EDITOR’S NOTE: Created by Terry Ellis, co-founder of the iconic Chrysalis Records, the Chrysalis Orchestra is an intriguing new project in which great rock compositions are performed by a live orchestra of young musicians. They’re not dressed in black and reading charts; these young virtuosos stand, move, dance, and interact with the audience. Think of it as a forty-piece rock band! The Orchestra heads out soon, but in the meantime, check out their take on “Layla”
In that spirit…
Cleveland is home to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but will there ever be a home for a “Classical Rock Music” Hall of Fame? That would honor rockers who dropped instruments in their songs (like violin, cello, harp, flute, and oboe) most associated with classical music. By deftly incorporating these instruments, songs were created that became a huge chunk of the Classic Rock canon.
One of the earlier stabs at adding more violins and fewer guitars was Buddy Holly’s 1958 single “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
Paul McCartney similarly stuck some classical touches on songs including “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home.” That genre-bending blend may have caused the record-buying public to have an open mind for rock groups who added Mozart-like flourishes.
Classical case in point, the Moody Blues. Orchestral interludes, including those supplied by Ray Thomas’ flute, filled the grooves of Days of Future Passed (which included “Nights in White Satin”). This formula served them well and influenced Electric Light Orchestra (check out their rollicking classical/rock music take on “Roll over Beethoven”).
John Cale of the Velvet Underground plugged in his electric viola to create an aurally hypnotic sound that made the Velvets’ debut album a timeless masterpiece. Jimmy Page slid a violin bow across guitar strings on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times.” And let’s not forget Roxy Music oboist Andy Mackay’s classical turns in songs like “If There is Something” and “Ladytron.”
Indeed, violins, cellos, and even a French horn (played by the Who’s John Entwistle in “Pictures of Lilly”) have been used in innumerable rock songs. But Ian Anderson took an instrument mostly seen in the middle of a marching band and made it the centerpiece of Jethro Tull.
What seemed like an incongruous gimmick wound up being Tull’s instantly recognizable and captivating sound. Thanks to Anderson’s ingenious juxtaposition, now hearing a flute solo in a rock song only makes a listener think, “This band’s ripping off Tull.”
While, at the time, the use of classical instruments in rock music may have seemed incongruous, it’s not a complete surprise. Many artists of that era had some basic classical music exposure, if only via childhood piano lessons. Juxtaposing the sounds associated with an orchestra pit with those of the mosh pit created some truly genius tracks.
Photo: ELO (Getty Images)