Is our national knowledge of serious Western culture caught in a critical decline? That’s okay, forget Mozart and Beethoven for rest of this article.
We Americans bring a big advantage to the table to preserve this heritage. Our immense, all-encompassing pop culture gives us the tools to understand a great deal of what people call “classical music.” You just have to know what part of classical music we’re talking about.
Okay, so maybe it took a British guitarist who’s played “Cats” in Cyprus and toured with “Hair” on its 50th anniversary U.K. tour in 2018 to point this out. Meet 27-year-old London guitarist Connor Gallagher. He’s become a mini-sensation on YouTube by translating primarily 20th-century Russian “classical music” to heavy-metal cuts, informed by a boyhood devouring the music of the American thrash-metal and heavy-metal band Metallica.
Take the works of Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived his entire adult life under the Soviet system and twice got in trouble with Stalin for composing stuff old Joe didn’t like. The second movement of Shostakovich’s enormous Tenth Symphony is a four-minute, 100-mph riot of swirling themes, jagged counter-melodies, and comical interjections from the highest piccolo to the lowest contrabassoon.
But some people first learn of this movement in Gallagher’s heavy-metal guitar version consisting of four simultaneous guitar tracks set to a drum click-track. Then they may discover Gallagher’s take on a crucial three-minute section of an insider favorite of the classical music cognoscenti: Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.
For a bit of glamor, head over to Gallagher’s team-up with Los Angeles violinist Isabella Reyes, who dubs herself “ViolinistBAKA” on social media and YouTube after a Japanese expression approximately meaning “crazy experimental.” Watch as she stylishly slices through the “cadenza,” or unaccompanied solo, in Shostakovich’s temperamental Violin Concerto No. 1 before the “orchestra” — that is, Gallagher’s five simultaneous guitar tracks — joins up to bring the notoriously intense work to the finish line.
The Russian Classical Music Tradition
There’s a reason mid-20th-century Russian classical music fits this treatment so well. Most of what people historically call “classical music” is essentially German music, with a tradition reaching back to Bach in the first half of the 18th century and then even further back to his Baroque and Renaissance predecessors. By the post-World War I period, a lot of this German-based tradition was exhausted and composers started coming up with unlistenable, academic works in an attempt to find a new way forward.
The Russian classical tradition only truly began in the 19th century, and it was still developing by the time 20th-century Russian icons Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich came along to put their stamps on it, with music that still held onto a traditional “tonal” key center but was notably lush (Rachmaninoff), spiky (Prokofiev), or alternately mysterious and overwhelming (Shostakovich).
“I just found that there was something about 20th-century Russian music that seemed to leap out for this treatment,” Gallagher told me during a transatlantic Zoom interview. “Not everything has to be strictly in a classical form and wrapped up with a little bow, a la Mozart, for example.”
Gallagher is also skeptical of introducing people nowadays to classical music with the inevitable performances of Handel’s “Messiah” during the holidays. “I think it can just get a little twee after a while,” he says in a colorful British expression.
Essentially, the same discovery was made a few decades earlier by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who includes at least one song in all of his rock operas and other supercharged musicals in an unusual 7-beat-to-the-bar meter simply because Prokofiev wrote one of his most famous sonata movements that way (compare “And the Money Kept Rolling In” from “Evita” with the third movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7). In his 2018 autobiography, Lloyd Webber also claimed Shostakovich came to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” in London in the early 1970s and told Lloyd Webber that he wished he’d composed it.
Resist Starting with the ‘Three Bs’
American public-school educators, especially in demographically diverse and majority-minority districts, could take the cue to change how they introduce students to “classical music.” Instead of the typical chronological approaches to the subject reaching back to the cliché “Three Bs” of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, they could start with the best music that came out of Russia in the 1900s — music that visibly moves young Americans who can, in turn, build their own images around it.
Inspired teachers might then lead their students to the original versions of the music that Gallagher has interpreted, such as the second movement of the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony conducted in London by Gianandrea Noseda (now the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington). Then, explore the amazing performance of the entire Eighth Quartet by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and watch as star Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti teams up with a Swedish orchestra in the original Shostakovich violin concerto, starting at the same solo spot as Isabella Reyes in Gallagher’s metal version.
Don’t worry about any “unfashionability” in your music selections or disloyalty to your favorite pop forms. Whether you’re an adult or a kid, Gallagher wants you to graduate from his metal versions to the originals. Gallagher’s goal is explicit: “music appreciation” of the very type the classical-music establishment complains is now cut out of school budgets and denigrated in the public sphere.
“If I just draw more people to the original works, I’d be very happy with that,” says Gallagher. “That’s what I value more than anything, because I appreciate this music so much that I want to present it in, truthfully, the only way I’m capable of doing so.”
Growing up in the town of Lancaster north of Manchester, England, Gallagher didn’t exactly chew up time taking piano or violin lessons and learning exercises. “I spent my teenage years playing along to Metallica, as everyone else does,” he laughs.
Things changed, however, when he enrolled at the University of Leeds, eventually receiving a bachelor of arts in music with far more of a classical emphasis. Learning to read symphonic scores taught him a “sense of recognition” for exactly the fragments he now uses to re-orchestrate symphonic works into four or five separate guitar tracks, each of which he rehearses and performs in time against the percussion to create a complete video work.
The Expressive Affinity Between Metal and Classical
Gallagher admits to a bit of musical massaging around the edges of his videos – for example, by catching some extra notes on a keyboard if needed. But he says he limits this sort of supplement “so that I’m not overegging the pudding.”
In fact, “heavy-metal classical” is a bit of an online mini-industry, and other practitioners’ approaches vary from Gallagher’s. During the pandemic summer of 2020, another young Brit named Joe Parrish developed a different version of the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony’s second movement that has less of a fierce rhythmic drive but brings out some of the composer’s musical counterpunches with arguably more immediate clarity.
Still, other practitioners think compositions from the 19th century and even earlier can effectively translate to rock and metal. A prolific rock guitarist and arranger named Marcin Jakubek has delved into everything from Vivaldi to Chopin, although the busy soundscape of his videos seems to be more for show than to effectively elucidate each composer’s vibe.
Then there are educators like the owner of a YouTube channel called “Inside the Score.” He makes many pure classical-music educational videos, and claims the first album he bought was Metallica’s 1991 “Black Album.” In one of his videos, he draws a direct connection between many of the cuts in the “Black Album” and iconic classical works, noting “this suggests some kind of expressive affinity between metal and classical.”
His own special example of metal-ready 20th-century Russian music is Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which caused a riot at its 1913 premiere in Paris. Notably, both Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff fled the Soviet Union and settled in America, while Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union from Paris in the 1930s. Yet among all these composers, it was Shostakovich — clearly the most imitated and revered classical composer among the metal-heads — who never left the Soviet Union despite his frightening run-ins with the boss and his cultural henchmen.
Even “Inside the Score” points to Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets as “covered” by Gallagher as the current apex of the metal-to-classical movement. Since the best of these videos inevitably pull viewers to the original versions and onto renowned full recordings of these works — such as a 1988 recording of the entire Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 by the Scottish National Orchestra that some audiophiles say hasn’t yet been beat — these efforts may do more than anything else to bring new audiences to the classical concert hall in the post-pandemic, media-saturated, image-laden America of fall 2021 and beyond.