Both were English, and at the top of their profession. Both died aged 69, within days of each other from cancer this month.
David Bowie of course is an icon: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, painter and actor. But his connection with classical music is not that well-known.
What do you give your seven-year old son for a Christmas present? It’s a question I’ll have to deal with this Christmas, and it will probably be a book, or a toy. But if you’re David Bowie, the answer was quite simple: you take on the narrator’s part in Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The music was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The music album was released in 1978 on the RCA Red Seal label. Bowie was signed on almost as a last-minute choice, as both Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov had been offered the part and turned it down.
The album crept to 136 on the US Pop Albums chart. Rolling Stone magazine in its review described Bowie’s contribution as “engaging and benevolent” and that he had “found his most charming guise since Hunky Dory [Bowie’s much acclaimed fourth album]”.
It really is a remarkable recording, and can still be found online for those interested. Bowie’s understated elegant style is a delight, and the lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra makes it a real winner. The album was released on vinyl LP, and has on the flip side Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The record was specifically geared to “introduce children to the sounds of the individual instruments in the symphony orchestra”, to quote verbatim from the sleeve notes, and it succeeds in this objective admirably. One can well imagine a teenager in the 1970s wanting to listen to this record because his/her pop idol Bowie was on it. Perhaps it was a good thing Guinness and Ustinov were not interested, after all.
The album invites inevitable comparisons with the more recent version of Peter and the Wolf with Sting as narrator, and Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991). This is video as well of course, and I am still a fan of this recording, but having now listened to Bowie, I find my loyalty in question. The Bowie recording was re-released at Christmas 2013 on CD, with another bonbon, Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker suite.
Bowie’s music became the unlikely muse for American composer Philip Glass. When commissioned to write a symphonic cycle, his very first symphony (1991) was inspired by music from Bowie’s eleventh album “Low” (1977). “Low” was written at a difficult time in Bowie’s life, when he was trying to shake off a cocaine habit. The title is believed to be at least partly a reference to Bowie’s “low” moods during the album’s genesis. The album cover has a profile picture of Bowie under the title, a clever pun on “low-profile”.
Glass, in a video conversation with Bowie, describes his composition as a “symphonic homage to a very important record at the time, a record that went completely beyond the niceties and categories of pop music and pointed in a different direction.”
Glass’s three-movement symphony takes one Bowie theme for each movement. The outer movements (“Subterraneans” and “Warszawa”) are inspired by tracks that feature on the original 1977 album, while the central movement “Some Are” uses thematic ideas from a bonus track in the 1991 CD release of “Low”.
To those interested, I would recommend listening to the three back-to-back, first to the original Bowie and then to what Glass does with the “material”, as he calls it. It is a very accurate tribute. Bowie, in his turn admits that he was influenced very much by Glass’ music while writing “Low”.
One hears, in addition to Bowie and Glass, the imprint of Aaron Copeland as well as the repetitive structures and rhythms of Indian music. Glass had worked in the 1960s with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha, which had a profound effect on his musical thinking.
In the video conversation, Glass comments “People think of pop music and classical music as if these are fixed categories. Well, actually the people that work in these fields… ” he trails off as Bowie, nodding in agreement completes his thought: “… very rarely feel the confines of that.” Glass continues: “It’s more fluid than that. To me, a composer who works in, let’s say, concert music who isn’t aware of what his contemporaries, his colleagues are doing, is just out of touch with the world”.
As if to prove this point, classical guitarist Rupert Boyd who performed in Goa recently, acknowledges the influence of David Bowie upon him: “Whenever I’ve been asked which living person I’d most like to meet, I’ve always answered David Bowie. I hoped that one day I’d bump into him at a bar in the East Village, and have a chat over a beer. Hunky Dory & Ziggy Stardust have been soundtracks to my life, and are two of the albums I’ve listened to most often. I listened to Blackstar [Bowie’s final album, recorded while he was battling cancer] a few days ago, and at the time, now ironically, was startled by how full of life he sounded. I listened again today, and wept over the track Lazarus. “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free”. I just can’t imagine singing those words, knowing this would be it. It is the role of art and the artist in society to help us understand life and mortality, but to both so secretly, yet publicly, sing about his own illness is heartbreaking. Lazarus. The title says it all. R.I.P. David Bowie”
Glass returned to Bowie for “material” in his fourth symphony, subtitled “Heroes” (1996). Its six movements are symphonic reworkings of themes by Glass, Bowie and David Eno (from their 1977 album “Heroes”).
Alan Rickman has a less direct connection with music. But he starred as Judge Turpin in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. He also features in a song by Alan Leonard titled “Not Alan Rickman”. He was Master of Ceremonies announcing the various instruments in Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells II” (1992). He recites a Shakespearean sonnet on the album “When Love Speaks”, and features on a music video by Texas called “In Demand”.
Rickman, heartthrob of female fans everyhere, took time out from his villain roles to feature in a romantic music drama “Truly madly Deeply”. He took cello lessons to play the character of Jamie, a cellist who returns as a ghost after his demise to comfort his grief-stricken lover.
(An edited version of this article was published on 31 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)