The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

Which classical composers influenced The Beatles?

None of The Beatles had a background in classical music. It was not played in their homes and whatever they were taught at school went through one ear and out the other. Nor were they interested in formally learning instruments that would require at least some knowledge of musical theory.

Paul liked to mess around on the piano from an early age but would do so my experimentation and improvisation. Ditto for John and his first instrument, the harmonica. George did buy a guitar chord book but was preoccupied with forcing his fingers to produce clear sounds from the finger shapes it suggested. Ringo only had his toy drum to tap on his hospital bed.

Though they clearly understood and applied key concepts like time signatures they generally did not use the established technical terms to describe them. Even the musically curious McCartney resolutely refused to learn how to read or write music.

Not having access to the classical tradition was not considered a hardship. They were interested in banging out tunes rather than how symphonies were constructed. If anything, they were hostile to what Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim terms ‘filthy bloody Mozart.

Paul tells how his father, ‘a jazzer' would pointedly turn off the radio when a classical piece was broadcast. His son metaphorically followed suit, as did his bandmates. It was not for them.

Bach

A inaccurate version of this guitar tab Bourrée from the E Minor Lute Suite was learned by George & Paul

George did, however, learn one classical 'party-piece' in his early teens, which he taught to Paul. Neither boy the title but they had the vague idea that it was by Bach. They would later learn that it was Bourrée from the E Minor Lute Suite — and that they had been playing it inaccurately.

A decade later the Bourree would directly inspire one of Paul McCartney’s most famous compositions.

Bourrée was the initial inspiration for Blackbird

Ian MacDonald suggests that it was the recording of a song with the unpromising title of ‘Scrambled Eggs’ that marks a key moment in the musical evolution of The Beatles. The melody famously came to Paul in a dream and he initially was unsure of how to develop it.

George Martin saw that what became YESTERDAY would be limited by a conventional rock group arrangement. When he offered to write a string part, McCartney was uneasy and initially resisted the suggestion. When he did agree he tried to ensure that the song did not stray out of its rock and roll lane (‘No vibrato, George. I don’t want to sound like Mantovani!’).

Realsiing this would be unnatural for a modern string player, Martin asked McCartney to help supervise the arrangement, knowing that this would demonstrate the issue.

‘As a result of which,{McCartney} added the cello phrase in bar 4 of the middle eight (1.25–27) and the first violin’s held high A in the final verse.’ Macdonald

YESTERDAY was the first song The Beatles recorded without their standard line-up — only McCartney performs alongside the string players.

Perhaps even more importantly, the song revealed new compositional possibilities. Ian Macdonald descrbes this as George Martin’s disclosure to them of a hitherto unsuspected world of classical music colour.’

Expansion

A year later this would be taken a stage further with ELEANOR RIGBY. Here it was Paul conceived of the string part, instructing Martin that he wanted a ‘stabbing’ sound, perhaps influenced by Bernard Hermann’s scoring of the the notorious shower scene in Psycho

With increasing boldness, Beatles records began plucking elements from the classical world George Martin’s piano solo on IN MY LIFE, for example, is clearly modelled on Bach. Piccolo trumpet appears PENNY LANE after McCartney saw it being used (by the same musician) in a TV broadcast of the Brandenburg Concerto.

Nor did they confine their plundering to the established canon. The influence of experimental composers like Cage and Berio looms large in A DAY IN THE LIFE, while samples of Schumann, Beethoven and the Sibelius Seventh are stuffed into Revolution 9.

Recently, McCartney has suggested that being unschooled in musical theory had a positive creative impact.Put simply, they broke the established rules because they were unaware of them. Occasionally this could lead dangerously close to cacophony — Revolution 9, for example is not for everyone. But it was Leonard Bernstein was already observing in 1966, crude musicianship proved no barrier to astonishing creativity.

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