When one thinks of Deep Purple, classical music probably isn’t the first genre which comes to mind. On its surface, failing to connect the world’s loudest band, known for smashing guitars and “Smoke on the Water”, with classical music is hardly a failing.
That being said, the band has always enjoyed a strong connection to the classical tradition. The two longest-tenured guitarists and both of the band’s keyboardists have all had some amount of classical training ranging from a smattering of lessons to experience at a conservatory, leaving the group’s music heavily influenced by the Western Classical canon.
This connection is prevalent and most easy to pick out on the first two albums of the band’s first lineup, when four songs the band covered also were augmented by quotes from classical music. These quotes ranged from the well-known to the slightly more obscure, from thematically dissimilar to very similar. I will discuss them all here.
“Prelude: Happiness/I’m so Glad”
Deep Purple were not the first rock band to cover “I’m So Glad”, originally a Delta Blues song sung by Skip James. Cream had already covered it in 1968. Despite James’ own dislike of the Cream cover, it was their version which Purple followed fairly closely. In fact, probably the two biggest distinguishing factors between the two are the presence of a hammond organ and the inclusion of a classical prelude.
The quotes come from one of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s most beloved works, Scheherazade. Rimsky-Korsakov’s work tells of the princess Scheherazade, the famed story teller who spent a thousand and one nights telling her sultan husband stories and leaving them on cliffhangers to keep herself alive.
The prelude and postlude to this song is built upon two motifs from the work. The first, “E — B — D — C – B – C — G — Bb — F#” is typically associated with the sultan. This motif begins both the first and fourth movements, and shows up in the second. Jon Lord takes this motif on the Hammond, playing it exactly as it is first performed in the piece down to the key. The second motif begins with “B – C# – D – C# E D C# B” and comes largely from the second movement of Sheherazade, “The Kalendar Prince”, though it gets a reprise in the final movement.
It’s hard to find thematic comparison between the main song and the classical quote tacked on. Perhaps Lord was simply experimenting with similar sounds, resulting in this combination.
This cover, a song most famously rendered by Jimmy Hendrix (though that was also a cover), features probably the closest thematic linking between the classical quote and the song itself. “Hey Joe” tells the story of a man’s planned violent response to his lover’s infidelity and intent to escape afterwards.
The classical quote, meanwhile, comes from Manuel De Falla’s ballet The Three Cornered Hat. Specifically, it is “The Miller’s Dance”, a number for the ballet’s protagonist.
The Three-Cornered Hat also deals with issues of fidelity, though with a far happier outcome for the protagonist. When the miller’s wife receives unwanted attention from a corrupt local magistrate, the two working-class heroes pull a Marriage of Figaro-style prank on him, all the while remaining loyal to and trusting in one another. This particular quote is most closely interwoven with the body of the song of the four I analyze here.
Combining a quote from a work about a successful marriage with a song about a couple whose story ends in tragedy, both of which revolve around the issue of loyalty, is one of Deep Purple’s most ironic moments. It is perhaps only surpassed by the fact they chose to cover the next song on this list.
“Exposition/We Can Work It Out”
“We Can Work It Out” was the second Beatles tune the band covered after the general success of the cover of “Help” on Shades of Deep Purple. This is the only cover which featured not one, but two different classical quotes tacked on at the beginning. The first is the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This is the most famous portion of that symphony, and has shown up in multiple movies, often in a mournful context. The most famous example I can think of is The King’s Speech, where it offsets the gravity of the Second World War, the calamity that King George VI must reassure his people that they can overcome.
Before switching to the Beatles cover, the group brought in a slightly quicker classical quote, a portion from the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
These two songs, one featuring a very mournful tone and the other about a pair of doomed lovers, subtly undercut the original version of the song’s upbeat tone about potential success in settling differences. All of these combined presage the band’s own difficulty in matters of interpersonal conflict. Less than a year after this cover came out, the first lineup had gone up in smoke, and internal strife between members in following lineups was the norm for the following twenty-five years. It seems, therefore, that this band definitively could not work it out. Please hold for groans before continuing on to the final number.
“River Deep, Mountain High”
The last studio record with which Deep Purple included a classical quote was their rousing cover of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”, the number that closed out The Book of Taliesyn.
The number they chose, the “Sunrise” portion of Also Sprach Zarathustra. At the time, the piece was enjoying a cultural moment, having provided the backing to pivotal scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released about two weeks before Deep Purple themselves debuted onstage in 1968. The tonic – dominant – tonic motion of the scale (C4 – G4 – C5 in the original piece, E4 – B4 – E5 as transposed by Lord for this cover) creates a feeling of grand anticipation and immediately captures listeners’ ears.
Not only does this build up the expectation around the impending song, it also resembles the primary progression of the chorus (“Oh I love you, my oh my / river deep, mountain high”…), which is built in this version on a similar motion of F#3 – A3 – D4, G#3 – B3 -E4, (transposed from the original, which is C4 – Eb4 – Ab4, D4 – F4 – Bb4). Altogether, this closes out The Book of Taliesyn on a very high, exciting note.
Postscript: A Few More Classical Quotes
“River Deep, Mountain High” was the last song I can think of to feature such blatant quotations of classical music within Deep Purple’s canon, but the band’s relationship to the classical world remained quite strong. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore famously covered a portion of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the title track of Difficult To Cure with the next band he was involved with, Rainbow. Rainbow also created “Weiss Heim” at the time, which featured a classical quote from the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria in the keyboard section. Blackmore would also sometimes add short quotations from pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach in his stage solos.
Keyboardist Jon Lord sprinkled his solos throughout the years with classical music as well. In the early days, he seemed to favor a motif from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, better known as the “New World Symphony”, when playing. Later on, a common inclusion was “Für Elise”, by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Newer recruits to the group have kept this legacy of quotation alive. Specifically, I am talking about keyboardist Don Airey, who was incidentally featured in both the above Rainbow numbers. Airey brings in all sorts of classical music into his solos, sticking region-specific quotes in when in different areas, including Rhapsody in Blue when in the Northeastern United States, The Moldau when in the Czech Republic, and Finlandia when in Finland.
Note: This article also appears on Medium.com here, but was published on this site first.
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