More Old Popular Music

(Dec 22, 2018)

Eleanor Rigby, popular for 52 years

  • Eleanor Rigby, a song by the Beatles, was released in 1966, and I first heard it in my first year of college. It was written primarily by Paul McCartney, and credited to Lennon–McCartney. I was blown away by the originality.
  • Eleanor Rigby broke sharply with popular music conventions, both musically and lyrically. (This is a common theme, typical of the greatest music ever written for hundreds of years.)
  • Eleanor Rigby employs a classical string ensemble with 8 studio musicians, comprising four violins, two violas, and two cellos. The score was composed by producer George Martin.
  • The players kept moving away from the microphones until Martin ordered them to “Stop moving the chairs!”.

Is this “classical” music? And do we care about the label? It is without doubt one of the most original songs ever written.

The Four Seasons, popular for almost 80 years – (but published 293 years ago)

  • Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on March 4, 1678, in Venice, Italy.
  • At the age of 15, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703.
  • He was known locally for hi flaming red hair, so he known locally as “il Prete Rosso,” (“the Red Priest”.)
  • His career in the clergy was short-lived. Due to chronic shortness of breath, he was unable to play wind instruments – could he have had ashma? Health problems prevented him from delivering mass. It sounds to me as though he was looking for an excuse to compose!
  • From around 1717 to 1721 he wrote his four-part masterpiece, The Four Seasons, and they were published in 1725, 293 years ago. But the did not apparently enjoy continuous popularity.
  • The four concertos were written as program music – music with a narrative element – and so some of the earliest program music ever written.
  • Vivaldi’s fame as a composer and musician in early life faded later. He had to compete with younger composers and their more modern styles. He died in poverty in Vienna on July 28, 1741, buried in a simple grave without a funeral service.
  • The first recording of The Four Seasons is from around 1940, with the exact year in dispute, but it is clear that around that time Vivaldi’s compositions became a hit, and it has remained enormously popular ever since, so let’s say they has been very popular for around 78 years. We could say that in terms of popularity, Vivaldi was a late bloomer.

The Planets, extremely popular for almost 100 years, delayed premiere

  • The Planets, Op. 32, is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst.
  • It has remained one of the most popular pieces of music ever written right to this very moment, and if you listen carefully, it could be something written for a movie in 2018. But it’s over a century years old.
  • The work was not heard in a complete public performance, however, until some years after it was completed. The first complete public performance was finally given in London by Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on 15 November 1920.

So in 1916 the world was not yet ready for this music by Holst. It was too revolutionary!

Pomp and Circumstances, popular for 117 years

  • In 1901, Sir Edward Elgar composed Pomp And Circumstance March No. 1 In D major. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Othello – “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
  • Elgar conducted his own work at the premiere.
  • The march was played two days later at a London Promenade Concert in London. The audience “rose and yelled”.
  • It is, of course, still played at countless graduation ceremonies. It is unlikely that anyone will not recognize the famous theme.

So this piece was reasonably successful from the very first performance – 117 years ago, and it picked up more and more popularity over time.

Gymnopédie No. 3, popular for 130 years

Erik Satie was born May 17, 1866, and died July 1, 1925, Paris. He was a French composer whose unconventional style was a major influence on younger musicians then and now.

  • The title “Gymnopédies” comes from a made-up profession Satie invented for himself. What is a gymnopedist? Someone who writes Gymnopédies, according to Satie.
  • When Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1879, at around age 13, his teachers thought he was a lazy kid with poor technique, and he washed out. He tried again 1885 at age 19, with the same result.
  • Three years later, in 1888, he published the first of these now-famous piano compositions. Thank God Satie did pay much attention to teachers.
  • He was called “a clumsy but subtle technician” in a book on contemporary French composers published in 1911. He definitely had the last laugh.
  • The Gymnopédies defy traditional harmonies and structures. Satie was a quiet rebel his entire life.
  • Satie was friends with, among others, both Debussy and Ravel. In 1898, Debussy published an orchestration of “Gymnopédies”. Quite obviously Debussy did not think Satie was a “a clumsy but subtle technician”. Once again little minds dismissed  far greater minds as inferior.
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears won a Grammy for their 1968 interpretation Gymnopédie No. 3.
  • Satie’s music has been used in movies going back to the early 1900s and will be in featured in “Kampai! Sake Sisters”, scheduled for release in 2019. We can say without a moment’s hesitation that Satie is one of the greatest popular composers of all time.

The Messiah, popular for 276 years.

  • On April 13, 1742, Handel’s oratorio received its premiere in Dublin. German-born Handel’s name drew such a crowd that there was a fear of audience members injuring each other due to overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere – Handel was a rock star in his time.
  • Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral from participation in the premiere of The Messiah in Ireland. He objected to the idea of making religious music so popular.
  • The Messiah was written really really REALLY fast. The whole composition was composed by Handel in only 24 days, and the whole oratorio is extremely long. It is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute, on average, which is a speed I can’t match in 2018 using Finale.
  • In the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras were scheduled to perform some part of this this piece 38 times.
  • So without any doubt, Handel belongs at the top of any list of “greatest popular composers of all time”.
2+

11 thoughts on “More Old Popular Music

  1. I heard Eleanor Rigby as a teen and back then it was mostly just a sad story about lonely old people with sad music to match. I’m hearing it with new ears now, and never knew how groundbreaking it was.

    Btw, back then there was a long ride to school every day along country roads in our yellow bus, so we used to sing the Yellow Submarine song. Sometimes we’d change it to “Yellow School Bus”. 😀 Fond memories.

    0
  2. I didn’t think that I would recognize the ‘classical’ music in this post, but I found most of them familiar, with the exception of the planets. I even remembered some of the pieces as ones I had heard when I was younger, and liked.

    0
    1. The important thing is that the older the music we hear often, the more insanely popular it has to be to survive. It’s a bit like books. If people like a book that came out this year, if it is popular now, that’s one thing. If people still love it 100 years from now, that’s another level. We have to wait to see what will remain popular.

      For instance, think of these characters:

      Harry Potter
      Alice (from Alice in Wonderdland)
      Scrooge (from A Christmas Carol)

      At the time Potter appeared, all we knew was that a bunch of kids and quite a few parents liked the books. But would these books remain popular?

      The first book was released in 1997, and the books remain popular in 2019. That’s 22 years. If these books are equally popular in 2097, they will attain the kind of popularity of other books or stories that have been around a very long time.

      So in a way it is easier to judge the quality of old popular things, because to remain popular over many decades or even centuries they have to have something that is both universal and timeless.

      It is very hard to judge things that are popular right now, because most very popular things are forgotten in a few years or a couple decades.

      0
  3. I recognize most of the songs here like The Planets, Four Seasons, and Hallelujah. I remember them from movies and since u wrote some info on each song I learned some things I didn’t know before like how the Planets were written between 1914 and 1916. Continue to add more.

    0
    1. Safath, thank you for listening. I want to move on to new lists of famous music, but I have to wait for people to catch up to the two posts I already made.

      Then I can do something new.

      0
  4. Hallelujah was composed that quickly? I guess you can make something iconic in a short time span. With the planets, it was made before Pluto was discovered, and now, Pluto isn’t even a planet. That means that years ago, this was inaccurate, but now it is completely correct!

    0
    1. Michael, it’s not just the Hallelujah Chorus that was composed so quickly. Handel composed the Messiah, the whole thing, in that very short time period. It takes between 2.5 and 3 hours to perform the whole thing.

      Good point about Pluto. At the time Holst wrote this music it had not yet been discovered, and now Pluto has been demoted to a planetoid, a word so new that it is not covered by the spell-checker in this window.

      0
  5. This is incredibly rich, thought provoking, and “It’s about time.” Music has been misrepresented for a very long time, and until it’s pointed out, we don’t even see it. But something has been amiss all along.

    After reading your entry I looked up Blood, Sweat and Tears and found their Satie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GreaN1ljqGY
    There are also jazz versions of “classical” music.

    And if you start looking up music in video games (which are not all combat), you could spend hours. There is music which creates moods, or goes with a particular character. The Super Mario type of music had to be something that sort of loops but had to be pleasant to have in the background. It goes on and on. We’ve probably been listening to this music in the background without ever thinking about it.

    0
    1. In the second post I did about old popular music you will see four examples of Flight of the Bumblebee used elsewhere. One is with Harry James, pre WWII, then Al Hirt in the 60s, then Extreme, 90s, and even Sonic Hedgehog, where you hear the Flight mixed with In the Hall of the Mountain King, Grieg. Some video game music is excellent, and the people who write the music are carefully crafting some very effective music.

      0

Leave a Reply