-esque lyrics, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ can easily be declared a songwriting masterpiece. When Paul McCartney was crafting this mythological epic, he was listening to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ on heavy rotation.
For the string arrangement that backed the song, McCartney asked George Martin to craft him something based on Vivaldi’s classic movement. Whilst the end result only shares a vague likeness with the Winter section of the movement, the scope and dalliance remain the same, ultimately producing a brooding piece of pioneering pop-classical cross-over.
‘A Day in the Life’ inspired by Witold Lutosławski’s ‘Symphony No. 2’
The grand scope and ambition of Sgt. Pepper’s is epitomised by the meandering epic that is ‘A Day in the Life’. The song works its way through a journey, much in the same way that a classic piece transitions through ‘movements’.
For ‘A Day in the Life’, George Martin was tasked with permeating the song with epic gathering crescendos. To create these chaotic climaxes, he gathered an orchestra and tasked them with improvising. Around this same time, Witold Lutosławski’s was causing a stir in the classical world for applying a very similar loosely improvisational technique, and there are elements of his work evident in the basic structure that Martin wrote for the orchestra to work around.