Baroque and Beatles

October 2004

Program Notes

 Toccata & Fugue in D minor

J.S. Bach (1685-1750), arr. Burke

 Ticket to Ride

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Alexander L’Estrange

*   *   *   *   *

 Si jamais mon âme blessée

Pierre Guédron (c. 1565-1620), arr. J. Miller

 Penny Lane    

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Jonathan Rathbone

*   *   *   *   *

 Resta di darmi noia

Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613)

George Harrison, arr. by Jim Hale

*   *   *   *   *

 Hear my prayer, O Lord

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

 Eleanor Rigby

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Paul Hart

*   *   *   *   *

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Got to get you into my life

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Paul Crabtree


 Ahi, dolente partita

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

 Norwegian Wood

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Kevin Olson

*   *   *   *   *

 "When I am laid in earth" (Dido's lament) from Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell, arr. J. Miller

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Daryl Runswick

*   *   *   *   *

 Si, ch’io vorrei morire

Claudio Monteverdi
 Drive my car

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Simon Lesley


I created this concert because I wanted to showcase the ways in which two phenomenal developments in our musical heritage—the expressive ways of Baroque music and the singular talents of the Beatles—have made our lives richer. Both the Baroque composers, of the period 1600-1750, and the Beatles, working in the compressed, intense decade of the 1960s, gave us new ways of hearing, of singing about feeling, and of organizing sound. It was in the 17th century that what we now call “tonal harmony” came to be solidified. Likewise, it was in the 1960s that the phenomenon of the studio musician—one working primarily for the purpose of making recordings—came into being, most prominently through the efforts of the Beatles. I also wanted to embrace the heady challenge of performing music from these years of genius with our nine voices alone. Thus, “Baroque and Beatles”!

This concert could not have existed 75 years ago, for the obvious reason that the Beatles did not yet exist. However, there’s another reason, which to my historian’s mind is more interesting. The issue is one of language, and of the way we put music into historical pigeonholes. (I am indebted to Claude Palisca’s writings on Baroque music for much of what follows about how we use the term “baroque.”)

Here’s a question for you: What is “baroque music,” anyway? Certainly nobody stood up in 1600 and said, “Okay, now the Baroque begins,” or declared in 1750, “The Baroque Period is now over,” since the term would have meant nothing to people then in terms of music’s history.

Until rather recently, the word baroque meant “excessively fussy” in the English language. From the 1770s to the early 1900s, it wasn’t much of a compliment to say that something was baroque. Most people who used the term did so in reference to visual art or architecture, not music. “Baroque” connoted an overindulgent sense of ornament, where filigree-like details obscured the cleanliness of line, in a sense similar to the word “rococo.”

Since art history has been around for much longer than musicology, art historians have had a head start on the “periodization” of art. They have sorted Western visual art into various time-blocks that embrace large trends in technique. One of the earliest music historians, Ambros, writing in 1882, discussed the 17th century’s barrocco painting and architecture, a term meaning “rough or irregular.” While Jacob Burkhardt used the word Barockstyl to describe the decadent visual art forms after Michelangelo, it was art historian Heinrich Wölfflin who suggested (also in 1882, in the book Renaissance und Barock) that the basic principles of 17th-century visual art might also be applied to music.

The renowned musicologist Curt Sachs took this idea to heart and argued forcefully in 1919 that Wölfflin’s ideas really did work for music. A heated debate followed, which persisted for the next generation. However, Paul Henry Lang and Mafnred Bukofzer, working and writing here in America during the 1940s, simply gave the term “Baroque” a new meaning in English. They never really defined it, except as a broad label for what came after the “Renaissance.” British and French scholars weren’t so quick to jump on the bandwagon and argued against such a catch-all label. Yet by the 1960s, the term had enough currency to be meaningful in America—perhaps because the recording industry could use it—even if the concept never was fully clear. As a result, we now talk about “Baroque” as if it is a sufficient label for music composed roughly between 1600 and 1750.

So what does “Music of the baroque” really mean, since we now use the term rather casually, and since one of our esteemed sister ensembles here in Chicago makes its honorable living by those words? A few important characteristics of music in this period, 1600-1750, help to clarify what happened after the Renaissance and before Haydn. These are, in brief, as follows:

•  Music was written using a thoroughbass, meaning a harmony implied by two outer voices, sometimes written out in a shorthand called “figured bass.”
•  The harmonic implications of the moving bass line are strong enough to allow for florid, free movement by the upper voice or voices, whether sung or played instrumentally.
•  Musical textures can be created on the basis of the bass’s harmonies, allowing for soloists or groups to alternate from the whole, which in turn gives possibilities for forms like concertos, accompanied solo song, and opera.

In this concert, we celebrate the work of early Baroque composers from right around 1600 (Gesualdo and Monteverdi), working our way forward into the mid-and-late 17th century (Schütz, Purcell, Louis Couperin and Guédron), and reveling in the glories of Johann Sebastian Bach. I personally find the 17th century to be full of delightful surprises, since the dance forms of the high baroque are still settling in, and composers like Purcell and Schütz frequently mold the music much more at the level of the individual word or phrase than do Bach or Handel, where the feeling is brilliantly though often more generally expressed.

To build the concert, I have mostly paired a single Baroque work with a single Beatles song, where the pieces share a feeling or mood in the text or lyrics. Sometimes the mood is contemplative, as in the pairing of Purcell’s anguished “Hear my prayer, O Lord” and “Eleanor Rigby,” where the sense of loss is palpable. The final pairing of the concert evokes, no pun intended, rather a pedal-to-the-medal mood, where Monteverdi’s lustful outburst, “Si, ch’io vorrei morire” (“Yes, I wish to die”) meets the eager, almost panting momentum of “Drive My Car.”

* * * * * * * * *

One of the biggest challenges for this concert was one I knew about from the start: first-class a cappella arrangements of Beatles tunes are hard to find. For these I have had to rely on the generous efforts of composers and arrangers who have shared their charts with Chicago a cappella, as well as the printed anthologies of Beatles tunes by the King’s Singers and the very recently published collection Ticket to Ride by the young, refurbished, now-British Swingle Singers.

The other challenge was similar to the first. Much of the a cappella Baroque music (particularly after about 1630) tends to be sacred, backward-looking, and designed to evoke an “old” feel. A concert of music like that wouldn’t be a Chicago a cappella concert! Instrumental, or at least accompanied, music was the rule of the day, with bass and keyboard instruments creating harmonic underpinnings for almost everything vocal. To make sure we had a good program of Baroque music, I have combined several pieces which were intended for all-vocal or mostly-vocal performance, such as the Gesualdo and Monteverdi madrigals and the Purcell motet, with pieces that work well in new a cappella arrangements. Returning audiences may recall the vocal-jazz Toccata and Fugue in D minor from our Rose petals concert and our WTTW-11 music video, and we’ve taken the liberty of dropping the organ part from Schütz’s double-choir Magnificat to let the voices shine through on their own.

For the Beatles arrangements, I would like to thank Jim Hale, whose “Taxman” was written for the Pacific Mozart Ensemble; the ever-inventive Paul Crabtree and our local star Kevin Olson, who each wrote a brand-new chart just for us; the Swingle Singers and King’s Singers for making their charts publicly available; and Don Gooding from Mainely A Cappella (in Maine) for helpful advice. Thanks also go to Amy Conn for help with the French air de cour. Finally, thank you for coming to hear a live concert, when there are so many other entertainment and musical options available simply by staying home. It matters greatly to us that you are here. Enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller


J. S. Bach, arr. Howard Burke: Toccata & Fugue in D minor
We begin our Baroque exploration with a brilliant all-vocal arrangement of a beloved Bach masterwork for pipe organ. The term toccata means “touched.” Calling a piece a toccata indicates the nature of instrumental improvisation, where the keys or strings are touched to create a flashy, brilliant-sounding piece. According to writers of the period, a toccata is supposed to sound as if the musician is improvising on the spot. Early masters of the toccata include Frescobaldi, his student Froberger, and Sweelinck. A toccata is typically followed by a more structured, imitative work such as a fugue or motet.

The arrangement is by Howard Burke, who attended the University of Illinois and Berklee College of Music in Boston. He was a member of the original Vocal Summit that included Bobby McFerrin. The opening notes are familiar from a number of settings, including the 1940s Disney movie Fantasia, which featured a pre-psychedelic vision of nature as inspired by Bach’s magnificent music.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Alexander L’Estrange: Ticket to Ride
Music critic Tim Riley calls Ringo’s lopsided, somewhat agitated drum beat—almost a triplet, but not quite—the defining feature of Ticket to Ride. In Alexander L'Estrange's version, the mood is less agitated and more wistful, taking its cue from the opening words, "I think I'm gonna be sad." He softens that lopsided rhythm, breaking up the original guitar licks into the four women's voice parts, where they become gently rolled chords. The arranger also extends some of the phrase lengths, making the song's sense of yearning especially pronounced.

Guédron: Si jamais mon me blessée
This beautiful lute-song comes from the French airs de cour repertoire. Like the first two Baroque pieces on tonight’s program, we have adapted an instrumental part for our all-vocal forces. The stunning soprano solo line remains unchanged, with contours that recall the lovely, sad Parisian chansons of the mid-16th century. The lute part has been moved to a bass voice, rolling chords as a lute player would do.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Jonathan Rathbone: Penny Lane
Jonathan Rathbone was a member of the Swingle Singers for many years and was a key figure in their Bach Hits Back album. Here he steps out with a Beatles cover, in which he shows his skill at voicing and jazz harmonies. The chart completely immerses itself in the cool, controlled world that Paul McCartney created in his musical reminiscence of Penny Lane. Rathbone substitutes a horn-section scat for the final verse, completely omitting the words “And though she feels as if she’s in a play/She is anyway.” It seems that he is counting on each of us to keep the original tune “Penny Lane” in our ears and in our eyes, as we hear the original words while hearing a new texture and harmony.

Gesualdo: Resta di darmi noia
Gesualdo, prince of Venosa, achieved his first notoriety by murdering his adulterous wife and her lover. Prior to this event, his passionate interest in vocal music had been kept hidden, and he had published his first set of madrigals under a pseudonym. After the scandal exposed his musical interests, he married a noble lady from Ferrara. This allowed him to spend much of 1594 there, where he drank in the local musical scene, had more music published, and met the brilliant composer Luzzaschi. A year later, Gesualdo took Ferrarese musicians back to his castle in an attempt to replicate a high-art court culture.

This piece comes from his sixth book of madrigals for five voices. In general, Gesualdo, following Luzzaschi, flamboyantly displays his cleverness and desire for complexity. Unlike Monteverdi, Gesualdo insists on discrete presentation of the poem; he rarely has two different poetic ideas overlap or be sung at the same time. Every new poetic image has a completely new musical dress, from the jarringly chromatic opening to the imitative middle section. While some musicologists have over-interpreted his harmonies as a harbinger of emerging tonality, Gesualdo was at his core a melancholy recluse, and his music primarily a reflection of his quirky personality and rejection of society.

George Harrison, arr. Jim Hale: Taxman
The opening cut on the Revolver album (August 1966), this song contained some of the Beatles’ most sneering social commentary to date. It’s a brilliant, edgy tune, one of George Harrison’s best. The relentless bass line (a lick which George doubled on guitar) gives the sense that taxation is neverending and ruthless. The song’s F-chords contain both A-flat and A-natural, so it’s hard to tell if the piece is major or minor, and it’s mostly just disturbing. This arrangement was created in 2003 by Jim Hale for the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, an East Bay-area chorus. Of particular note are a few added luxury items to tax, as well as the mention of today’s federal reserve chair and president.

Henry Purcell: Hear my prayer, O Lord
Purcell, the towering figure of English Baroque music in the late 17th century, wrote this heart-wrenching anthem around 1682. The only surviving source containing the piece is Fitzwilliam Museum MS 88. A blank space is left there, suggesting that Purcell would extend the piece with further movements, but he never seems to have done so. The words resemble many of the Psalms (such as the opening of Psalm 5). Purcell treats each line with exquisite care, altering the pitch slightly to make each chord work both musically and dramatically. Here he demonstrates much of the intensity and technical control that make Dido’s lament, sung later in this concert, so successful.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Paul Hart: Eleanor Rigby
The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 after their concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. With the Revolver album, including this tune, they made the decisive turn to thinking of themselves primarily as recording artists. New combinations of instruments in the studio made a piece like this possible, which featured a string octet in its original form.

Paul Hart is a British arranger and composer, well known for his work with choirs, jazz ensembles, and combinations of the two. This setting, created for the King’s Singers, masterfully weaves the cello line throughout the six voice parts, extending and overlapping phrases to give the song a more contemplative and somewhat less tragic tone than McCartney’s original. Hart also adds new minor seventh chords, taking the piece slightly in the direction of jazz. A deft turn from E minor to C-sharp minor combines with a low, dense texture at the end, concluding with a solemn unison on the final note.

Heinrich Schütz: Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (Deutsches Magnificat), SWV 494
Heinrich Schütz was the leading German composer in the 17th century and the first of international stature. He was a towering figure both musically and intellectually, shaping German church music for the next 250 years.

Throughout his life, Schütz strove to make the words in his music as clear and well-expressed as possible. This piece is one of his latest works, written out in partbooks and bound with a printed title page in 1671. The double-choir work was intended to be sung in the court chapel of Johann Georg II, elector of Saxony. Almost all word-painting is stripped bare, leaving a joyful declamation of Mary’s prayer, which she made upon learning the news that she was to bear Jesus.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Paul Crabtree: Got to get you into my life
Another chart from Revolver, this tune combines the best influences on the Beatles to date: R&B, Motown, and straight-ahead pop. Paul Crabtree created this arrangement for Chicago a cappella. He perfectly captures the song’s urgency and its pulsing, tight brass chords.


Monteverdi: Ahi, dolente partita
Claudio Monteverdi’s music represents in many ways the first full flowering of the Baroque sensibility. He wrote four books of a cappella madrigals early in his career, later writing vocal works with basso continuo and others with instrumental obbligato. A master of opera, he also wrote stunning melodies for solo voice with continuo; his final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, is the finest example of the genre in the early 17th century. Monteverdi’s expressive drive was strong—so much so that he annoyed conservative music theorists of his time, who complained that he did not properly prepare his dissonances. (Monteverdi seems to have had the last laugh.)

Ahi, dolente partitacomes from the fourth book of madrigals for five voices. The two high soprano lines take each others’ melodies, spinning out lovely chained suspensions, while the overall downward direction of the melodies signifies the sadness of parting. Monteverdi sets here the poetry of Guarini, whose Il Pastor Fido was the runaway hit of the late Renaissance in Italy. Musicologist Susan McClary rightly cautions that “it takes a leap of faith to accept a five-voice ensemble as reproducing the swooning of a single individual,” but Monteverdi layers the poem upon itself with skill and grace, allowing the poem to literally resonate, to re-sound, as the various voices sing Guarini’s poem in turn.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Kevin Olson: Norwegian Wood
Another song of loss, Norwegian Wood is more wryly reflective, and less histrionic, than Ahi, dolente partita. Though John Lennon reportedly wrote this song about an actual extramarital affair, the song is more universal than that in the way it evokes being rejected and feeling bitter. Kevin Olson, a professor of music at Elmhurst College, has created this uptempo, funk setting of Norwegian Wood specifically for Chicago a cappella. The piece throws both the hopeful/erotic and cynical sections of the piece into sharp relief.

Olson blows away the original conception of the song in two ways. First, he stretches the time-frame of the A-section into 4/4, not the triple-time waltz of Lennon’s original. (As a result, by the time the triple-time section does appear, it actually seems more mocking than in the original.) Second, he moves the harmonic palette firmly into the vocal-jazz idiom, with 9th chords almost throughout. These are complex harmonies that the Beatles themselves hadn’t used since George Harrison penned Taxman.

Purcell: Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas
A recent critic has deemed this song “one of the greatest moments in all of Baroque music.” At the end of Purcell’s semi-opera Dido and Aeneas, the queen Dido sings to her handmaid Belinda. Although Dido’s death precipitated the fall of Carthage, a truly monumental event, she sings in more modest scope at first.  The string parts and continuo are sung here by ensemble voices, under Dido’s dramatic soprano. The opera closes with the chorus returning to reflect on Dido’s death, and to offer comfort.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Daryl Runswick: Blackbird
One of the best-loved Beatles songs, Blackbird comes from the White Album, released in November 1968. This setting was done for the King’s Singers by Daryl Runswick, now Head of the Composition Faculty at Trinity College of Music in London. He is tenor singer and resident composer with the pioneering vocal group Electric Phoenix and an improvising solo pianist.

Monteverdi: Si, ch’io vorrei morire
Monteverdi shows us another side of his musical and poetical sensibilities here. This poem is more forward, more direct, and more eager in its passion than his madrigal from earlier on our program. In the poetry of the time, “dying” was a thinly veiled metaphor for sexual ecstasy.

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Simon Lesley: Drive My Car
On the British version of the Rubber Soul album, this song was the first track on the first side. Even though Capitol Records in the USA robbed the tune of its leading position by moving the tracks around, it still jumps off the album, announcing that these young songwriters are a little more worldly than in She Loves You or even Can’t Buy Me Love.

The arrangement by Simon Lesley highlights three things of note. First, Lesley adds a car-noise introduction, hinting through these rumblings of excitement that there is more to come. He then puts Ringo’s terrific drum fills into the intense baritone part, which we have staffed with two singers to give the percussion the punch it needs. Finally, Lesley takes the line “and maybe I love you” and gives it to the women in four parts, in a seductive texture reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. Music critic Tim Riley comments that the Beatles’ original “has the smooth bravado of a Jack Nicholson performance, grinning on the surface with wheels spinning like mad underneath.” This new a cappella chart encourages us to remember our beloved cars—powerful symbols of American culture in the 1960s—and all that they do, and don’t, accomplish for us.