Rock Musicians Go Classical

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Classical Works by Rock Composers

Many renowned Rock artists, particularly ones who have used Classical elements in their music, have composed complete Classical works. Many of these became highly rated, while others have been seen as a wrong turn. This article reviews several of the more well-known Classical works by Rock artists.

Deep Purple: Concerto for Group and Orchestra

After 3 albums featuring lead singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper, and only one hit to show for it (a cover of Joe South’s “Hush”), the band changed course, replacing Evans and Simper with Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, respectively. In a move that undoubtedly confounded their record company and fans, the first album released by their most popular and successful lineup was a Classical piece. Composed entirely by keyboardist Jon Lord, this 3-part concerto (which was also broadcast on TV) was recorded live at Royal Albert Hall in 1969 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Although the band was pleased with the results, Gillan and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore wanted to take the band in a more basic Hard Rock direction, and the band then went into their most successful period beginning with IN ROCK. The concerto was re-recorded in 1999. Deep Purple also toured performing the concerto in 2000 and 2001.

Roger Waters: Ça Ira

The former bassist and chief songwriter of Pink Floyd had been using more and more complex themes and musical means of expression in his later works, particularly in THE WALL, THE FINAL CUT, and his acclaimed solo album AMUSED TO DEATH. It seemed almost inevitable that he would eventually compose a Classical piece. In 1987, he was approached by his friends Étienne and Nadine Roda-Gil with a libretto based on the early years of the French Revolution, and persuaded to compose an opera around it. It went through several permutations before it was completed in 2005. When the album was released by Sony Classical, it received mixed reviews. It premiered in Rome in 2005 to a sold-out audience. It was later performed in Poland with more elaborate sets and staging, reportedly costing over 2 million Euros to produce. The recording is available with the original French libretto and with an English translation.

Paul McCartney: Various Works

What often gets overlooked when reviewing the amazing life and work of Paul McCartney is his non-Rock music. For example, he has made numerous electronica recordings with fellow musician Martin Glover aka “Youth” under the moniker The Fireman. In addition, he has released many Classical works. His first Classical release, PAUL MCCARTNEY’S LIVERPOOL ORATORIO, was composed in collaboration with Carl Davis. Released in 1991, it was loosely based on Paul’s life, particularly his upbringing in Liverpool. Although not critically well-received, sales for the album were very good.

Much more well-received was his follow-up, 1997’s STANDING STONE. Unlike the ORATORIO, this work was largely instrumental. It hit number 1 on the Classical charts, and even hit the lower reaches of the Pop charts for a week. Two years later, he released WORKING CLASSICAL, which consisted largely of orchestral re-workings of his solo and Wings material. 2006 brought perhaps his most fully-realized Classical piece, the oratorio ECCE COR MEUM. In 2011, Decca Records released OCEAN’S KINGDOM, his score for a ballet. Most of these albums were released almost simultaneously with a Rock album, just proving how prolific an artist he is.

Frank Zappa: Various Works

One of the few musicians who can be truly said to have a unique musical vision, Zappa incorporated Classical elements into his music virtually from the get-go. His first solely Classical work was 1967’s LUMPY GRAVY. Commissioned by Capitol Records, Zappa composed the music and conducted it. Although he did not actually appear on the album, MGM Records (the label of his band, The Mothers) threatened litigation. Zappa re-edited the album and allowed it to be released by MGM. Largely consisting of Musique Concrete, the album was hailed by critics.

His next Classical release, 1979’s ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, was originally conceived as part of a larger set called LÄTHER. During legal wrangling between Zappa and his then-record company (Warner Bros.), ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES was released separately without Zappa’s consent. LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA was largely comprised of symphonic reworking of earlier songs. He then released an album of chamber music written by the 18th century composer Francesco Zappa (a real person, and not actually related to Frank).

Billy Joel: Fantasies and Delusions

2001’s FANTASIES AND DELUSIONS is Billy Joel’s most recent studio recording, and so far his only Classical album. It is comprised of solo piano works, performed by pianist Richard Joo. It maintains Joel’s pop musical chops within the context of Classical piano works, and has been met with critical praise. It was his 19th album to chart on the Billboard 200.


This list of well-known Rock artists and their Classical works underscores the benefit of composing and playing in multiple genres.

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