The greatest musical influence of my country
When it comes to Russia, two names come into my mind: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and, of course, the Beatles.
It is pretty simple: Tchaikovsky is considered to be Russia’s #1 classical composer and he surely is. Yes, it was Mikhail Glinka who introduced Western-style classical music to Russia before him but it was Piotr Ilyich who made it truly world-class.
I’m not a big fan or an expert of classical music but if I need to say something about him, something that I like, his dramatic ‘Nutcracker’ would definitely be my choice.
In 2006 I went to the town of Klin to shoot a documentary about his life. He had bought a house there around six months before his sudden death. The town is located between Moscow and St. Petersburg and Tchaikovsky has been travelling a lot between the two capitals. This place was an ideal location to spend a night during his voyages. But Tchaikovsky is not my man. I just understand that he was very influential in many ways.
The second choice, the Beatles, I think is universal. I guess they’ve made an impact in virtually every country. I myself was a huge fan back in my school years in the 1980s. It really did shape my musical taste and my understanding of contemporary music. Moreover, I wasn’t the first generation of the Soviet people who’d been loving them. Back then it’s been already two decades of devotion and admiration. The Soviet Beatles fan base was not known in the West but it was really powerful: it even had its own mythology. For example, there was a legend that they performed a secret concert in Moscow for the Soviet Politburo. It has never been in reality, but many people believed that on their way back from Hong Kong the Beatles made a short (and secret) stopover in Moscow…
One more rumor to underline their iconic status in the USSR? Right, ‘Back in the USSR’. That was another brick in the wall of its mythology. The song, of course, had no relation to the USSR as it was just a parody to ‘Back in the USA’ but nobody knew about it the USSR itself.
I think ideologically the Beatles have made a massive impact on destroying the Soviet reality. Musically, they’re the best. As time goes by, my musical taste is changing and I’m now much more into the Stones.
But the Beatles is the foundation.
Language is plastic; easily molded into any shape that pleases the assembled mob. We make up new words and pretend that old people will never figure out what we are saying – a completely rad concept.
I often find joy in trolling my British friend, Roger. Not only can I not spell tire, I seem to mis-pronounce words with abandon. Even my computer has spelling issues. Marching about, waving mis-spelled signs and shouting silly slogans as though no one will notice; my life does have a few simple joys.
Music is much the same… malleable; changing to fit the moment and mood. Music is very much a mirror of my Nation’s history.
Our earliest music is Scotts Highlander. You may better know this genre as Country Music. Played in Ordinaries (Taverns) throughout the Colonies, these songs would occasionally feature changed lyrics set to the same melody.
In my latest Roger tweaking tirade, I featured Bugs Bunny. Yes, the Bugs Bunny of Warner Brothers cartoon fame. We colonists learned classical music from Bugs. Let me show you a list of fifteen Classical Music masterpieces that all Americans know, thanks to Bugs. I told Roger I was nominating Bugs as my most influential artist. As crazy as it sounds, I believe I can make that case.
While its true most Yankees know classical from cartoons, the title of the week is the most influential artist. I When my radio is on, it’s not classical I hear, its popular music and Bugs never played a note.
I must nominate The Temptations as the most influential act in my nation’s history. Yes, I know, there are many more famous writers and performers. So why The Temptations?
Two hundred years ago the colonies imported slaves from Africa and as you would expect, these people brought music with them. These songs featured drums – and a beat. While the actual songs didn’t survive, the drums certainly did.
It was this beat, a rhythm that moved you, that changed music. And this is where The Temptations come in. Motown is American slang for Detroit, the motor city and it was here that the sound of Motown was born. By fusing that driving beat with popular music we see folks of African descent become stars, rich and famous.
A young boy from Mississippi named Elvis Presley was taken with this music and began to fuse it with his own. In his later years Elvis was quite open about the African influence on his hits. Do you see the Beatles coming?
Pull the thread just a bit more and you can follow the beat through the Bee Gees into Hip Hop and modern Country. Pull it back the other direction, it’s Highlander tavern songs fused with drums… it’s all one long history.
The Temptations were the biggest act in Motown history and opened the musical style to a larger, white audience. Early Rock & Roll found inspiration in Motown (the record label). This is the music played in Moscow, London, and your town too.
Britain’s greatest musical influence
I’ve listed two “classical” music composers and a duo of 1960s songwriters to try and find an answer to this puzzle.
In chronological order, I start with George Frideric Handel. (Ok, German by birth but lived the majority of his life in Britain, gaining British nationality.) So much of his music is still played, and listened to, some 250 years later, like the “Messiah”, “Water Music”, and “Music for the Royal Fireworks”. “Zadok the Priest”, written in 1727 for the coronation of King George II, was, and still is, performed at every British coronation, (not that we’ve had many of those in the last 70 years……). Even his “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” featured at the London Olympics in 2012.
Edward Elgar is another who still has his works performed regularly, although he is much more recent than Handel, dying in 1934 at the age of 76. The “Enigma Variations” are part of the concert repertoire world-wide, although the majority of his compositions were appreciated more in Britain. Perhaps his most popular piece is the first of five “Pomp and Circumstance Marches”, which is always played at the famous “Last Night of the Proms” at the Royal Albert Hall in London each year. Part of that piece is “Land of Hope and Glory” which many of us Brits think should be our national anthem, instead of the boring, dreary and ever-dull “God Save the Queen”. Elgar also gained the reputation for being the first composer to take the newly invented gramophone seriously.
By the time “The Beatles” came to fame, popular music had completely changed. From listening to live jazz and swing pre-second world war, our youngsters now found the gramophone, as a means of reproduction, had blossomed into stereo, and became affordable to most. Radio and Television were part of almost every household, which meant of course that Lennon and McCartney’s masterpieces were available to much more of the population than earlier composers. Simply by records sold, this was by far the most successful collaboration in history – one of those songs, “Yesterday”, has been recorded by more musicians than any other.
I’ve always held the notion that time itself can be the greatest destroyer of art. So what needs to be answered of course, is the question of whether Lennon and McCartney’s music will still be played in 250 years’ time; to which I can only hazard a guess, which is: probably. So, probably, I give Lennon and McCartney the vote as Britain’s greatest musical influence.
Let the arguments commence!