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America's BeethovenPopular music

Throughout the last two centuries, Beethoven’s music has been appropriated by musicians of many stripes in myriad ways. Sometimes it has been used to transgress the perceived barrier between art and popular music, sometimes to take advantage of a rich symbolism that different Beethoven pieces have acquired, and sometimes to trade on his fame. To publishers of the 19th century, Beethoven could sell sheet music, waltzes in particular. The authenticity of the dances did not matter as long as the public bought them. In the 20th century his music and his name were borrowed by musicians working in many styles: swing, rock-n-roll, hard rock, metal, disco, rap, and even country.

  • Japonica Waltz
  • Tulip Waltz
  • Rose Waltz
  • Grand Waltz
  • Fantasia "Souvenir de Beethoven" by Moses-Tobani

“Japonica Waltz,” attributed to but not by Beethoven
Music score, C. Bradlee, Boston, 1835

Japnica Waltz, page 1
Japonica Waltz, page 2

“Tulip Waltz,” attributed to but not by Beethoven
Music score, C. Bradlee, Boston, 1835

Tulip Waltz, page 1

Tulip Waltz, page 2

“The Rose Waltz,” attributed to but not by Beethoven
Music score, Oliver Ditson, Boston, ca. 1849

Rose Waltz, page 1

Rose Waltz, page 2

“The Celebrated Grand Waltz,” Anhang 14, no. 3, attributed to but not by Beethoven
Music score, First, Hall, & Pond, New York, 1846

Celebrated Grand Waltz, page 1

Celebrated Grand Waltz, page 2

Fantasia “Souvenir de Beethoven,” Opus 137,
by Theodore Moses-Tobani (born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1855; died in New York in 1933)
Full set of parts for a pastiche arrangement for band of selections from various Beethoven works, Carl Fischer, New York, 1899
Listen to audio from the Library of Congress: "Souvenir de Beethoven" by Moses-Tobani

Title page of Souvenir de Beethoven

Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” are the two most famous pieces to trade on Beethoven’s image. Beyond that they are completely different: Berry’s song has no Beethoven music in it, and the lyrics make no attempt to reject classical music, but are rather an entreaty to notice rhythm-n-blues. Murphy’s piece is instrumental, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a disco beat.

  • Chuck Berry
  • Helene Dixon
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Electric Light Orchestra
  • The Beatles
  • The Rolling Stones
Chuck Berry, Roll Over Beethoven, autograhed record

Chuck Berry
“Roll over Beethoven” / “Back in the U.S.A.”
Autographed 45 rpm recording issued by Arc Music (Mercury Celebrity Series)

Chuck Berry, Roll Over Beethoven, Chess Records Chuck Berry
“Roll over Beethoven / Drifting Heart”
First release of the 78 rpm recording issued by the Chess Record Corp., 1956

Helen Dixon, magazine advertisement

“Roll over Beethoven (and tell Tchaikovsky the news)”
Advertisement from Billboard Magazine, January 26, 1956, about a recording by the teenage singer Helene Dixon

Helene Dixon, "Roll Over Beethoven"

Jerry Lee Lewis, Roll over Beethoven
33 1/3 rpm recording, Pickwick Records, 1972

[Image currently not available]

YouTube: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Roll Over Beethoven"

Label for Electric Light Orchestra recording

The Electric Light Orchestra, “Roll over Beethoven”
Label sticker for the 33 1/3 rpm recording

Electric Light Orchestra, "Roll Over Beethoven"

The Beatles, Roll Over Beethoven

The Beatles
“Roll over Beethoven / Please Mr. Postman”
45 rpm recording, Capitol Records, 1963

The Beatles, Roll Over Beethoven sheet music title page Chuck Berry, “Roll over Beethoven,” as recorded by The Beatles on Capitol Records
Music score, Arc Music Corporation, New York, song ©1956
Rolling Stones Roll Over Beethoven picture disc

The Rolling Stones,
“Roll over Beethoven,” cover art by J. Habig

Shaped picture disc with tracks taken from the album The Rolling StonesGet Satisfaction if You Want, recorded live for BBC Radio “Saturday Club,” October 5, 1963, published by The Swingin’ Pig, 1989

Both have been covered and used by many other popular artists. Beethoven’s appearances in popular music has ranged from improvisations on or pounding arrangements of Beethoven compositions (such as those by Rainbow and Apocalyptica), to biographical commentary on Beethoven (including the songs “Beethoven’s Nightmare and “Beethoven was Black,” as well as the full-length concept album turned fantasy musical, Beethoven’s Last Night), to appropriations of Beethoven’s name by the band itself (Camper Van Beethoven”), to the title of albums (Beethoven was Deaf). No one has exploited Beethoven to the extent that Katherine Thomas, known as The Great Kat, has. She does not just play Beethoven: she considers herself Beethoven reincarnated. In a male-dominated field, heavy metal, she is virtuosic, transgressive, and aggressive.

  • Rainbow
  • Walter Murphy
  • VHB
  • Eurythmics
  • Camper van Beethoven
  • The Great Kat
  • Club Risque
Rainbow, Difficult to Cure album cover

Rainbow, Difficult to Cure
33 1/3 rpm recording, Polydor, 1981

YouTube: Rainbow, "Difficult to Cure"

Walter Mrphy Band, A Fifth of Beethoven, album cover

The Walter Murphy Band,
A Fifth of Beethoven

33 1/3 rpm recording, Private Stock Records, New York, 1976

VHB, Beethoven's Fifth Street Symphony, album

VHB, “Beethoven’s Fifth (Street) Symphony”
33 1/3 rpm recording, Streetwave, London, 1984
Includes a long version (7:03), short version (4:39); hip hop version (3:28); and a hip hop a cappella version (2:54).

Magazine ad for the Eurythmics Beethoven

Magazine advertisement for the Eurythmics’ “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” Words and music by David A. Stewart and Annie Lennox

YouTube: Eurythmics, "Beethoven (I love to listen to)"

Album cover for the Eurythmics' Beethoven Eurythmics, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen to)”
33 1/3 rpm recording, RCA (UK), 1987

Eurythmics is a British pop-rock duo formed in 1980 that is currently disbanded but reunites from time to time. Members Annie Lennox and David Stewart achieved international success with their second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), topping the chart in the United States. In 1987 the duo released the album Savage, which contained the song “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To),” which became a top hit in the U.K. A video album was also made, featuring Lennox as a housewife-turned-vamp. Perhaps because the songs are darker and more obsessive than the duo’s previous work, Savage was mostly ignored in the U.S., though the Beethoven song was among the most popular tracks.

Cover for Camper van Beethoven

“Take the Skinheads Bowling / Colonel Enrique Adolfo Bermudez”
45 rpm recording, Rough Trade Records, London, 1986

YouTube: Camper van Beethoven, an interview with David Lowery

Autographed compact disc cover, Camper van Beethoven

Camper van Beethoven/Cracker, The Virgin Years
Promotional compact disc, Virgin Records, 1994
Cover signed by David Lowery, founder of Camper van Beethoven and co-founder of Cracker

The Great Kat, Beethoven on Speed compact disc cover

The Great Kat, Beethoven on Speed CD, RoadRunner Records, 1990

YouTube: The Great Kat, "Beethoven Mush"

The Great Kat, Beethoven Shreds compact disc cover   The Great Kat, Beethoven Shreds    CD, TPR Music, Melville, NY 2011


Club Risque, Beethoven was Black, compact disc cover

Club Risque, Beethoven was Black
Compact disc, Love This Records, U.K., 1996

Club Risque, a short-lived duo consisting of the American rap artist Daryl White and the Dutch singer Elvira Valentine (aka “Goddess”), released “Beethoven was Black” on the “Love This Records” label in England in 1996. An electronic/hip hop song that that begins by alternating the opening of the Fifth Symphony with a chorus singing “Beethoven was black,” the singer asserts that, if Beethoven were alive today, he would have “dreads,” write funky track after track, and “his name would be at the top of every chart.” The piece, described by one critic as a “great piece of tongue in cheek pop, a mix of rap swingbeat, and Beethoven,” plays with the argument made in 1942 by Joel Waters that Beethoven had African blood.

Yet Beethoven is known through only a handful of musical fragments: the opening of the Fifth Symphony and “Moonlight Sonata,” the “Ode to Joy,” the first two phrases of “Für Elise,” the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, some of the Sixth Symphony, and the Pathétique Sonata.  This is the Beethoven of the popular music world. —Michael Broyles

  • Morrissey
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  • Thicke
  • NAS
  • Apocalyptica
  • Dragonland
Magazine advertisement for Morrissey, Beethoven was Deaf recording

Magazine ad for Morrissey’s Beethoven was Deaf
for Virgin Megastores for the release of the album containing 16 songs performed live at Zenith in Paris on December 22, 1993

Steven Patrick Morrissey, known as Morrissey, is an English singer whose music first became popular in the United States when he was the lyricist and vocalist for the alternative rock band The Smiths, who had lengthy very popular tours in the States. After the Smiths broke up in 1987, he began a successful solo career. The album Beethoven was Deaf was, for the most part, recorded live at Paris Zenith on December 22, 1992. Morrissey is known both for showing solidarity with the disabled and for portraying them without compassion. In 1986 he performed concerts wearing a fake hearing aid in response to a fan who wrote to him explaining that she was embarrassed to wear her hearing aid to a concert. None of the songs on Beethoven was Deaf mention the composer or quote his music. “November Spawned a Monster” has lyrics about an ugly twisted child monster who can only dream of love when asleep “because it is the closest you will get to love.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Beethoven's Last Night, cover Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Beethoven's Last Night, contents

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Beethoven’s Last Night
Compact disc co-produced by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel
Atlantic Recording, 2000

Piano-vocal score for Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Beethoven’s Last Night
Story and lyrics by Paul O’Neill
Music by Paul O’Neill, Robert Kinkel, Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery
Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing, songs ©2000

YouTube: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Beethoven's Last Night "

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Beethoven's Last Night, cast

Thicke, When I Get You Alone, compact disc cover

Thicke, When I Get You Alone with sample of “Fifth of Beethoven”
Compact disc, NuAmerica/Interscope Records, 2002

NAS, Made You Look, DVD cover

Nas, Made You Look: God’s Son / Live
Concert DVD, Sony Music, 2003

Autographed photo of Apocalyptica

Poster for Apocalyptica’s 7th Symphony
Sony Music, 2010 with Autographed color photo

YouTube: Apocalyptica, Arrangement of the Fifth Symphony (2008)

Dragonland, Astronomy, compact disc cover

Dragonland, Astronomy
Compact disc, Century Media, 2006

YouTube: Dragonland, Astronomy, "Beethoven's Nightmare"