If I were to say the phrase cover tune to you, what would come to mind? In all likelihood, you would think of modern music and, in particular, the history of rock n’ roll which is replete with examples of singers and bands “covering” music that was originally written and performed by others. In fact there are many examples of local bands who thrive by exclusively covering the music of one band, such as The Practically Hip who, as you may guess, play non-stop Tragically Hip songs in concert. This makes the cover song a time-honoured tradition in modern music. As one would expect, there have been instances when an artist covering a popular tune does a tremendous job, just as there have been some really bad mash-ups, as well. One of the best instances of a cover song being done well is particularly relevant to today’s post. That was the time that the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, did his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”.
“Hurt” was originally written by the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor. The song is about drug use and depression and survival. It is moody and atmospheric and stands as one of Reznor’s most beloved and recognizable songs. “Hurt” was released in 1994 and is regarded as one of the all-time greatest songs in Alternative music history. In addition, the live video of “Hurt” that was filmed at Woodstock in 1995, against the backdrop of disturbing onscreen images, is easily one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s. Personally, I have always loved the way Trent Reznor sings this song. It is the perfect mix of substantive content and performative theatricality, coming as it did from Reznor’s soul at a time when he was living in the very same house in Los Angeles that actress Sharon Tate had been murdered in by Charles Manson’s followers. Reznor often called “Hurt” a valentine for the sufferer. Proof that the Nine Inch Nails version of this song is a classic can be seen in the fact that “Hurt” was rarely, if ever, covered by another musician of note. The reason for that is simple: how is it possible to cover a song and make it your own when it already exists in its definitive form? That was the thinking that still existed when it was announced that a musician of note was actually going to cover “Hurt” for his upcoming album. That musician of note turned out to be Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was approaching the end of his life when he recorded his cover of “Hurt”. He had been working on an album of cover songs with famed producer Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who suggested to Cash that he take a run at “Hurt”. Rubin felt that there was just something within the anguish that permeated Trent Reznor’s lyrics that might find purchase in Johnny Cash’s lived experiences. At first, Cash was reluctant to try a song that was so far from his musical roots. He was afraid of publishing something that might end up more akin to parody than compliment. But Rubin asked him to trust him and give the song a try. Cash finally agreed. The one change that was made was to pare the core of the musical structure down and move it from electric keyboard to a standard piano. Members of Tom Petty’s back up band, The Heartbreakers, played with Johnny Cash on “Hurt”. When the track was finished, everyone who heard immediately knew that Cash had reached within himself and had laid his soul within Reznor’s very personal lyrics. When the video was created for this new cover version, “Hurt” played like the story of Johnny Cash’s life. It was an absolute masterpiece. Many call the Johnny Cash video for “Hurt” as being the best music video ever made. When Trent Reznor heard Cash’s version of his song, he felt a range of emotions, the core of which felt invasive. Reznor is quoted as saying, “Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend”. That someone else could take such a personal song and completely reinterpret it was as stunning to Reznor as it was to the rest of the world. As Reznor glumly said, “The song wasn’t mine anymore”.
To read this post thus far, one would have the impression that cover tunes are more of a modern phenomenon in the world of music. But, did you know that one of the very first popular cover versions occurred almost one hundred and fifty years ago? In the late 1720s, German composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed a series of four orchestral suiteswhich were designed to accompany courtly dances. The style of suite that Bach created was very popular in Germany and France at the time. The most well received of these suites was “Suite #3 in D Major”. This suite was made up of five distinct parts, of which “Air in D Major” was the second part. In this particular case, the term “Air” does not mean oxygen and blue skies. Instead, it refers to a style of instrumental music that acts in the same capacity as an operatic aria does. Bach’s “Air in D Major” became the most recognizable portion of the five-part suite and has lived on in history as a stand-alone classical music piece that is often played at formal events such as weddings and graduations. In fact, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air in D Major” is regarded as one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. I guarantee you that even if you don’t recognize the title of this composition, you will recognize the music when it is played from the very first notes.
Just as was the case with Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt”, Johann Sebastian Bach’s version of “Air in D Major” was regarded as the definitive version of that composition. If other orchestras dared to play it publicly, they did so by faithfully reproducing what Bach had created, note for note. That was until a violin teacher named August Wilhelmj came along in 1871 and viewed Bach’s composition with fresh eyes. Just as Rick Rubin tweaked “Hurt” by changing from electric keyboard to standard piano for Johnny Cash, Wilhelmj changed Bach’s “Air” from D Major to C. This simple change made the playing of the “Air” much easier because all of the violinists could now play the entire piece on the lowest string on their violin which was the G string. Wilhelmj’s “Air on a G String” is a slight variation on Bach’s original version, but because it was so much easier to play, it has become the version that is most commonly associated with this piece of music today. Consequently, if you are ever at a gathering that features orchestral music being played and you hear “Air” begin, chances are that you are actually listening to the oldest cover tune in the world and not Bach’s original version. A classical cover tune! Who knew?! Now you do.
The link to the video for the song “Hurt” by Trent Reznor can be found here.
The link to the video for the cover version of the song “Hurt” by Johnny Cash can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air in D Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air on a G String” by August Wilhelmj can be found here.
The link to the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum can be found here.
If there is one lesson that I can take after 30 years of being an elementary school teacher it is the fact that there is no one carved-in-stone method of teaching children that works for everyone. The learning styles possessed by the children who inhabited the classrooms I worked in were as varied as their hair colours, their favourite hobbies or the content of their lunches each day. They truly each are their own person. Yet, there is this seemingly endless desire to streamline and standardize education. Without going off on a huge tangent about it, just let me say that today’s post begins and ends with a story about how children learn. It involves one of the craziest things I was ever involved with as an educator. It is also the story of one of the world’s great modern pianists, Glenn Gould, and the music he would popularize and become famous for. This is the story of The Goldberg Variations. Let us begin.
About halfway through my career as a teacher I found myself working at a brand new elementary school in Bowmanville, Ontario. At the time that this story takes place, the school had been open for about five years. We had a student population of 800 or so from kindergarten to grade 8. The school drew its students from a community that most would consider to be solidly middle class. Many of the students played in sports leagues, took ballet, went on annual vacations, spent time at cottages and so on. All in all, the school community was wonderful to work with and I enjoyed my time there. As a staff we got along fairly well. We enjoyed being part of this new school community. So, imagine how we felt when we were told at a staff meeting one day that we had been chosen to participate in a pilot project about improving student success. The basis of this project was our school’s standardized test score results. In Ontario, grade 3 and 6 students write a series of standardized tests in the spring of each year. Without debating the merits of standardized test scores and the ability to draw any meaningful conclusions from them, our scores had been deemed to be stagnant. They were neither good nor worrisome. Our scores were average and had stayed basically the same. The powers that be wanted to conduct an experiment to see if there was a way to boost test scores, so they did something revolutionary…they asked for our input as educators. Now I must be honest and state up front that I have absolutely no faith in standardized test scores as a measure of anything of value. I could not have cared less about our school’s test scores. I cared about my students and their families. I cared about my fellow staff members. I cared about my profession. But I did not care about twisting myself in knots with worry about standardized test scores. But, they asked for a wish list of things we thought would help our students, so away we wished. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the wish list we created at the staff meeting that day basically became the terms of the pilot project we operated under for the next year or two. We asked for time to meet as teaching teams. That wish was granted. We asked for opportunities to visit other schools where test scores were consistently strong. That wish was granted. We asked for more classroom resources to use with our own students. That wish was granted, too. In fact, a couple of staff meetings later, we were told that all teachers in the Primary Division (grades K-3) were being given $2000.00 each to spend on books for our classroom. The books we were tasked with buying were ones deemed to be rich literature. This included biographies, books about science and the arts and so on. I can honestly say that in all my years as a classroom teacher, I have never had the opportunity to go shopping on the taxpayer’s dime. It was an unprecedented opportunity and we were all excited to go and shop for our classrooms.
***I feel it is important to stop for a moment and reiterate how completely bizarre a situation this was. Never before and never afterwards have I ever had access to such a large amount of money to use for classroom resources. In all other years the more common experience was to beg and plead for $50 here or $100 there to buy new classroom supplies. In most cases, that money came from fundraising conducted from school councils. So, to be given thousands to spend on books for the classroom boggles my mind to this very day.
Off we went as a staff to a book repository in Toronto. There were ten of us who got to go on this shopping trip. The repository was run by the Ministry of Education, I believe. We entered a warehouse sized room that was filled with book shelves, all lined with shiny new books. We were given shopping carts and told to fill the carts up with whatever we felt would benefit the students we had that year in our classrooms. For hours we walked up and down the rows of shelves. As someone who loves children’s literature, it was an intoxicating experience. After three or four hours, my cart was finally full. We proceeded toward check out stations where our purchases would be tabulated and our books packed for shipping back to our school. I remember feeling light headed when it was all said and done. To this day, I cannot say whether or not that pilot project made any impact on the test scores of that school ( and I couldn’t care less, to be honest). But what I do know is that all of our students benefited from the injection of so many pieces of quality literature that we acquired that day. Many of these books were ones that I may not have purchased on my own due to their price tag or subject matter (which I may have viewed as being more of a want than a need). But I got to share these books with my students regardless and that was the important thing that came out of this exercise. One of the books that I acquired that day was called The Goldberg Variations by Anna Harwell Celenza. It came with an audio CD of the actual Goldberg Variations that I was able to play in class and discuss with the kids. I guess this is what they meant by the term rich literature.
The Goldberg Variations was a suite of music composed by famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The story of their creation is that Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer, but he was also a teacher. Like many composers of his time, he earned much of his income as a result of offering instruction in music to students who were sponsored by members of the aristocracy. One such patron was a man named Count Keyserlingk. Whenever he happened to be passing through Leipzig (where Bach lived), Count Keyserlingk would bring along a student named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for lessons. At one such session, Count Keyserlingk confessed to Bach that he was suffering from insomnia and that the only thing bringing him peace was having young Goldberg (who was in the Count’s employ) play for him on the harpsichord in the wee hours of the morning. Count Keyserlingk commissioned from Bach a piece of music that Goldberg might play for him at home. Bach agreed and ended up creating a composition that was based upon contrapunctual variations. Because these variations were created with the skill set of young Goldberg in mind, they became known as Goldberg’s Variations or, as they are known today, The Goldberg Variations. Without going into great technical detail, the key thing to know about this composition is that Johann Sebastian Bach was keenly interested in sounds. In a previous post (which you can read here), I wrote about his seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier. That series of compositions was aimed at helping keyboardists acquire perfect sound quality from their instruments regardless of where they were playing. With that in mind, The Goldberg Variations was a suite of compositions that also dealt with sounds played on a piano. This piece requires great skill and dexterity by whoever is sitting at the keyboard, and as a result is viewed as being a difficult performance composition that should only be attempted by those possessing great talent.
This brings us to Glenn Gould.
Glenn Gould was the greatest classical pianist Canada has ever produced. The only child of parents who were also musicians, Gould was raised in an environment that was filled with opportunities to explore the world of music and of sounds. By the age of three, Gould was displaying an understanding of perfect pitch. By the age of six, he was creating his own original compositions and playing them in public at his local church. By the age of ten, Gould was enrolled in the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now, the Royal Conservatory of Music) and was receiving instruction in piano that was to shape his approach to music for the rest of his life. While his parents had always believed their son possessed prodigious talent, his teacher at the Conservatory confirmed it. Gould’s time spent with teacher Alberto Guerrero instilled in him ideas and techniques that would help Gould to become famous the world over. Techniques such as pulling down on the piano keys from below (as opposed to pushing from the top) and pre-tapping the entire composition with his fingers (so as to develop a form of muscle memory which would aid in speed and dexterity while playing) were just some of the skills handed down from Guerrero to Gould. What is most important to note is that Guerrero did what all good teachers do: he tailored Gould’s learning experiences specifically in ways that best suited his student’s learning style. Glenn Gould was a child prodigy when it came to the piano. He was an eccentric personality when it came to his social interactions. Guerrero knew upon first meeting Gould that a standardized approach would not be appropriate for this student. Because of his teacher’s efforts, Glenn Gould would develop the technical skills and the personal self-confidence necessary to take on one of the greatest challenges a classical pianist can accept…The Goldberg Variations.
When Gould was first signed to a recording contract at age 22, he was taken to New York City to record the album. Record company executives expected Gould to choose relatively simple compositions to record because he was so young and so inexperienced at performing in public. When Gould told them that he was preparing to play The Goldberg Variations for his debut album, they were aghast and attempted to dissuade him. However, Glenn Gould was determined. The record was completed in only four days. Executives at Columbia Records were stunned. Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations has gone on to sell over five million copies worldwide, making it the best selling classical music album in history. To support this new album, Glenn Gould toured the world. However, the experience of performing to large audiences on the world’s biggest stages caused Gould to sour on the idea of performing in public. He felt that the need to “put on a show” detracted from his ability to delve into the deepest reaches of each composition. Consequently, after less than a decade of playing in public, Glenn Gould retired and spent the remainder of his days as a studio-only musician. What is noteworthy about this decision is that it placed Gould in a position that Johann Sebastian Bach would have envied. As it turned out, Glenn Gould was as enamoured of sounds as Bach was. By eliminating extraneous distractions such as performing in public, Gould was able to focus his mind on the nature of sounds in a controlled studio environment. In the 1950s, long before The Beatles and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys changed the nature of Rock n’ Roll by retreating to the studio and altering how sounds were used in their music, Glenn Gould was doing the same thing in his studio in Toronto. By splicing segments of audio tape together from various recordings, Gould was one of the first people to isolate tracks during recording sessions and reassemble them into a multi-layered soundscape. In fact, just before his death at age fifty, Gould re-recorded the entire length of his Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations album, slowing it down and giving it a depth and breadth of sound that was unprecedented in classical music history.
Glenn Gould didn’t fit any mold. He was as unique as it was possible to be. Genius is like that. After his death, Gould was immortalized in bronze in a statue created by sculptor Ruth Abernethy that sits in front of the CBC broadcasting building in Toronto. In that sculpture, Gould is bundled up in a coat and hat as if he was anticipating it to be a blustery winter’s day. The truth was that Gould was always cold. He wore that same coat and hat when he performed once in Florida. At that performance, Gould was almost arrested for vagrancy by police because he looked so out of place, bundled up as he was in the Florida sunshine. Genius is like that, too. One of the warmest memories about him that was shared at the time of his death was how he would show up each morning between 2:00-3:00 at an all-day diner named Fran’s and eat scrambled eggs. Gould always came alone. He always sat in the same booth. He always ate the same meal. Genius is like that, too, I suppose.
In many ways, Glenn Gould shared much in common with his hero Johann Sebastian Bach. His fascination with all aspects of sound being the most obvious. I don’t believe that it was by fluke that Gould was drawn to The Goldberg Variations as a young man. It is almost as if Bach was speaking to Gould from beyond the grave with this composition. With its emphasis on sound creation and its origin as something to be experienced in the wee hours of the morning, The Goldberg Variations was the composition that helped connect Bach to the modern world. The only difference was that the instrument of this connection was not a young man named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, it was a young Canadian named Glenn Gould. Perhaps if Count Keyserlingk had enjoyed some scrambled eggs during his late night concerts, he would have found the peace he was looking for. All that I know is that the most important aspect of being a teacher is coming to truly know the students under your care. The second most important aspect of being a teacher is acting upon that information and creating a learning space best suited for them to thrive. That was always my goal throughout my career. That was Mr. Guerrero’s goal with a young Glenn Gould. It was Bach’s goal with a young Goldberg. Unlike many works which, if I was being honest, are just music to me, I find that The Goldberg Variations reaches into the very core of my being. While I didn’t really need that educational shopping spree which brought The Goldberg Variations book into my possession, I am extremely glad I did get to go. That story says everything to me about being a teacher and about helping my students become the best version of themselves that they were meant to be. What an honour to have been able to do that for someone for all those years. For much of my life I have felt like I was the right person in the right place at the right time. Sometimes that is the result of luck. Sometimes it is something more. Even though it is not the middle of the night, I suddenly have a craving for scrambled eggs.
The link to the video for the composition “The Goldberg Variations” as performed by Glen Gould can be found here.
The link to the official website for Glenn Gould can be found here.
The link to my hometown classical music station…Classical 103.1…streaming from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada to the world can be found here.
In order to appreciate the magnitude of what The Well-Tempered Clavier represents, we must first spend a few moments discussing the concept of language. Whether we are examining the minute aspects of our oral conversations or the words, letters and punctuation that make up what you see on the screen before you or the notes that you hear when you listen to music, in essence what we are describing is language. If you were to pare the term “language” down to its most basic meaning, you would say that language is a system that organizes sounds and ascribes meaning to those sounds in ways that we can appreciate and understand. For example, as children grow up, they are inundated with sounds. We sing, we speak and we make nonsense sounds to them all in the hope that one day we will be able to communicate with them easily and effectively so that we both can understand each other perfectly. Learning to communicate and become a literate human being is one of the grandest accomplishments in all of human existence, and it is all made possible because we, as humans, value the importance of sounds. It is also possible because, over time, our spoken sounds have evolved into words which, in turn, have become organized and assigned meanings which we all accept and understand. This organization of words in vehicles such as dictionaries allows there to be a standardized way of approaching language when used in the form of words. From this standardized organization of words comes everything from the glorious language of Shakespeare to the minimalist language of texting.
But one of the most important aspects of accepting the notion that something like music can be thought of as language, too, is that language is not restricted to mere words. Language is an organized approach to understanding and using sounds in ways that convey meaning and emotion. The language of reading this post may be words and punctuation. The language of music can be found in tones and notes and tempos. One need only to think of the theme music to the movie Jaws to understand how much emotion and understanding can be conveyed via the proper arrangement of tones and notes and chords. So today we are going to spend some time talking about one of the single most important and influential “books” ever created in the world of music. That “book” or guide is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Follow along as we discover how Bach organized sound for the world of music just as people like Samuel Johnson organized words in dictionaries.
Johann Sebastian Bach grew up in the 1700s. He was the youngest of ten children in his family. By the time he turned ten, both his mother and father had passed away. With no parental figure to look after him, young Johann was taken in by his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was already a man by the time his youngest brother came to stay with him. The eldest Bach son worked as a church organist and spent much time exposing Johann Sebastian to the music that was played in churches at the time, as well as instructing him in matters of theology, the Arts and Sciences, along with politics. Because Johann Sebastian Bach spent much of his formative years in church buildings and was focussed on the music played there, he developed a keen sense of sound and the acoustical qualities that these churches possessed and how that impacted the volume/tone at which his brother could most effectively play. In his spare time, young Johann copied the sheet music that his brother owned through the church and began to practice playing on various keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, the clavichord, the pianoforte and the organ. It was not too long before Johann began to earn a reputation as being a skilled player like his brother. Not only did Johann Sebastian Bach become a better player of keyboard instruments, but he found that he was becoming able to hear sounds differently, more intensively than those around him. This led Johann Sebastian Bach to start offering constructive criticism to his brother and the church choir when it came to the pitch and tone of their singing and his brother’s playing of the organ. As Johann matured into a young man in his own right, he was granted a series of increasingly important positions in churches and royal courts in the role of kapellmeister, or musical director of a church or choir. In these roles, Bach was in charge of creating his own music and performing it in ways that met his exacting specifications. In addition to his duties as kapellmeister, Bach also began to tutor music students. He was a demanding taskmaster and soon developed a reputation for helping to turn out accomplished players who were well schooled in the fundamentals of playing keyboard-based instruments. As part of his desire to help his students understand the importance of proper sound, Bach decided to create a guidebook of sorts that would codify these sounds and set a standard for anyone else that followed afterwards. This book took several years to create and became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Breaking down the title of his book, the word clavier means keyboard and refers to those instruments listed above such as the harpsichord and so on that are played with keys and/or some sort of combination of pedals and keys. The term well-tempered refers to the sound an instrument makes after it has been played for a while and is broken in as we say today. A well-tempered sound is a sound that is true and in the proper key and played with the proper tone. A well-tempered note also is dependent upon the exact instrument being used. For example, a pianoforte can exist with slight variations between it and another pianoforte based on the person or company that manufactured it. Perhaps a different form of wood was used or the hammer design was slightly altered during the manufacturing process. The end result would be a pianoforte that emitted tones that were slightly different, even though the keys and pedals being used were exactly the same. Thus, sounds not only had to be acoustically correct for the environment in which they were being played, they had to be correct for the instrument being used. Because there were so many variables in existence, Bach found the need to codify exactly what the proper sound should be for each major and minor key regardless of the instrument or performance location. So, in his guidebook, he created compositions in the form of preludes and fugues that covered all tones and scales known to the world. Specifically, he created 48 compositions that, if practiced and played well, would help the composer know how to properly tune his instrument for the setting in which they found themselves. As it turned out, The Well-Tempered Clavier was the very first attempt at organizing musical sounds in a standardized way. The universality of Bach’s efforts has helped every musician of note who followed in his wake. The book is considered to be one of, if not the most important musical document ever created.
A short but direct example of its influence can be found in a book I read a year or so ago called Chasing Chopin by Annik LaFarge. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the life and times of pianist Frederic Chopin. But it is also where I learned about the manufacturing process that caused pianos to sound unique from one another and of how completely absorbed in each minute note composers such as Chopin actually were. From this book I also learned a second fact about Chopin that relates to Bach and specifically to this post. Apparently, for many years, Frederic Chopin was involved in a platonic yet loving relationship with the writer George Sand. (George Sand was the pen name of author and journalist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil). Chopin and Sand lived together platonically for several years in Paris. Their relationship was mutually beneficial as they both understood the desire for artistic expression that the other possessed. Consequently, they were able to support each other in ways that uniquely helped each achieve success in their creative endeavours. Eventually, it was decided that they would travel together to the island of Majorca and would share a monastery where they would continue with their work. It was felt that the more exotic location would inspire each in new and important ways. In Chopin’s case, he had a piano manufactured for him and shipped across the ocean specifically for his work on Marjorca. When packing for the trip, he took only one book with him. It was Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Using Bach’s book for inspiration and guidance, Frederic Chopin (who was already a well-seasoned and accomplished composer) created his own set of 23 preludes and fugues that covered all major and minor scales. The monastery in which Sand and Chopin lived is now a museum. In that museum there is a display dedicated to each artist. In the display dedicated to showcasing the work of Chopin, there sits the copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier he used to create his own masterwork.
In the link below, I will introduce you to the first composition that is included in Bach’s guidebook. It is entitled “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Major”. Not surprisingly, the second entry is entitled, “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Minor”. On YouTube there are many varieties of music you can listen to when you search for the term The Well-Tempered Clavier. There is everything from each of the individual compositions, all the way to many examples of the complete 48-composition set being played in one sitting. I am going to simply give you access to the first composition Bach created for The Well-Tempered Clavier, but if you want to see how each piece changes as he goes through the minor and major scales, feel free to explore the entire 48-piece set at your leisure. For now, here is the first composition that helped lay the groundwork for the codification of musical sounds. From this one composition comes everything we know about music that followed throughout time. This reminds me of a short joke by comedian Steven Wright that goes something like, “The world is getting smaller every day, but still, I wouldn’t want to clean it”. Imagine someone having the audacity to think to organize and codify all of the tones, notes and chords that existed in the world of music. Bach did that with The Well-Tempered Clavier. The majesty of such an endeavour truly boggles my tiny mind, but I am most grateful that he took the time to do it. His accomplishment means that the music that I love and you love was made possible in the centuries that followed. I would be curious to know how many modern musicians have their own copies of Bach’s book? I bet that number would surprise us all. As someone who loves language and music, I salute you Johann Sebastian Bach. Your efforts at creating The Well-Tempered Clavier are gratefully appreciated.
The link to the video for the composition “Book 1, 1.Prelude in C Major” written by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to a museum dedicated to the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the museum in Majorca where George Sand and Frederic Chopin stayed for a while can be found here.
The link to the world’s best classical music radio station, Classical FM 103.1, streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.
Over 300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a little piece for piano or lute that went by the title, “Prelude in C minor”. Of all of the music he composed over the course of his lifetime, the “Prelude in C minor” is well-regarded and is regularly included in lists of the best preludes Bach composed. Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer, lived on until the 1750s but his music lives on forever. Proof of this is the fact that Bach’s prelude is the opening link in a chain of musical and personal connections that bring us to today’s song, Gangsta’s Paradise” by rapper Coolio. Let’s connect the dots, shall we?
Two hundred and fifty years after “Prelude in C minor” was created by Bach, another unbelievably talented young man was searching for inspiration for a new album he was putting together. In the mid-1970s, Stevie Wonder was arguably the most talented and prolific musician in the world. From his early days at Motown as “Little Stevie Wonder” who would headline the Motown Reviews along with Motown’s stable of other stars, Stevie Wonder’s musical career had evolved right before our eyes. By the time the middle of the decade rolled around, Stevie Wonder was enjoying a string of success not seen since Elvis and The Beatles hit the stage. By 1975, Wonder had had four consecutive strong albums, three of which reached #1 (Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale plus,Music of my Mind, which reached #4). At this point, Stevie Wonder engaged in contract negotiations with Motown. He was threatening to quit music altogether and become a missionary in Africa. Motown buckled. Wonder was given a contract valued at close to 37 million dollars and, just as importantly, he won the right to exercise full creative control over what appeared on his albums. After the acrimony of the contract negotiations, Wonder asked for a year off to recharge and reorient his passions. As the year went on, Wonder began writing again. His vision for his career was as an ambassador for the downtrodden, the weak, the lonely, the unloved and those pushed to the margins of society. At the end of that sabbatical year, Stevie Wonder returned with an album that critics have hailed as one of the most magnificent albums ever recorded in the whole history of modern music…Songs In The Key Of Life. While songs such as “Sir Duke”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Isn’t She Lovely?” emerged as the hit singles from this album, there was another song that was inspired by a piece of music that was two and a half centuries old. “Pastime Paradise” borrows the chord structure of the opening eight notes of Bach’s “Prelude in C minor” but, instead of piano, Wonder used a synthesizer to mimic a full orchestra of violin players. It was the first use of a synthesizer in this manner. Normally, a song uses a drum beat to establish the rhythm or beat of a song. For Stevie Wonder, he used the synthesizer to create the beat. Nestled amid a selection of songs that spoke to social justice, “Pastime Paradise” speaks to the importance of a positive attitude and a strong work ethic in achieving goals that might lift someone out of poverty, for example. The song denigrates those who champion materialism and possessiveness. Songs in the Key of Life may be rated as Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece but it wasn’t his last work. Wonder wrote many more albums in the 40 plus years that have followed and is still a respected and revered figure in the world of music and in life, in general.
While Stevie Wonder was putting the finishing touches on Songs in the Key of Life, a lady named LouAnne Johnson was enlisting in the US military. Johnson was posted to Clark Air Force Base in The Philippines. While there, Johnson took university level courses and ended up with an Honours degree in Psychology. Upon leaving the military, Johnson decided to become a teacher. Much to her surprise, her very first application was accepted and she was given a job in a high school in California. Unbeknownst to Johnson at the time, this high school was located in an inner city neighbourhood known for gang violence, drug use, rape, teenage pregnancies, poverty and much more. When Johnson showed up for her first teaching gig, she understood why her application had been accepted so quickly by school board officials. Finding teachers who were willing to work in this school had been a challenge. FInding teachers who would stay was an even bigger challenge. Well, not only did LouAnne Johnson fulfill the terms of her teaching contract, her students thrived. She wrote about her experiences in a book called, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. This book was a hit and ended up being turned into a movie called, Dangerous Minds. Michele Pfeiffer played Johnson in the film. Dangerous Minds grossed almost $200 million dollars during its run but much of what drove the success of the movie came from the soundtrack and, in particular, a song called “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio ft. L.V.
In the links below, I will have a spot for you to listen to Stevie Wonder’s song, “Pastime Paradise”. I encourage you to give it a listen, even if you only do so for the opening thirty seconds or so. If you do give “Pastime Paradise” a listen and then give Coolio’s song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” a similar airing, you will see that Coolio basically sampled the core of Wonder’s synthesized rhythm track. The two songs have an almost identical musical structure. So similar are the songs that Stevie Wonder was given a song writing credit on “Gangsta’s Paradise”. As a further condition of allowing Coolio to sample his work, Wonder put down a clause that was important to him…no profanity allowed! Thus, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is one of the very few hit Hip Hop songs that uses lyrics that are completely clean. The fact that profanity is absent does not detract from the power of the message contained within this song nor does it impact Coolio’s powerful oration. He raps his way through “Gangsta’s Paradise” with passion and emotion, almost as if his life depended on him getting these lyrics said aloud. Coolio has stated that he was well aware of the song’s historical connections, with Stevie Wonder, as well as with the gospel-tinged nature of the music that gives it a religious fervor. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the #1 selling song in the US the year it was released in 1995. It won the Grammy award for Best Rap Solo Performance, as well as a host of other awards.
From Johann Sebastian Bach to Stevie Wonder’s seminal album, Songs in the Key of Life to 1995’s Song of the Year, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, the musical dots are connected. It is amazing to think of how an eight chord progression created almost three centuries ago would be the catalyst for a hit Hip Hop song in 1995 that was created as a result of the life story of one of America’s first female marines, LouAnne Johnson that was made into a hit movie starring Michele Pfeiffer. But, that’s how it all lined up. Historical dominos do not always fall quickly but, in the end, fall they do.
The link to the video for the song, “Prelude in C minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Pastime Paradise” by Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, ft. L.V., as sung on the Billboard Music Awards show with Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” sung a capella by Coolio and L.V. on the Howard Stern Radio Show can be found here. ***For what it is worth, I think this is an awesome live version. What a voice Collio had! This is a home run performance for sure. ***Lyrics version of “Gangsta’s Paradise” can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie, Dangerous Minds can be found here.
The link to the official website for Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the official website for LouAnne Johnson can be found here.
The link to the official website for Coolio can be found here.
***FYI: Coolio passed away just recently. This post was created in his memory. #RIP