The Nexus of Classical and Rock

by Janell R. Duxbury

(from PROGRESSION, no.39 (Summer 2001), pp. 70-74 / for subscription information see

At first hearing the average listener may be unaware of the many links between rock music and classical music. One might remember a few examples of "rockin' the classics" and pass them off as interesting anomalies. However the pervasive influence of classical music on rock music has grown from a long line of precedents. Many of the examples noted below are detailed in my 1985 discography Rockin' the Classics and Classicizin' the Rock, its first supplement (1991) and its second supplement (2000).

Each popular style of music in its day has produced versions of the classics. Many composers throughout music history have delighted in adding a "new" sound to familiar melodies. The range and quality varies widely in these attempts to blend the music of the past with the sound of the present and the future. Nonetheless the classical "hook" draws in the listener with either distinct or vague familiarity. Thus even the early days of ragtime and vaudeville produced their own variations on the classics, though we have few recordings. From the 1920s through the 1940s, James Price Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller "jazzed up" the classics, alongside the Big Band versions of Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, John Kirby, Freddie Martin, and Stan Kenton. James L. Limbacher's The Song List: A Guide to Contemporary Music from Classical Sources (1973) highlights this era of classical borrowing. Many composers of Broadway shows (e.g., Kismet; Carmen Jones) also appropriated classical melodies.

During the 1950s and the 1960s the jazz genre produced "jazzed up" classics by artists such as the Jacques Loussier Trio, Dave Brubeck, and the Swingle Singers. Jazz interpretations continue to the present by artists such as Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann, Freeway Philharmonic, and Charlie Mariano.

There have also been parodies of classical music including those by Spike Jones, Peter Schickele, Anna Russell, Portsmouth Sinfonia, and Allan Sherman. Even country and folk interpretations of the classics have surfaced from time to time.

Rock versions of the classics began in the early days of rock and roll with the Elegants ("Little Star") in 1958, Billy Storm ("I've Come of Age") in 1959, followed by Elvis Presley ("Tonight Is So Right For Love") and Jackie Wilson ("Night") in 1960. The popularity of classical borrowing is not in any way diminishing. It spans all musical genres and its prevalence is widespread. As new musical styles emerge, the fascination with borrowing catches on. From the 1960s and into the new millennium, versions of the classics evolved in the styles of baroque rock (e.g., New York Rock & Roll Ensemble), soul (e.g., Stevie Wonder), pop rock (e.g., Eric Carmen), disco (e.g., Philarmonica), reggae (e.g., Jah Irie Chorus), prog rock (e.g., Emerson, Lake & Palmer), new wave (e.g., Klaus Nomi; Lords of the New Church), punk (e.g., Sex Pistols), scratch (e.g., Mutant Rockers), heavy metal (e.g., Accept), Latin beat (e.g., Latin Rascals), ska (e.g., Nutty Boys), hardcore (e.g., Iceburn) and rap (e.g., Coolio). Several rock groups (Dollie de Luxe; Kimera) and performers (Malcolm McLaren; Warren G; LL Cool J) selected opera arias as a popular source of classical borrowing. Rock musicians and/or groups in many parts of the world quote or adapt classical themes. Selected examples from various countries are: United States (Eric Carmen; e motive; The Great Kat; J. S. Bach Experience; Tony MacAlpine; Mastermind; Savatage; Symphony X; Frank Zappa); United Kingdom (Deep Purple; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; The Enid; Genesis; Jethro Tull; King Crimson; The Nice; Procol Harum; Rainbow; Renaissance; Rick Wakeman; Yes); Netherlands (Ekseption; Flairck; Focus; Trace); Germany (Amenophis; Gamma Ray; Helloween; Mekong Delta; Bernd Steidl; Uli Jon Roth; Therion; Triumvirat); Italy (Capsicum Red; Latte e Miele; Skylark); Hungary (After Crying; Omega; Panta Rhei; Tamás Szekeres); Norway (Aunt Mary; TNT); Ukraine (Vitalij Kuprij); Sweden (Yngwie Malmsteen; Pär Lindh Project); Australia (Litany); Switzerland (Spot); Finland (Stratovarius); Czechoslovakia (Collegium Musicum); Brazil (Angra); France (Magma; Patrick Rondat); Austria (Blue Chip Orchestra; Eela Craig); Spain (Canarios; Fusioon); Russia (Viktor Zintchuk); Japan (Mugen); and Israel (The Churchill's).

Spanning all the genres and national origins of rock music that have borrowed from classical sources are many techniques. Variations range from contemporary renditions of complete classical works, some of which do not stray noticeably from the original, to brief classical quotes or phrases so subtly incorporated into rock compositions that only the most discerning ear can pick them out. Brief excerpts of actual classical recordings have been incorporated into several rock recordings via the technique known as sampling.

Rock versions of the classics have been popular on the Billboard pop singles chart throughout the history of rock music. Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" reached number one on the chart. Number two spots were held by the Toys' "A Lover's Concerto" and Eric Carmen's "All by Myself." Many similar recordings also did very well. Although classical purists might cringe, clearly the music-buying public appreciates these recordings. In assessing the frequency of particular classical themes in popular music, J. S. Bach appears to be the all-time favorite composer. Many of Bach's well-known works are recurring themes in contemporary music. His "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" has been borrowed at least thirty-eight times by various rock musicians. Certain other classical themes have also been recorded numerous times in a rock style. Good examples are Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," recorded in at least thirty different versions by as many artists and Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" recorded in at least forty versions.

Other rock musicians carried on by producing the "Classical Rock" sound which imitated the classics. The Beatles ("Yesterday") and the Rolling Stones ("As Tears Go By") led the way with simulated baroque sounds. This trend continued to grow, culminating in a frenzy of "Baroque Rock" during 1965-1969, peaking in 1967-1968 (e.g., New York Rock & Roll Ensemble; Left Banke). These years also marked the beginning of the phenomenon of classical musicians performing baroque or classical versions of rock music originally composed and/or performed by rock musicians (e.g., Joshua Rifkin's The Baroque Beatles Book).

In fact baroque and rock meshed more successfully than one might expect because both genres share contrapuntal structure and steady rhythmic patterns. A literal meeting of rock and classical instruments occurred about 1966-1967 with the first use of a violin bow on electric guitar as performed by Creation, a British rock group. At the same time, Jimmy Page used that technique in the rock group Yardbirds. He later carried its use into the rock group Led Zeppelin, and in performing with the Firm. More recently this technique has been used by the rock group Whitesnake to mimic the sound of Led Zeppelin.

The "Classical Rock" or "Art Rock" style grew and matured into the 1970s as it drew on classical style and technique while relying on a rock beat and the use of electric instruments. Through the magic of creative arrangements a mere handful of rock musicians gave forth the lush sounds of a full-blown orchestra. Rock groups which typified this style included: Renaissance; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Yes; Genesis; and Electric Light Orchestra. This classical influence was also reflected in the recordings of many other rock groups. The "Rock Opera" phenomenon also emerged with the albums Tommy by the Who and Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Beginning in the late 1960s the development of synthesizers led to their use as substitutes for strings. Ultimately whole orchestras were imitated in the synthesized classics as played by Tomita. Although the use of synthesizers continues to evolve, the inclusion of string sections with rock bands reemerged in the mid-1980s and continued into the 1990s and beyond (e.g., China Crisis; Jon Anderson; Therion; Mekong Delta; Verve). The resurgence of an earlier trend shows a continuing dimension in the influence of the classics on rock music.

In a possible attempt to legitimize rock music in the eyes of the nonrock world, rock groups have often performed with established orchestras and choruses or appeared on the same bill with them. These collaborations occur both on sound recordings and in live performances. The most publicly accessible example of this cultural meeting occurred as an NBC network television special on March 14, 1970, entitled "The Switched-on Symphony." The program included appearances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Jethro Tull, Santana, Nice, Bobby Sherman, Jerry Goodman, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Ray Charles, Christopher Parkening, João Carlos Martins, and Pinchas Zukerman. Beginning in 1980 in Germany, conductor Eberhard Schoener put together an annual "rock-klassik-nacht." Classical and rock performers are included on the same program. For the Grammy awards telecast of February 25, 1986, rock performer Sting donned a tuxedo and appeared with his rock band and an orchestra. Together they performed his Prokofiev-based song "Russians." On September 13, 1986 Tomita presented a "Back to the Earth" outdoor concert at New York City's Battery Park. He performed his synthesized classics with guest appearances by the choir of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, pianist Nikolai Demidenko, and violinist Mariko Senju. The concert was enhanced by lasers, fireworks and smoke effects. On July 21, 1990 Roger Waters staged a live extravaganza of The Wall in Berlin, Germany which brought numerous guest rock stars together in performance with an orchestra, choir, and a military band.

The Bee Gees toured with a hired orchestra as early as 1968. Emerson, Lake & Palmer tried the same approach for a concert tour in 1977, but it proved to be too expensive and they dropped the orchestra after only fifteen performances. More recently the rock groups Metallica, Kansas, Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra Part Two, Moody Blues, Page & Plant and Scorpions performed live/on tour in concert with various orchestras. An interesting twist has been the use of tape-recorded or live orchestra introductions just prior to a rock band's appearance on the concert stage. Examples of these efforts to bridge classical and rock genres are: Mott the Hoople (Holst's Jupiter from The Planets); Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel (Ravel/Bolero); David Bowie 1972 tour (Walter Carlos' version of Beethoven/Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy); Yes (Stravinsky/Firebird); Elvis Presley (R. Strauss/Also Sprach Zarathustra); Rolling Stones (Copland/Fanfare for the Common Man); Queen 1977 tour (Tchaikovsky/1812 Overture); Billy Joel 1986 tour (Gershwin/Rhapsody in Blue).

Rock musicians have also been quick to point out their classical training. Michael Kamen, Dorian Rudnytsky, and Martin Fulterman of New York Rock & Roll Ensemble attended the Julliard School of Music; three members of Electric Light Orchestra were once members of the London Symphony Orchestra; Rick Wakeman of Yes attended the Royal College of Music in London; Annie Lennox of Eurythmics studied for a time at the Royal Academy of Music in London and although she never completed her degree, she was appointed an associate of England's Royal Academy of Music in 1986; Thijs van Leer of Focus attended the Amsterdam Conservatoire; Hans J¨rgen Fritz of Triumvirat attended Cologne Conservatory; Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk attended Dusseldorf Conservatory; John Cale attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in London; Joe Jackson attended the Royal Academy of Music in London; and Pat Benatar and Annie Haslam were opera trained. Various members of Ars Nova, Mothers of Invention, and First Edition also had classical training.

There is evidence that the classical world has also taken notice of the rock world. Leonard Bernstein has been quoted in praise of the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, the Beatles, and the Who's Tommy, the rock opera which earned the distinction of playing the Met and other opera houses. Since the Henry Wood Promenade concerts began in 1895, the first rock group to ever appear at the London Proms was Soft Machine at Royal Albert Hall on August 13, 1970. Pink Floyd was the first rock group to perform at the Montreux Classical Music Festival on September 18, 1971. Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Works, Volume 1 was reviewed in the classical, rather than the rock, section of Stereo Review. Both established orchestras (e.g., the London Symphony Orchestra) and pop-style orchestras (e.g., 101 Strings) have recorded their own quasi-classical orchestral arrangements of rock music originally composed and/or recorded by rock musicians. The style and quality of these versions vary widely, from strict classical style to pop style orchestral renditions. Examples of "classicizin' the rock" show an array of Beatles' compositions as the most popular choice for this blend of the new with the old. Apocalyptica (cello quartet) released Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos; Berlin Philharmonic Cellists recorded Cello Submarine (Beatles); various symphony orchestras released albums such as Symphonic Music of Yes, Objects of Fantasy (Pink Floyd), A Classic Case (Jethro Tull), We Know What We Like (Genesis), The Long Goodbye (Procol Harum), The Moscow Symphony in Performance of the Music of Deep Purple, Orchestral Sgt. Pepper's (Beatles), Passing Open Windows (Queen) and many others. In a double twist the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded disco versions of the classics. Some symphony orchestras have added rock-style laser and light shows to their concerts. Performers such as Virgil Fox and his "heavy organ" arrangements of J. S. Bach used light shows in rock venues (e.g., Winterland at San Francisco) as well as in "legitimate" venues (e.g., Carnegie Hall).

The packaging of classical albums has, at times, imitated that of rock albums. In the period between 1969 and 1973 both Columbia and RCA Red Seal released "Greatest Hits" albums by most of the major classical composers. Columbia's Greatest Hits of 1720, ...1721, and ...1790 featured album covers with Billboard-like pop charts listing the contents. London Records' Orphic Egg composer series chose unconventional album titles (e.g., Bach's Head, Ravel's Head, etc.) for at least eight different classical composers. Although the versions of these composers' music were "straight," rock critics supplied hip street-talk liner notes for some, and artists created psychedelic album covers. In a parallel manner artists have reproduced works of great art intact or in altered form on scattered rock album covers. In contrast to Walter Carlos' Switched-on Bach, Columbia also released Switched-off Bach, which featured straight versions of the same pieces used on Carlos' synthesizer album. Compilations of straight versions of classical pieces once used for rock interpretations were released by Columbia (Joy! The Great Composers' Hits for the '70s) and RCA Red Seal (Heavy Hits: Great Music That Inspired Today's Hits and Joy: Great Classics That Inspired Great Pop and Rock Hits of the '60s and '70s). The 1990s produced albums such as Classics for Heavy Metal Kids (six volumes); Classics from Progressive Rock (five volumes including the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Keith Emerson & the Nice; Yes; Rick Wakeman; Annie Haslam; Renaissance; Sky; and Frank Zappa); Hard Rock Meets Classics (four volumes); and Exile on Classical Street (classical album featuring the favorite works selected by several rock musicians). In 1978, the Philadelphia Orchestra employed rock star David Bowie as a narrator on a recording of Peter and the Wolf. The first rock-style picture-disc of classical music appeared in 1979 in France as Thirty-Six Front Populaire's Opera d'Etienne Roda-Gil.

Other manifestations of rock influences on classical music are classical videos such as "Girls Talk" by Linda Nardini on piano and the "Amadeus" (1985) video which pairs Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Symphony No. 25 in G Minor" with alternating clips from the motion picture film Amadeus and from rock videos. The Rochester (New York) Philharmonic Orchestra produced a classical video using rock-like images and editing for Hector Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold." Nigel Kennedy's The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) (1990) video shows him off as a punky-looking classical violinist. Vanessa-Mae's Live at the Royal Albert Hall: The Red Hot Tour (1995) features Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" in a techno-acoustic fusion violin interpretation.

Twentieth-century classical composers have been slow to admit the influence of rock music on their compositions. One exception is Hans Werner Henze, who mentioned that he was inspired by the Rolling Stones for his 1968 secular cantata Muzen Siziliens. Avant-garde experimental composers such as Philip Glass and Glenn Branca have integrated rock rhythm, repetition, and heavy amplification in their works. Philip Glass released rock-style videos of sections of his album The Photographer. Glass also produced several rock albums and scored the classical chamber orchestra coda for Paul Simon's rock song "The Late Great Johnny Ace." The compositions of Scott Johnson, Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty incorporate distinct influences from specific rock groups. Classical performers have also contributed to rock music albums. Opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang duets with rock performers (Bryan Adams, Eric Clapton, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John and others); opera soprano Kathleen Battle paired with Janet Jackson; opera soprano Montserrat Caballé recorded with Freddie Mercury; and violinist Nigel Kennedy guested on albums by Kate Bush and Robert Plant.

A final note involves some controversy over rock versions of the classics. Added to the scorn of classical purists is the furor over failure to give credit to the classical composers. Some rock groups are very scrupulous about this courtesy while others do not give credit at all. When Emerson, Lake & Palmer failed to acknowledge Béla Bartók and Leos Janácek on their first album, several magazine articles denounced this omission. Their later albums usually acknowledged their sources and they added Janócek to the credits of their 1979 live album version of "Knife-Edge," which appeared originally on their first album. In England, the controversy has been most prominent because the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has from time to time banned tunes lifted from the classics. In fact Tomita's 1976 album The Planets was actually banned for sale and use in the United Kingdom after a 1977 court injunction was awarded to Gustav Holst's daughter. She objected to the synthesizer version of her father's composition. This album is available outside England. The "Mars" track on Love Sculpture's Forms and Feelings (1970) does not appear on their UK release because of legal problems with Holst's estate. The release of Guitar Orchestra's rendition of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" (1971) was delayed until 1997 due to copyright issues. Sonja Kristina (1985) and Apotheosis (1992) renditions of Orff's "O Fortuna" encountered legal suits from Orff's estate. William Ørbit's album Pieces in a Modern Style (1995) was withdrawn from the market because of copyright problems with the track "Cantus" composed by Arvo Pärt. The album was released in 2000 minus the Pärt track. Hungarian rock group Panta Rhei's 1976-1977 album Bartók was never released because of objections from Bartók's son.

The original Rockin' the Classics and Classicizin' the Rock (1985) discography and its first supplement (1991) are available from Greenwood Press ( and Amazon ( Its second supplement (2000) is available from Xlibris ( and Amazon ( See also Rock-Classical Connection Web Page (

Copyright 2001 PROGRESSION