Red rover, red rover – may we crossover?

It was recently announced that BBC Radio 3 has commissioned two special recordings for Children in Need. I was amused and astounded when I discovered that they are mash-ups by Steve Pycroft of well known pop hits and core pieces from the 'classical' repertoire. 

Little Mix's Wings has been set to the music of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and One Direction's What Makes You Beautiful re-imagined to the music of Verdi's Anvil Chorus (!).

After initial giggles, shudders and then the unescapable curiosity surrounding notions of what these could possibly sound like, I started to think about this crass cross-breeding of genres. As both a connoisseur of 'classical' music and a devotee of 'popular' ones, I am rarely a fan. And although musical snobbery is not my thing (most genres have their place), I draw the line at such pretentious and boorish attempts to reach new audiences (or whatever they are trying to do).

Any 'classical' takes on pop that I have heard have just been horrid. It was only back in March that Steve Pycroft made a similar mistake with Justin Bieber's Beauty and a Beat. I think the only universal truth that could be agreed on for this song is that it is designed to get younger (pre-teen?) revellers to dance around a bit. And it doesn't take Heinrich Schenker to work out that the chord progressions and melodic developments of the song are not its strong point; it is surely the beat (hence the title). The choral work that Pycroft came up with is hard to digest.

With it – and, I expect, the Children in Need tracks – Radio 3 is either trying to reach new audiences or show us how terribly modern and fun and exciting they are. Either way, it is a terrible idea. The resulting music is poor and the whole thing embarrassing.

Another of Pycroft's works is the Skrillex Suite, an orchestration of a medley of Skrillex's dubstep tracks. Again, he has removed the whole point of dubstep with his pretentious and rambling score (he has defined it himself as 'classical dubstep'). Classical dubstep would take those flowing melodies, present them simply and then break them down with pulsating beats pushed out by the brass and percussion (now if someone was to achieve a near-electronic dance sound with a full symphony orchestra, that would be worth a listen). Furthermore, I noticed that the comments on Youtube touch on the beauty and timelessness of 'classical' music – I found myself wondering if they would use those words for Pycroft's attempt if they had heard Vaughan Williams's stunning Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or Tchaikovsky's enduring Violin Concerto in E minor.

It goes the other way too (but rarely as disastrously). The prog rock scene of the 1970s saw classical influences incorporated into the driving guitar riffs and heavy bass lines; complex compositions entering the language of rock and roll. And in the charts today we have Clean Bandit, a string quartet-based band who blend whole passages from the strings into their catchy dance tracks. I think the reason that it works is that they are making the previously inaccessible accessible, rather than the other way round. And the band is taking the strengths of both genres (e.g. beautiful melodies from string quartets and catchy dance riffs from electronic influences) to make a great track. They are brilliant in my opinion.

Different genres of music develop and survive based on their appropriateness for different situations. I studied and continue to study 'classical' (actually medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, turn-of-the-century and beyond) music because there is such a wealth of beauty and intrigue to be found in it. And I enjoy drum and bass when I want to completely let go, hip-hop when I fancy a good dance, rock for attitude, jazz for dark stuffy bars lit by red candles, house for the next mega rave and a nice pop ballade when I am missing my loved ones. I think these 'classical' mashup artists are in danger of missing the point and just putting us off what they do completely. 

Having said that I can't wait to hear what these Little Mix/Wagner and 1D/Verdi beauts sound like...

Jonathan McGovern, Benjamin Appl, Robin Tritschler, Nick Pritchard and Tim Mead record 'What Makes You Beautiful/Anvil Chorus' for Children in Need | Photo: BBC Radio 3


  1. Rosie - what about ELO? Or the kind of classical cover version we do in WP of pop songs like Wuthering Heights? I think there is quite a lot of good classical/pop crossover, that's what I'm most interested in. Have you heard the Mark Anthony Turnage Beyonce piece, or Steve Reich doing Radiohead? X

    1. Yes, I couldn't stop thinking about Wolf Pack whilst I wrote this post. But because of its grounding in high art, and also more conceptual performance art, it feels far removed from crossover for me. It's a subtler thing, I think. I agree that some can be quite good – I have heard both the Turnage and the Reich and although they are interesting, I feel that they do not have the clout of either of those composer's usual output. For example, Turnage's Beyonce, however well conceived and scored, leaves me a little cold – it jars somehow. Definitely a fun idea though! x

    2. P.S. Don't know much of ELO, but don't they tap into the prog-rock thing a little bit?


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