Beethoven does the Beatles

Beethoven does the Beatles


norman lebrecht

September 14, 2009

Last weekend in Bonn, I heard an a capella group, the Atrium Ensemble, perform the Abbey Road album as if it were a formal Lieder cycle like An die ferne Geliebte, by the town’s best-known native son.

While the arrangements were too homogenous – a creative dissonance or few might have made the time pass faster – the serial concept has kept my mind occupied ever since, both about the Beatles’ working method and about musical globalisation.

As I report on Bloomberg today, the German experience of the 1970s was very different from America (Watergate, gas crisis), Britain (industrial warfare) or Spain (post-Franco awakening). Yet all three societies, and many more, were affected by Beatles afterwaves, not only in their music – much of it counter-responsive – but in more pervasive forms of Zeitgeist. The love you take/is equal to the love you make was, I seem to recall, embedded in the ethos of the era.

Which brings me back to compositional method on the final Beatles album. Consulting the world’s greatest Beatles’ authority (name and serial number withheld), I was informed that the question of joined-up writing was a matter of dispute between producer George Martin, backed by McCartney, who urged the group to think in larger forms, and Lennon on the other side who believed that the song was the thing.

The schism was one of several attitudinal differences that caused the Beatles to split. The way you listen to Abbey Road (or Rubber Soul, for that matter) dictates whose side you are on in the great break-up. Playing the Beatles as Beethoven was by no means illogical. It is exactly what half of them would have wanted.

Or not?