You've probably heard by now that the Beatles' full discography is finally available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. You may also be aware — because Beatles trivia is basically oxygen — that the Fab Four were nearly as fond of classical music as they were of skiffle and rockabilly. But, when you dive into the specifics of the Beatles' intersections with classical music, there are some actual surprises to be had.
So, if you're planning on a Beatles binge in the near future, by way of streaming or otherwise, here's a bit of suggested additional listening. We'll start with a few classical works that are directly quoted or used in Beatles tracks. Then, we'll move on to some slightly less direct inspirations, including some wildly speculative connections on my part — because wild speculation is just part of being a Beatles fan. Then, after a bit of miscellany, we'll sample a tiny selection of the works where the influence went in the other direction: where the composer used the Beatles' music as a starting point.
N.B. There are no specific references to or quotes of classical pieces in “Roll Over Beethoven.” Because of course there aren’t. That would defeat the whole purpose of the song. I’m looking at you, Electric Light Orchestra.
Ready? One, two, three, FAH!
Direct quotes/confirmed usages
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7
"Tomorrow Never Knows," the Beatles' first overtly psychedelic track, is full of sounds that you couldn't possibly identify by ear. One of those sounds happens to be a single B-flat major chord from Sibelius's seventh symphony.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Invention No. 8 in F major
Probably the most obvious classical quotation in the Beatles oeuvre, this familiar invention bumps up against Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," the Beatles' own "She Loves You" and "Greensleeves" in the giant pastiche that finishes off "All You Need Is Love." Those with perfect pitch may be bothered by the fact that it's transposed up a whole step to G major. Otherwise, listen for it in the trumpets.
OK, here comes a cavalcade:
Ralph Vaughan Williams: O Clap Your Hands
Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etude No. 12
Ludwig van Beethoven: Choral Fantasy
These three pieces all make appearances as tape loops in John Lennon and Yoko Ono's vast sound collage "Revolution 9," from the White Album. As does our old friend Sibelius seven, in fact. This is not the last we'll hear of "Revolution 9" in this list. Love it or hate it, it's one of the more remarkable things that made it onto a Beatles record.
Jeremiah Clarke: The Prince of Denmark's March
I don't know what it is with the Beatles and brass. We've already had a couple of samples of symphonic brass playing on Beatles records, and we'll have more yet. Maybe it's the prevalence of brass bands in English culture? In any case, here's another iconic brass tune repurposed for a psychedelic pastiche, at the end of "It's All Too Much." This time The Prince of Denmark's March (better known as "Trumpet Voluntary") plays out alongside George Harrison singing "with your long blond hair and your eyes so blue," a quote from the McCoys' "Sorrow."
Johann Sebastian Bach: Invention No. 12 in A Major
Producer George Martin’s piano solo on “In My Life” is clearly inspired by Bach, but he’s never specifically mentioned what piece or pieces he was riffing on. So, let’s speculate. The solo is somewhat in the style of Bach's two-part inventions for keyboard. “In My Life” is in the key of A major. Alright then: here’s Bach’s two-part invention in A major. I can hear a bit of a resemblance.
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
When the Beatles recorded "Eleanor Rigby," they'd already made history by using a string quartet to back up Paul McCartney on "Yesterday." But the "Rigby" arrangement is vastly different: chilly, dry, impassive. Those aren't necessarily words you'd use to describe Vivaldi's Four Seasons (except perhaps Winter), but apparently McCartney had been listening to this when he suggested that George Martin should write up a string arrangement for this song.
Johann Joachim Quantz: Horn Concerto in E-flat Major
OK, this time I’m really going out on a limb.
The horn solo in McCartney’s baroque pop classic “For No One” is written in a higher register than is generally considered possible on a modern French horn. George Martin was certainly aware of this when he wrote out the part, but neither he nor McCartney would agree to change it when session player Alan Civil complained.
Civil later referred to the solo as “rather baroque,” possibly in reference to the overall mood of the song (which also features McCartney playing a clavichord Martin had rented specifically for this track). But he may also have been referring to the fact that baroque horn solos tend to be in a higher register due to historical differences in the construction of the instrument. And if we assume at least a passing familiarity with the baroque horn repertoire on Civil’s part (it seems a safe assumption; he was one of the top horn players in London), then we can tentatively link this corno di caccia concerto by Johann Joachim Quantz to “For No One” — along with every other baroque horn concerto, I suppose.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
More brass! The flashy solo in the middle of "Penny Lane" was the piccolo trumpet's pop music moment in the sun. It was performed by a trumpeter named David Mason, after McCartney saw him play the picc in a performance of the second Brandenburg Concerto on television.
(Also, I just want to take a brief aside to enthuse about the piccolo trumpet performance of Reinhold Friedrich in the above video. Holy moly.)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gesang der Jünglinge
Among music fans who aren't inclined towards 20th-century avant-gardism, Stockhausen will always be most notable as one of the faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But, he meant something considerably more to the Beatles themselves. Their use of tape loops in Tomorrow Never Knows was largely inspired by McCartney's love for Stockhausen's musique concrète work, Gesang der Jünglinge.
Lennon was also a fan, and cited Stockhausen as a key inspiration for "Revolution 9."
Witold Lutosławski: Symphony No. 2
The most famous orchestral moment on a Beatles record is probably the shattering, dissonant crescendo that appears twice throughout "A Day in the Life." To get that effect, George Martin brought in an orchestra and basically made them improvise, rising gradually in volume and pitch until the big final note. But, orchestra musicians being orchestra musicians, Martin felt obligated to write out a basic score that outlined what they were supposed to do and for how long, while still giving them the freedom to improvise.
This sort of tightly controlled aleatory was becoming a recurring feature of the "serious" music of the time as well. Martin may have been aware (although this is speculation, once again) of the music of Lutosławski, which used it to great effect. In fact, Lutosławski's second symphony was written around the same time that the Beatles were writing and recording Sgt. Pepper, and periodically uses a similar technique to what Martin used on "A Day In The Life."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25
This one has two steps. "All You Need Is Love" — that most allusive of Beatles hits — opens with the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. It's an interesting choice for a flower power song, considering that La Marseillaise originated as a call to arms. And it's not just about war, but revolutionary war, which Lennon was famously ambivalent about.
Anyway, there's been speculation (by the novelist Patrick O'Brian, among others) that a theme from the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 inspired France's anthem. So, with one degree of separation, it's linked to "All You Need Is Love" as well.
John Ireland: Te Deum
In one of the most in-depth studies of the Beatles ever published, the musicologist Walter Everett suggests that the melody of "Hey Jude" might have been inspired by this liturgical piece from 1907. If that sounds like a long shot, just hit play on the video above with the line "don't make it bad" in your head.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Bourée in E Minor
This lute piece by Bach is a tune you probably know, as is Paul McCartney's "Blackbird." But it's not immediately obvious until you think about it for a second, how McCartney incorporates Bach's piece into his song. Apparently, he and George Harrison had learned the Bourée on acoustic guitars to show off.
Edgard Varèse: Deserts
Varese was one of the key musique concrète pioneers, and yet another avant-gardist that Lennon cited as an inspiration for "Revolution 9."
Johann Strauss II: Kaiser-Walzer
This fun little trifle appeared in a BBC2 documentary series called Europa: The Titled And The Unentitled, which is where George Harrison heard it. It served as an inspiration for "I Me Mine," Harrison's ironically lilting waltz about, well, entitlement.
Johann Pachelbel: Canon in D
Let's throw in a slightly spurious one just for fun, hey? "Let It Be" was probably not directly inspired by Pachelbel's canon, because this chord progression is so universal it's hardly even worth tracing its origins. Nonetheless, the similarity has been brought up before, so here it is.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight)
Ringo Starr liked to play dumb. When asked what he thought of Beethoven (people used to love asking random questions of the Beatles) he replied, "I love him! Especially his poems."
Lennon had a more sincere affection for the ol' Ludwig van, as did his wife, Yoko Ono. The story goes that one day, Ono was playing the Moonlight Sonata on their grand piano, and Lennon asked if she could play the same chord sequence backwards. Eureka: "Because."
Peter Warlock: Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes
(This isn't immediately available for streaming, so here's another lullaby of Warlock's instead.)
McCartney's rendition of "Golden Slumbers" is so familiar that it's easy to forget he didn't actually write the lyrics. The lullaby originates from an Elizabethan playwright called Thomas Dekker. Its most notable setting prior to McCartney's is probably the one by the early 20th-century British composer Peter Warlock. And no, that's not his real name. He was a practising occultist, and wanted to reflect that in his pseudonym.
Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise
The British filmmaker Tony Palmer, well known for his films about classical composers like Britten and Berlioz, was also a Beatles fan. He wrote one of the first glowing reviews of the White Album when it was released, and proclaimed Lennon and McCartney "the greatest songwriters since Schubert." He must have certainly had this late masterpiece in mind.
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings
During the sessions for what became the Let It Be album, the Beatles rehearsed hundreds of songs of all different sorts. They even played around with an arrangement of this famous piece by Samuel Barber — anticipating similar projects by Emerson, Lake and Palmer by as much as three years.
Inspired/facilitated by the Beatles
This section could go on forever. Instead, let's hone in on a trio of notable "Johns":
John Tavener: The Whale
The holy minimalist John Tavener has the distinction of being the only "classical" composer to sign with the Beatles' Apple record label. It apparently came about while Tavener's brother was helping with construction work on Ringo Starr's house and persuaded Starr to have a listen. Later, The Whale was re-released on Starr's own record label, Ring O'Records.
John Luther Adams: Four Thousand Holes
(The piece entitled Four Thousand Holes isn't immediately available for streaming, but this composition, entitled ...and bells remembered... is paired with it on the CD of the same name. You should hear them both.)
John Luther Adams is a reluctant rocker at heart. He says in his notes on his Four Thousand Holes CD that he "came of age playing rock and roll." Later, he found Xenakis, as you do, and lost interest in a lot of rock music. But this piece, named for a line in "A Day in the Life," is an attempt to reclaim something of his rock background and work it into his current aesthetic.
John Cage: The Beatles 1962-1970
Could there be a more perfect conclusion to this list?
Twenty years after the Beatles had finished integrating avant-garde notions like aleatory and sound collage into popular music, the reigning king of musical avant-gardism — by this point in poor health and near the end of his life — paid them tribute with this aleatoric collage of melodic snippets from Beatles records. If it sounds a bit random, that’s because it is. But there’s a haunting beauty to it, too. It's the perfect elegy for two giants of 20th-century music.
This list couldn't possibly be comprehensive. If I missed a particular favourite of yours, shout at me @MJRParsons.
– The Beatles as Musicians (two volumes) by Walter Everett.
– All The Songs by Jean-Michel Guesdon & Philippe Margotin.
– A Hard Day's Write by Steve Turner.