The Beatles in the Style of JS Bach?
Rearranging pop tunes for orchestra is such a common occurrence. One of the bands that many composers have tried to arrange their music for is The Beatles. I don’t think that anyone can go through any kind of ensemble group without playing a Beatles medley or arrangement (‘Yesterday’ for string quartet resonates with me). The arrangements are in their pop style, and it is amusing to see classical instruments attempt to play pop songs. But not many have tried to mould The Beatles to fit the classical sound. Many would assume that having an orchestra play pop is classical enough, but what Leo Brouwer did with The Beatles' music is so much better than that.
Leo Brouwer is an Afro-Cuban composer whose compositions are influenced by modern classical music and Cuban folk music. A gifted guitarist, he focused on composing music for guitar and symphonic and chamber orchestras. However, in 1981, Brouwer released an album entitled De Bach a Los Beatles, and of the thirteen tracks on the album, ten of them are classical renditions of The Beatles' music. What I mean by "classical rendition" is that the music contains the most of the melodies and chord progressions from the original pop music, but it does not sound the slightest bit like pop music.
Though the album alludes to Johann Sebastian Bach, Baroque composer extraordinaire, the music tends to stray from the beaten Baroque path, with some sounding more Bach-like than others. However, three of the Brouwer's arrangements stood out as distinctly Baroque: Yesterday, A Ticket to Ride and Eleanor Rigby. These pieces are for string quartet and classical guitar. The way that the guitar is played is very similar to the lute. It is most likely Brouwer's intention to mimic the sound of the lute because it was a signature instrument of the Baroque era, but he also primarily composed for classical guitar, so it would not be surprising that he included a guitar part for his Beatles arrangements.
For his Yesterday arrangement, Brouwer took some aspects of the Baroque style and incorporated them into the simple but sombre melody of Yesterday. With string accompaniment, the solo guitar embellishes the tune of Yesterday with ornaments that were typical of the Baroque Era. Apart from that, when the second verse of Yesterday is played, the violins have a countermelody that is highlighted as well, which alludes to Bach's famous use of Baroque counterpoint. The melody played by the strings is a variation of the tune, and it intertwines with the solo guitar playing the Yesterday tune. What stood out as a very Baroque feature was the liberty the music took when it came to time. The melodies were pushed and pulled, with the ensemble taking time to appreciate certain moments with ritardandos. Overall, the arrangement is very harmonious, and the counterpoint is a nice homage to the Baroque style.
A Ticket to Ride was the piece that really highlighted the classical guitar/lute as a soloist. This arrangement sounds like something straight out of the Baroque era, especially the intricate ornamentation in the beginning. When I first listened to this arrangement, I really thought that it was an authentic lute piece. Brouwer seems to understand that the melodies from The Beatles are simple enough to build up trills and add plucking arpeggios and morph them into an arrangement that sounds authentically Baroque era. Though the guitar and strings chords played in the middle break the illusion of the authentic Baroque style established in the beginning, the bits that are Baroque are so good that I am willing to use some suspension of disbelief and deem this piece as a good representation of Baroque lute music.
The piece that stood out as the most Baroque (in my opinion) was Eleanor Rigby. It contains a very intricate guitar solo towards the first third of the piece that, like A Ticket to Ride, captures the Baroque essence of lute music. However, the piece, especially the beginning, bears a striking resemblance to a Bach's 'Die Kunst der Fuge (Art of the Fugue).' These 18 fugues were when a group similar to a string quartet would play the same variation of a melody, but at different times. Unlike a round, all string members play melodies X, Y, and Z, but at different times. The beginning of Eleanor Rigby sounds like it could be the start of one of Bach's fugues. In Brouwer's Eleanor Rigby, the beginning is a fugue-like into in which all strings have the Eleanor Rigby tune at the same time, but there variation to each part. The fugue on Eleanor Rigby occurs again halfway through the piece. This arrangement is probably my favourite, as it combines the Baroque lute style with Bach's fugue, creating a well-rounded piece of Baroque music.
To conclude, I am not 100% sure why Leo Brouwer decided to infuse The Beatles with Baroque music. Maybe he wanted to make an arrangement that was unique and different (in which case, he succeeded). Maybe he wanted to highlight how the root of pop music is not so different from the root of Baroque music. I never thought I would be comparing The Beatles to Bach's style of composition. But, being more familiar with Bach than with The Beatles, I give these arrangements five stars, two thumbs up, the stamp of approval, if you will. Brouwer clearly understood the style of both the Bach and The Beatles well enough to create these arrangements, and anyone who can effectively preserve the essence of these two contrasting genres has a fantastic understanding of music in general.