Picture the scene: the conductor raises the baton, orchestra at the ready. Shifting in their velvet seats, the audience watches the soloist with baited breath. The downbeat happens, and across the ornate auditorium rings out the first few notes from… an electric guitar?
In celebration of one of 91Classical’s Classical Crossroads, a new programming feature exploring music that blurs the line between classical and other genres, here’s the first of a series of digital mixtapes compiled on a Classical Crossroads theme. With vol. 1, we look at two styles that at first blush, seem worlds apart: rock and classical.
Nearly all of these selections come from rockers paying tribute with cover songs of their classical heroes. A handful stem from a larger tradition known as neoclassical metal, a subgenre of heavy metal that draws deeply from classical idioms.
Listen to any neoclassical metal player and the ties between the genres become clearer: a love of Baroque-esq ornate melodies, a penchant for Romantic era virtuosity and showmanship, a modern take on complex harmony and scales… and a reminder that some of the great rock riffs were written centuries ago.
John Dowland: “Can She Excuse My Wrongs” (Performed by Sting and Edin Karamazov)
Sting makes no secret of his love for Renaissance composer (and fellow Englishman) John Dowland. In 2006 he released Songs from the Labyrinth, a collection comprised almost solely of music by Dowland. The rock veteran stays fairly true to the original Renaissance vibe with occasional madrigal vocal counterpoint and accompaniment from lutenist Edin Karamazov.
Henry Purcell: “When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament)” from Dido and Aeneas (Performed by Jeff Buckley)
Eclectic rocker Jeff Buckley was known to cover a wide array of music, including songs by Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, French cabaret singer Édith Piaf and jazz legend Nina Simone. His decision to cover a 17th century opera aria perhaps isn’t all that surprising.
Cellist Philip Sheppard remembers when Buckley showed up late to rehearsals for Elvis Costello’s 1995 Meltdown Festival: “he walked in—this sort of lanky, extraordinary angel of a man—and opened up an exercise book in which he had written out the words to the Purcell. He started singing… and you could tell that this was a man who burned harder than other people around him. There are certain people who have a certain artistic flame and charisma around them. Where other people take 80 years to live that kind of life, he probably lived it within 30.”
Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997. Above is a bootleg recording of his performance of Purcell.
Franz Schubert: “Der Erlkönig” (performed by Hope Lies Within)
Uriah Rodriguez, lead vocalist of progressive metal band Hope Lies Within, first heard Schubert’s famous lied while studying music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was so fascinated by the piece that two versions of it – one in the original German with poetry from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and another English version rewritten by Hope Lies Within—appear on the band’s first full length album.
While Hope Lies Within replaces the piano accompaniment with distorted guitars, bass and driving drums, the band sticks close to Schubert’s original harmonic structure.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in c# minor, Op. 27, mvt. 3 “Moonlight” (Performed by Dr. Viossy)
There’s no denying the frenetic energy of the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. The rising and relentless sequences of sixteenth notes translate with ease to virtuoso guitar shredding, and Italian rocker Michele “Dr. Viossy” Vioni has racked up over 11 million YouTube views with his fast-fingered cover of Beethoven’s masterpiece.
Covering a classic isn’t a one-off for Vioni, who has also uploaded his versions of works by Mozart, Chopin and Paganini.
Camille Saint-Saëns, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in a minor, Op. 28 (Performed by The Commander-In-Chief and Craig Ogden)
Dubbed “The Queen of Shred” by Metal Hammer music magazine, Norwegian musician Commander-In-Chief has also been making waves with collaborations with classical guitarist Craig Ogden. The pair released 2 Guitars- The Classical Crossover Album in 2014, which included the first guitar recording of Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, which is traditionally performed by violin and orchestra.
Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain (Performed by ACCEPT)
If you’ve never seen a headbanging violinist, look no further than ACCEPT’s music video for their cover of Mussorgsky’s Night of Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky originally penned the tone poem in 1867, inspired by Russian pagan festivities and rituals and the gathering of witches and spirits.
ACCEPT (featuring guitarist Wolf Hoffmann) trades the pagan imagery for motorcycle gangs and open flames, while musically a blend of strings and electric guitar give a new, driving life to Mussorgsky’s ghoulish riffs. The track is featured on Hoffman’s solo release Headbanger’s Symphony, which he dedicates to the “grand classic maestros.”
Yngwie Malmsteen, Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in eb minor, Op. 1, mvt. 10 “Vivace” (Performed by Yngwie Malmsteen and the New Japan Philharmonic)
With his long, flowing locks and flounced blouse, neoclassical metal pioneer Yngwie Malmsteen looks like he could have stepped out of a 17th century painting. The Swedish guitarist owes at least some of his style (in both fashion and music) to his Baroque idols: J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.
This concerto is a reminder that the blending of classical and rock goes beyond modern-day musicians covering classical masterpieces. Malmsteen’s performance represents the vast body of original music that blurs the line between classical and rock.
Tune in at 6:00PM on Wednesday nights to hear Classical Crossroads on 91Classical.