In memoriam: David Bowie and the symphony orchestra

In memoriam: David Bowie and the symphony orchestra


norman lebrecht

January 11, 2016

In what he would later describe as his ‘first period of isolation’, David Bowie recorded Peter and the Wolf with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Released in May 1978, he said it was a birthday present for his seven year-old son.

The album, which reached #136 in the US pop charts, is one of the more affecting and appealing readings of the piece.

Philip Glass composed Low Symphony in 1992 on themes from Bowie’s Low album.

Around this time, Bowie talked of creating a Gesamtkunsterk for the Salzburg Festival.

The LSO made a memorable recording of Space Oddity as part of a classic rock album.

Bowie’s death was announced today, of cancer. He was 69.




  • Paul Kelly says:

    He turned pop into art and made art popular.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nonsense…. this man was merely a pop star. Entirely irrelevant for art and for classical music. I wonder what this bit of news does at SD.

      • Step Parikian says:

        “Merely a pop star”?
        Do you want to re-think those words given how patronising and aloof that sounds?

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Don’t take too much notice of our resident Muggle. He is viciously unpleasant to everyone.

          Bowie was a major creative force in British music, and retained his creative drive and his loyal fanbase to the end.

        • John says:

          ‘Don’t take too much notice of our resident Muggle.’

          Enough of the ad-hominem attacks, Edward.

          Bowie was a major creative force in British popular music, but had virtually no impact on art music.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Sure, I’ll leave the ad-hominems to you John – they’re your speciality, since your knowledge of music is a total 0.

            How charming to have my own personal stalker here = “John”

          • John says:

            ‘since your knowledge of music is a total 0’

            Do you realise how ridiculous you look, Edward? You complain about personal comments but continually make them yourself. It makes you seem childish.

        • Chris Walsh says:

          Aloof and patronising are his super-powers. We must pray he uses them only for good.

      • jaypee says:

        David Bowie is more creative and has more relevance than a lot of the so-called “serious” composers constantly played in concert halls and opera houses.
        If you don’t like him, why do you take time to comment? To show -once again, your narrow-mindedness or because you’re addicted to slipped disc and MUST write something about everything even when you’re obviously incompetent?

        Who named you the judge in chief of what’s good or bad in music?

        • John Borstlap says:

          I am paid by the Dutch Ministery of Culture to infiltrate on SD to instruct music lovers what they should like and to make them aware of hostile infiltrations by enemies of Western Civilization who have the temerity to contradict my very personal Opinions…. By the way, buy y book! Is nice.

      • M_von_Kolinahr says:

        Dear John – I’ve always been very interested to read what you have to say Iin these columns, and I have a lot of respect for your opinions and outlook and can very often see your point of view, but I too fear you’re really being a bit too dismissive here. Yes, Bowie was a pop star (as well), and “Dionysian” (as well, but with strong Appollonian traits as well), and all the rest of it, but in his case especially, I don’t think that’s the whole story. It is simply not possible to lump him in with average run-of-the-mill, lowest-common-denominator prefab pop pap, he was way, way above anything like that. He may still not have had a great deal to do with classical music per se, but I think to say he was “irrelevant to art” is going too far – he even once ran the Beckenham Arts Lab in London! – and even outside of music, there were also his famous acting roles, such as in Nic Roeg’s bizarre 1976 arthouse science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Otherwise, he radically reinvented his musical approach (and himself!) several times in his career, culminating in his famous Berlin trilogy of albums in 1977-79 (“Low”/”Heroes”/”Lodger”), on which he collaborated with electronics wizard Brian Eno to create strikingly new, bleak but readily accessible (sometimes completely instrumental) urban soundscapes that all but set the tone for much of the synthesizer-driven rock and pop of the 1980s that was to follow. So yes, his was a pop art, but for me he really lived out, as well as anybody in the rock/pop world, those (often much misused) words of Wagner in a way I think was genuinely meaningful and (crucially), above all, very vital, while also managing to reach a huge audience in the process: “Children! Create something new! And something else new! And something else again!! Stick to the old ways, and you’ll only be blighted by unproductivity, and you’ll be the saddest of artists.” Bowie of all rock artists really seemed to heed that advice, as it were.

        Not everyone may like him (or other rock/pop) for sure, and again I would always understand it if someone didn’t – it really doesn’t have to be for all tastes – and perhaps his connections to classical music may seem a bit slim too, but they do exist, and Norman has included a couple of key examples above. Bowie, meanwhile, was really one of the seminal rock artists of the 1970s – my generation in particular grew up with him, and we will miss him, to be sure – and like so much top-drawer classic rock, his music is also destined to do something very much other than quietly disappear overnight. Whether one at all likes the music or not, that remains a simple fact – all other considerations aside, and regardless of how well it may or may not stack up against (e.g.) serious classical and contemporary music in artistic and aesthetic terms, the very best in rock has easily held its currency for as long as 40-50 years already, in its own way (… and not necessarily as an “enemy of Western civilisation”!), and I think it will continue to do so for a long time to come.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Thank you…. that gives an ample overview of the man. He may be great in the context of popular music, and not at all run-of-the-mill, I don’t dispute that – but on a classical music blog it seemed strange, especially when people begin to confuse the two different contexts and start hagiographing. A musician’s worth is best evaluated within his/her own sphere of creativity….

          • jaypee says:

            This blog is not only on classical music. It also says “and related cultures”.
            You may disapprove but David Bowie belongs to the “related cultures”.

            Again, if you don’t like him, why do you bother sending your comments? Can’t you just move along or do you seriously think that the world needs your daily oracles on everything music-related?

          • Anne63 says:

            John, you should have realised that people who prefer classical should not express negative opinions on other genres under any circumstances as, regardless of how they are expressed, they will be treated as evidence of snobbery at best, and moral turpitude at worst. The fact that fans generally have a reason for preferring one genre over another (they wouldn’t be fans otherwise) is beside the point. All genres are of equal merit. I’m not sure how this huge coincidence has come about. They just are, apparently.

            Preferring one classical sub genre over another, as I think most classical people do, is probably OK provided the sub genre in question is not heavily dependent on non classical influences. See above.

            You will also be aware that this is strictly a one way street.

            So now you know. Don’t do it again.

          • Richard Sykes says:

            This reads a little like a modest retraction. You were, I presume, being deliberately provocative in your opening post. The “merely” is the problem. It was unnecessary at best, insensitive and offensive at worst. And I speak as a classical listener who is not a signed up dogmatic cultural relativist.

            Incidentally, it appears somebody has been messing with your Wikipedia entry.

  • Itsjtime says:

    That Peter in the wolf is my favorite! He had a great thing going, what ever it was.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      Maybe it’s the water, or ale, but all of the best Peter and the Wolf narrators are British. The reading by Boris Karloff is my favorite, and Sean Connery’s is fine, too. Can’t stand Bowie’s pop side, but his P&W is great.

  • Janis says:

    Such a loss. As a product of the 80s, I’m going to be in shock for a while. It’s like hearing that a Calder mobile has died. A work of kinetic sculpture can’t die, for pete’s sake.

    Meh. The world of music just got a little greyer and far less interesting. 🙁

  • Allen says:

    Jaypee – as we are being bombarded by the news of DB’s death from all sides, including a ridiculous amount of time on the BBC, I think anyone has the right to comment on it’s significance, or lack thereof.

    • Allen says:

      “its”, not “it’s”.

      • jaypee says:

        As I have the right to say what I think of musical snobbery, arrogance and ignorance.

        Again, if you don’t like something, why taking time to comment on it? So John Borstlap doesn’t like -among others- David Bowie. So what? Why does he think that we need to know what his musical Highness thinks of Bowie? Who named him Dear Leader of Good Taste in Music?

        You have the right not to like David Bowie, but to reduce him to something close to a Justin Bieber (“merely a pop star”) not only shows complete ignorance but also intellectual dishonesty.

        This John Borstlap has such a high opinion of himself that I can’t decide whether he’s funny or pathetic… Maybe he’s just funnily pathetic…

  • John Borstlap says:

    SD is also dedicated to ‘related cultures’, which I tend to forget, especially if the related culture is pop. My staff have gravely pointed-out to me how unkind I have been, and my wife locked me up in the library without food or drink. Thus humbled, I will now start reading Montesquieu’s “Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence”, so I will be silent for a while.

  • John Borstlap says:

    As JB’s staff members, only communicating with him via little notes shift under the library’s door, we are happy to inform mr Sykes and mrs Anne (11/1), mr/mrs Jaypee and mr Greg (12/1) that JB never intended to offend other contributor’s underdeveloped tastes and insights, neither wanted to appear authoritarian nor elitist, but merely wanted to point towards the obvious fact that not all artistic endeavors are a priori on the same level of interest, meaning and achievement. On the most recent note we found this morning, he explains that the interest of SD lies in the confluence of very different opinions from music lovers, i.e. people who feel committed to the art of music, and that any contribution to the platform would be helpful to the readers to form their own opinions, through which they may increase their understanding of music. In a PS we read: “If the achievements of a pop artist are disconnected from the context of entertainment music, which is a territory separated from art music, both territories are seriously impaired in terms of value frameworks.” We assume that this means: don’t mess with genres otherwise we don’t know what’s what. (Although the cook thinks differently about it.) On the back side we read: “Of course pop music, even the best, stands much lower in sophistication and artistic value than art music, a simple observation that has nothing to do with snobbery, patronizing sneers, and whatever other sufferers from taste democratization may think”. Also there is a last sentence we decided, after ample discussion, not to reproduce.

    • M_von_Kolinahr says:

      … Very good!!! 🙂 You might well also like this (I do – really, in all seriousness), Anthony Burgess, here (briefly) interviewed in 1968 for Tony Palmer’s formidable, groundbreaking documentary on rock/pop, “All My Loving”, which attempted to take the genre seriously, and as a result managed to be both spellbinding and a little bit terrifying all at the same time:

      The whole doco itself is really a must-see; a great example of the conflict (… ??) in rock/pop between the Apollonian and Dionysian. Much as I love some rock, some of the limitations are indeed all too obvious, especially now: the conformist pressures of commercialism on the one hand, and (especially from the late 1970s on) what can only be described as extreme conservatism, philistinism and glorification of amateurism (e.g. with respect to musicianship) on the other. Somehow, there have always been those rock artists who have managed to navigate through these pitfalls and produce something really memorable anyway – somehow still slip through the cracks, despite everything, in utter defiance of the limitations – I think there have indeed been such people, and they are the ones I’ve always been the most interested in. But in recent decades in particular, they seem to have become rarer and rarer (we’ve just lost another one), and so it’s just no good – as Rachmaninoff once said (quoted in another Tony Palmer documentary): “Only art that is free can be meaningful; only creativity that is free can be joyful.” So especially in the long run, and taken overall, I think you may ultimately be proved pretty much right in a lot of what you say.

      • John Borstlap says:

        As Mr B’s cook, I am now in his study – at night and in the dark, silent house – breaking into his computer to let you know that this whole quarrel about pop music has cost me my job!!! This afternoon I was fired by Mrs B when I maintained, against the opposition of the entire staff, that Louis Beethoven was the first pop star. Well, everybody knows! He wrote his music against the establishment, by moonlight, he had long hair and did not wash, he drank and smoked pot, went after the gals and wrote the national anthem of Europe even before Brussels was set-up! Now, if THAT isn’t pop. And everybody loves him. Scandal we have to pay a ticket to hear him live but we get ‘m with albums and YouTube. Now I get packing ‘caus I’ve to leave the estate tomorrow morning early. My boss is an [redacted] and I’ll never look at SD again.

        • M_von_Kolinahr says:

          Says Tony Palmer in his book of his TV series, “All You Need is Love” (1976) on the history of all popular music since the nineteenth century: “‘Pop’ is among the more maligned, misused, and misinterpreted words in the language. It is meant to signify popular; often, it has not. Much of what masquerades as popular music reaches only a tiny audience and is not intended to do any more. Popular music is not even what most people like. Janis Joplin sang popular music and most people – if by ‘most’ one means the majority – did notice like Janis Joplin. Van Cliburn’s version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, recorded in 1958, has outsold most popular music LPs. But Tchaikovsky is classical music. Yes, but it is also popular music. So why is Janis Joplin’s music not classical music? Because it is popular music. And so on.” – … Confused?? You will be – I think I already am… Maybe we should all just get off on a new footing and start again!?? “… I’ll never look at SD again” – surely you don’t mean that!! 🙂

  • William Safford says:

    I first learned that David Bowie had died from a classical radio show. I tuned into the beginning of the abovementioned Peter and the Wolf recording. At the end, the announcer informed the listening audience that Bowie had passed away.