Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Symphonic Rock?

Later in the year an orchestral version of the Who’s concept album Quadrophenia will be released, on the famous classical label Deutsche Grammophon. The orchestration has been done by Pete Townshend’s partner Rachel Fuller. The Who previously ventured into this territory with the 1972 orchestral Tommy directed by Lou Reizner (which I like in parts, though some of it is just pastiche).

The Guardian report describes it in its headline as a ‘symphonic reimagining’. If you take the word ‘symphonic’ as meaning ‘played by an orchestra’ then this description fits … but only up to a point. It is a long way short of what the word ‘symphonic’ should imply. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently in connection with a book I’m writing on the symphony and contemporary attitudes to it.

Once upon a time popular music such as the Who’s was dismissed as ephemeral noise. Some bands didn’t mind that; others did. In the late 60s rock bands consciously aspired to make their music ‘art’. Sgt Pepper, the Floyd, Days of Future Passed, Tommy, prog-rock were all milestones. Since the 1990s rock critics and rock performers of that vintage have both been making bigger and bigger claims for their favoured music. Both have a vested interest in making these claims. The performers want their legacy enshrined; the critics are there to help them do it and sell books or front TV documentaries.

No-one with a broad musical knowledge and sensibility would now deny that the best popular music is of lasting value and is not a pale imitation of anything else. But the pendulum has swung so far in its direction that people are now wilfully ignoring important objective differences between styles of music. The mis-use of the word symphony or symphonic is the most visible sign of this. It is a kind of cultural erasure.

I’ve always liked Quadrophenia. Along with Who’s Next I think it’s probably the best thing the Who ever did. It’s timeless rock music, brilliantly written and performed. But it needs to be praised on its own terms. It is not – as one writer on the band claimed – Pete Townshend’s version of Debussy’s La Mer! You simply cannot compare a double album of short verse/chorus rock songs with extended orchestral music – especially a symphony – a work which has an immense amount of small and large scale musical detail and argument, a rich harmonic vocabulary,  and relatively little repetition. This is often made painfully clear whenever rock songs are arranged for orchestra. The result is often bad rock and bad classical. There is usually not enough harmony or melodic idea in the song progressions to turn into an orchestral texture – not without writing new music.

It will be interesting to hear what this new version achieves. But lets see if any critics have the courage to question its approach. Often symphonic rock as it is called comes over as far more pompous than a rock band. The pomposity springs largely from the discrepancy between the nature of the musical material and what is playing it.

Apparently the famous tenor Alfie Boe is handling all the vocals. He is quoted as saying, “[Quadrophenia] is in my blood … I wouldn’t separate [this music] from a symphony by Beethoven or Mozart.” Well, I’m sorry Alfie, but I would, and it is a fundamental descriptive mistake to imply that kind of equivalence.

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2 responses

  1. I went to see The Iron Man in West London in 1993. It didn’t come across as a piece of theatre and the theatre purists I went with hated it. On a separate note: am learning American Pie – drudgery!

    February 12, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    • Hello Dan, thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you aren’t enjoying ‘American Pie’. The free time on the intro is tricky to play along with but okay if you are playing it on your own. Your comment about ‘purists’ was interesting. It made me reflect on how the word only works to make a comparison within a genre. There are purists within the symphony tradition who argue that it should never have texts sung in it, or it should always use sonata form, etc, etc, – there are many such points. But one couldn’t make a purist argument comparing a symphony to an opera. In the case of Quadrophenia the forms are too different, even if it is orchestrated. I haven’t ever investigated Townshend’s Iron Man. His career has been much characterised by the reaching for some larger form or statement than offered by the short rock song.

      February 13, 2015 at 12:59 pm

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