Rock Meets Classical, Part 3: Prog-Rock Classical Covers

Robert Fripp


Progressive rock was established in the late ‘60s, when a number of (mostly British) rock musicians decided that they wanted to integrate ideas from classical music and jazz into rock. To quote Robert Fripp of King Crimson, “My interest is in how to take the energy and spirit of rock music and extend it to the music drawing on my background as part of the European tonal harmonic tradition. In other words, what would Hendrix sound like playing Bartók?"


None of the basic music elements used by ‘70s British prog-rock bands (long forms, odd time signatures, classical and jazz instrumentation, octatonic and whole tone scales, improvisation) were new ideas, but they had never been used in rock music before, so context made them novel. In this sense, progressive rock is a direct illustration of the ideas I presented in parts 1 and 2 of this blog series.


However, many progressive rock artists haven’t just taken influence from classical music, but have incorporated actual classical pieces into their work. In this post, I would like to introduce you to some of the pieces that progressive rock artists were paying tribute to. There is a clear trend amongst these quotations - almost all of them are either quotes of music from the first half of the 20th century or of 18th century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.


Let’s start in the ‘70s. The centerpiece of King Crimson’s 1970 sophomore album, In the Wake of Poseidon, is a 12 minute long epic called "The Devil’s Triangle"The basis for this piece was the first movement of Gustav Holst’s composition “The Planets”, Op. 32, written from 1914-1916. Each of the piece’s seven movements is a musical illustration of one of the planets in our solar system. The first movement, ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, is the most aggressive movement in the work, featuring a relentless 5/4 rhythm that builds in intensity - an idea which translates perfectly to rock music.


King Crimson used this hypnotic ostinato as the basis of a hallucinatory studio experiment, a highly repetitive, tape-effect laden crescendo and collapse, nearly twice the length of ‘Mars’. The end result shares quite a few themes with Mars, but these themes are used to very different ends.


The 1970 debut album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a supergroup featuring ex-King Crimson singer/bassist Greg Lake, also included quite a few classical references. The opening track, "The Barbarian", is an arrangement of Béla Bartók's "Allegro Barbaro" (1911). (On that note, Hungarian progressive rock band Panta Rhei recorded an entire album of Bartók covers in 1977, simply titled Bartók, which can be downloaded for free at their official website.) The third track from ELP's debut, "Knife Edge", draws almost all of its musical material from Leos Janácek’s "Sinfonietta" (1926), with the sole exception of a quotation of the Allemande from J.S. Bach's "French Suite No. 1 in D Minor" (1722) right after the solo.


ELP continued to draw on classical music throughout their career. Their second recording, Pictures at an Exhibition, was a large arrangement of Mussorgsky’s 1874 piece of the same name for solo piano, later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. ELP’s rendition was interspersed with original material and vocal music, and ended with "Nutrocker", an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker". They also liked to arrange music by American composer Aaron Copeland - they performed a lengthy arrangement of Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1942) on their 1977 album Works, Vol. 1, and they played an arrangement of 'Hoedown' from Copeland's 1942 ballet 'Rodeo' on their 1972 album 'Trilogy'. ​Trilogy's closing track, 'Abaddon's Bolero', was heavily influenced by Ravel's 'Bolero' (1928). Toccata’, the second track on ELP’s 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery, was an arrangement of the fourth movement of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto (1961). And this isn't even an exhaustive list - there are many more examples to be found in ELP's discography, including arrangements of music by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.


Three other giants of '70s prog, Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull, decided to cover German classical staples from the baroque and romantic eras. "Cans and Brahms", Rick Wakeman’s solo piece from Yes’s fourth album, Fragile (1972), was a keyboard arrangement of the third movement of Brahms’s 4th symphony, Op. 98 (1885). "Horizons", a Steve Hackett solo acoustic piece from Genesis's fourth album, Foxtrot (1972), opens with the Prelude from Bach's first cello suite (BWV 1007), which was most likely composed somewhere between 1717-1723. Jethro Tull's "Bouréefrom the 1969 album Stand Up is an arrangement of the fifth movement of Bach's Lute Suite in E Minor (BWV 996) - a movement which has been covered or quoted by many artists, including Paul McCartneyLed Zeppelin, Yngwie Malmsteen, Tenacious D, and Alter Bridge. Jethro Tull also used to perform an arrangement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in their live concerts.


Modern British progressive rock bands are still creating arrangements of classical pieces. Oceansize sampled Ravel for "Unravel", an interlude from their 2003 debut album Effloresce. The sample was a small segment of ‘Le Gibet’, the second movement of Ravel’s virtuosic piano work "Gaspard de la Nuit" (1909). Muse frequently quotes Rachmaninov, among other composers - for example, the song Space Dementia contains quotations of Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto (1901). Stick Men, a group formed in 2007 by King Crimson alumni Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, arranged a few sections from Stravinsky’s ballet "The Firebird" (1910):


English progressive bands are not alone in covering classical music. In fact, progressive classical quotations arguably started in America - Frank Zappa was quoting 20th century classical music in 1967, before the progressive rock movement got off the ground. His second album, Absolutely Free by The Mothers of Invention, abounds in quotes from various Stravinsky pieces. These include his three most famous ballets: "The Firebird", "Petrushka" (1911), and "The Rite of Spring" (1913), along with his theatrical work 'A Soldier's Tale' (1918). Check out the track "Amnesia Vivace", which features quotations of 'The Firebird' and 'The Rite of Spring', or "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin", which quotes the fourth movement of Holst's 'The Planets', 'Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity'.


American prog-jazz group The Bad Plus recently arranged the entirety of "The Rite of Spring" and have been perfoming it across the country under the title "On Sacred Ground" (a play on the original French title of the piece, "Le Sacre du Printemps"):


I participated in this tradition on my debut album, Interior City. The interlude at 1:54 into my song "Ranting Prophet" is a direct quote of a motive and harmonization that Olivier Messiaen used in quite a few of his early works (1928-50) and in one late work. Messiaen's use of the motive was actually a quotation of the churchbells in Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov (1873). I am not the first rock artist to quote this motive. The experimental Norwegian group Shining quoted the motive without Messiaen's harmonization in "Goretex Weather Report", the opening track on their third album, In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster (2005). The band's discography contains quite a few classical quotes - for example, their next album featured a track titled "-... .- -.-. ...." (Bach in morse code), and you can probably guess what it sounds like. Fellow Norwegian experimental band Ulver also quote Bach at the end of "It Is Not Sound" from their 2005 album Blood Inside, and the coda of "What Happened?" (the closing track on their next album, Shadows of the Sun from 2007) is also attributed to Bach.

What are your favorite examples of classical quotations in rock music? Tell us in the comments. In parts 4-6 of this series, I will demonstrate how King Crimson uses classical composition techniques in their music. In the meantime, I will leave you with proof that 20th century American composer George Rochberg invented modern progressive metal:

Purchase links:

Works of Igor Stravinsky

Ravel - Complete Piano Music

Holst - The Planets

Janácek - Sinfonietta

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition

Ginastera - Piano Concerto No. 1

Brahms - Symphony No. 4

Aaron Copeland - Rodeo & Fanfare

Messiaen Edition


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