Thursday, January 28, 2021

Hidden Rites

In the past couple of years, there have been a few different viral stories about how the very famous bassoon solo which opens Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is basically the same melody as the even more famous pop anthem We are the champions. I'm not sure how far back this goes, though there's this tweet from 2018, and Classic FM did one of their things about it in 2019. For some reason, this story popped back up on my radar in two different places this week, so I decided to take a closer look. Mainly, I was intrigued by the notion that the two tunes definitely have a lot in common...yet, they still don't sound very similar to me. 

Unfortunately, because I was struggling to really hear this connection convincingly, it occurred to me I could try blending the two by doing some surgery on Freddie Mercury's original vocals from the Queen song. This kind of thinking always gets me into trouble. Honestly, I was as intrigued by the technical challenge as I was by the theoretical angle, so although I really don't much enjoy listening to this, I did manage to create something. 

As you can see/hear, I decided to string together a series of samples, each focused only on the first eight notes of Stravinsky's melody:
  • In the first two examples, we hear Stravinsky's original key (starting on a C) which means poor Freddie Mercury gets bumped up a 5th. (At least I didn't make him go as far as "keep on fighting," which would take him up another 5th!)
    • The first example has Mercury singing his original melody.
    • In the second example, his melody is adjusted (following the small alternate notes shown) to fit more closely with Stravinsky's bassoon.
  • In the third and fourth examples, we hear the same thing as the first two except with everything transposed down to the original key in which Mercury was singing.
  • Finally, we hear the original Stravinsky bassoon by itself, following by Fake Freddy singing the bassoon melody (-ish) alone. If this had all worked out like I hoped, hearing Fake Freddy at the end should sound like he's straight up singing Stravinsky.
The most surprising - even inexplicable - thing to me is that I never really find myself hearing the Stravinsky melody in what Fake Freddy does, even when the pitches are exactly the same. I think that may partly be a psychological reaction based on a bias I developed because of comparing the actual melodies in question. (It's true that the high bassoon tone is an essential part of the Stravinsky identity - but when I hear that melody played on the piano, I'm immediately drawn into StravinskyLand. In theory, a vibrant male voice in its upper range should sound much closer to a bassoon timbre than a piano. Of course, I am hopelessly devoted to the piano as the perfect transcription machine!)

Although there's an obvious difference in that the Stravinsky is unaccompanied and ends up implying a sort of modal minor feeling whereas the Queen song is in major, I'm not convinced that's what's throwing me. I think there are a few places where melodic shape (and one absent note) make the melodies quite different in effect. [In the graphic shown below, which I created by adapting the one shown in this 2018 tweet, the Queen melody is shown in C Major to make the melodic comparisons easier.]
First, most bassoonists play those grace notes quite quickly so that they don't sound at all like melody notes, though that's a pretty small difference, and both melodies do land quite strongly on the B of "CHAM-pions." Given the way melodic shapes work and are perceived, that difference shouldn't be such a big deal since the underlying motion from C to B to A is clearly there in both tunes. But I do think there's something distinctive about the way all six interior notes in the Stravinsky move quickly as one gesture, whereas the Queen melody has a more rhythmic feeling with the extended syncopated G on "-pions." Most importantly, the leap up from E to B before the final A is perhaps the most distinctive melodic characteristic of Stravinsky's opening phrase, and that's the one thing that is completely missing in We are the champions. Finally, Freddie Mercury glides off the final A to an E, though again, in theory, that shouldn't make such a strong perceptive difference.

To be honest, my arguments seem weak to me, but I just don't hear these melodies as sounding all that similar, and maybe I'll have to live with that. In support of my point-of-view, these are two VERY well-known melodies, and yet this doesn't seem to be something that was noticed for a long time. At any rate, Classic FM's absurdly over-the-top clickbait claim ("We are the Champions’ sounds exactly the same as ‘The Rite of Spring’ – and life will never be the same again") is definitely overstating things. I've heard about this connection several times in the past few years, and then quickly forgot about it.

What makes this case particularly interesting to me is that, some thirteen years ago, I wrote about how Stravinsky's melody has long reminded me of something else. 

[Click on the examples to hear them played.]

What's fascinating is that there are far fewer shared pitches between these melodies which nonetheless DO call out to each other (at least in my mind). The first phrase of La vie en rose comes to rest on B, not A, for example. However, the French tune has a rhythmic shape that is closer to Stravinsky: a long note, some fast notes that outline a triad and end with a leap up, followed by a step down to another long note. And really that's it. Note that like We are the champions, La vie en rose is in a clearly major key, so it's not a harmonic thing. 

Maybe it's just the French influence in Stravinsky and La vie. Here's Edith Piaf's singing adjusted up to start on the same note as Stravinsky.

Back in 2007, I wrote about these melodies:

They also both have Parisian associations, and the sultry high register of the bassoon is at least as distinctive as Edith Piaf's freaky timbre....I wasn't able to Google much mention of this pairing, but I'm intrigued to see that some Peter Schickele wannabe named Ernest Acher recorded a "Rite of the Rose," along with other such mashups in an album entitled "Mischief with Mozart: Classical Combat with the Classics." I haven't been able to find an audio sample, but it's not hard to imagine. 

First of all, an important 2021 update: I found that Rite of the Rose recording! You can hear it here. It's fun, staying mostly in a Rite of Spring vein, with the bassoon melody eventually veering into La vie en rose territory. The French tune actually takes over briefly around 2:25, but not for that long. You can also hear the musical humorist Hyung-ki Joo doing a lighthearted little mashup in the Paris airport here - for some reason, he ends with music from Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Anyway, I'm not the only one to make this connection.

But ultimately, I think it's the suave, sensuous, flowing quality that unites The Rite of Spring with La vie en rose and separates both from the more muscular, insistent We are the champions. And it's a reminder that, though pitch is obviously important in defining a melodic identity, shape and gesture may matter just as much. Your mileage may vary, but when I hear Stravinsky, I think C'est la vie (en rose).

P.S. The Rite of Spring remains the topic about which I've written the most. Here's a post linking to many such other posts.

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