In the wonderful movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays Mr. Holland, a classically-trained composer who needs to make ends meet so he gets a job as a high school music teacher and band director. He figures this will be an easy gig leaving him plenty of time to write his masterworks, and yet, very quickly he is buried by the difficulties of a job he never saw himself doing.
After a lot of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending over his complete inability to reach his students, he decides to change his approach. He sits down at the piano in front of his class, which is full of students who have come to view him with near disdain, and he says something like, “Who can tell me what this piece is?” and he starts to play. They all brighten up: “Lover’s Concerto!” they all say, and he smiles and says, “Wrong!” as he informs them that the piece is actually the Minuet in G by JS Bach.
Mr. Holland is making a larger point about the connecting tissue between the staid, almost cute, little minuet and the thrill of honky-tonk, but it’s also worth noting, for our purposes here, that pop musicians have made it a standard practice to not just write their own melodies, but to feel free to swipe melodies wholesale from the work of classical masters. Big-voiced ballad belters would be lost without “All By Myself”, which takes its tune from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2. The entire show Kismet wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been able to mine Alexander Borodin for its tunes (I knew the song “Stranger in Paradise” long before I knew the “Polovtsian Dances”).
And Billy Joel did the same thing in his song “This Night”, in which he cheerfully apprehends for his own purposes the melody from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8 in C minor, the “Pathetique” (previously featured here). That melody is one of Beethoven’s finer ones, and the movement comes as a welcome lyrical respite after the storm of the sonata’s opening movement; the Joel song is…well, it’s a perfectly nice Billy Joel song, but it’s not exactly one of his better-known efforts, even despite the fine pedigree of its chorus. Maybe that’s even partly why? To me, the song loses a bit of authenticity by virtue of its melody putting me in the mood to turn off Joel and turn on Beethoven.
But it’s another indication of Ludwig van Beethoven’s long musical reach in the 250 years since his birth, isn’t it? Not even the “Piano Man” is immune.
Here’s “This Night”.