09 July 2011

Vinyl Memories: The Baroque Beatles Book

Many years ago, in some high-school class or other—World History, maybe—we had a guest presentation by an art teacher of four centuries or so of Western Art—slides and music, as I recall, depicting painting and sculpture while accompanied by examples of music from the various eras—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and so on.

One bit that cracked me up was a piece selected for the Baroque section. Although it sounded as if it ought to be something by (say) Bach, it was actually a sort of orchestral fanfare version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I asked the guest presenter about it when the question-and-answer session came, and he said it was from something called The Baroque Beatles Book by Joshua Rifkin. I didn’t say this, but I thought it was kind of a clever idea, using a familiar tune to illustrate the peculiarities of the era’s music, but that illusion was immediately shattered when a girl in my class raised her hand to ask what on earth did that piece have to do with the Beatles or “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? as she at least saw no similarity between them. Several others appeared to agree with that assessment, and the class went on.

This is an example of what I would have called a “travesty” at the time—though my Latin teacher said there was no such literary genre, pointed out that travesty and transvestite were from the same roots, and traced the components back to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. But I digress. “Travesty”—a change of clothes—dressing one subject in the style of another. It’s an old sport. It can be done for humorous effect, as with the eighteenth-century Hamlet Travestie (which took aim as much at contemporary Shakespeare scholarship as at Shakespeare himself), or seriously, as with the Duke Ellington versions of suites by Tchaikovsky and Grieg. Rifkin’s effort was somewhere in between, as indicated by his own notes: “We were absolutely crazy about this music,” he observed, meaning the Lennon-McCartney compositions. “Even if we had fun with it, it was fun with it in a way that was taking it seriously, giving it its due.”

I recently dug up my old copy of the record and listened to it again. My current system (essentially my computer) sucks, but it was still enjoyable. The liner notes, supposedly written by a Baroque musician looking for patronage, are at least mildly amusing:
I have also written, for your splendid court festivities—to which your unworthy servant hopes that he may be invited—a festive cantata, beginning with the words and melody of Please Please Me (your Lordship will remember how you sang it to me with a most melodious voice while we played croquet that afternoon, I still limp from the broken leg I suffered when you, justly displeased with my insolent correction of the way you sang the second half of the melody—how like an upstart of me to suggest to you that it was in the major mode—properly struck me).
About the same time I heard three Indian musicians do a version of “Greensleeves” featuring a sarod. That was memorable too, but it wasn’t recorded, and I can’t revisit it

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