This month we perform ‘Rebel Rebel’ at Drapers’ Hall Coventry and Stratford Play House. It examines the cultural impact and far-reaching legacies of two visionary artists who challenged the weight of received ideas and accepted musical norms during their respective lifetimes, taking Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue and intersperses it with beautifully reimagined versions of songs by David Bowie. We caught up with Artistic Director David Le Page to find out why Beethoven and Bowie?
First of all this concert is not concerned with the intricacies of musical comparison; in my mind it would be pointless to compare or contrast the composing styles or specific musical content of these artists. The interest lies, I believe, in exploring the respective cultural caches of, on the one hand, a colossus of 19th century European art music and, on the other, a chameleon-like folk hero who achieved enormous popularity during the latter decades of the 20th century.
Beethoven is, without doubt, the most recognisable figure in Classical music. When conjuring an image of the archetypal romantic composer with auteurist tendencies it is always Beethoven who springs to mind. His moody bust adorns the shelves of countless households across the world.
Bowie’s lighting bolt makeup, which first appeared on the cover of 1973’s Aladdin Sane album, is equally iconic and has become synonymous with a well-worn trope about hedonistic rock stardom and everything that goes with it. Before the saturation of culture as we know it today this image was desirable or dangerous, or perhaps both depending on your point of view.
havingto isolate.The students he’d been teaching cello to took part anyway though and everyone had a brilliant, fun time playing the instruments the Birmingham Music Hub had lent the students for this project.
Like a Trojan horse, Beethoven, transformed tightly structured classical forms from the inside, reaching a point in his later works where even the uninitiated could not fail to recognise (if not always enjoy) his ground-breaking approach. Bowie’s eclectic interest in art, from Kabuki theatre, silent film and Kurt Weill to Music Hall, Stockhausen and Doo Wop found its way into the central nervous system of his work and enabled him to formulate his particular vision of popular music. Perhaps more importantly he was able to recognise and exploit the prevailing cultural landscape through the mass medium of commercial recording. He was an opportunist who had a canny knack of understanding the zeitgeist, and it is quite possible that his creative energy might have been channelled elsewhere were he starting out at any other period than the late 1960s.
Beethoven’s late string quartets, which are generally recognised to be the apotheosis of his craft, not only baffled many of his contemporaries but continue to be startling to this day. The slow movement of Opus 132 bears the title ‘Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode’; written whilst recovering from serious illness, the music floats between a kind of extraordinarily beautiful stasis and a waltz which totters precariously back and forth between dignified and skittish. The monumental Grosse Fugue was originally conceived as the final movement of his opus 130 quartet but was rejected by his publisher who took fright and requested something more palatable. It is often perceived as a struggle or something to be endured but it is actually a celebration of life, abounding with a sort of gleeful difficulty that bustles towards a conclusion of sheer joy.
My arrangements of five Bowie songs do not seek to replicate their recorded originals but rather aim to capture the essence of his restless creativity. For me this was a way of remaining truer to his ethos of reinvention; he was famously uninterested in retreading the same ground. I have chosen to examine Heroes, for example, one his most well-known songs, from a new angle; the structure, the hooks and the chord sequences are present but it materialises in slow motion, underpinned by delicate string motifs as opposed to driving guitars. These ‘reimaginings’ form something of an overview of his career – from the sparkling glam of Aladdin Sane to the precise introspection of Lazarus, recorded with the knowledge of his own approaching death.
To bring these ideas together and to lend coherence to my hypothesis, I’m delighted that we will be joined by journalist and author Paul Morley. Paul’s biography The Age of Bowie was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim and his 2020 book A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love With Classical Music (And Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History) combines “memoir and history in a spiralling tale that establishes classical music as the most rebellious genre of all.” I can think of no better qualified person than Paul to explore the connections between two supposedly disparate artists.
In these days of cultural fluidity – when the lines between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are constantly being erased, in an age where all recorded music is instantly available and when history, since the advent of film, photography and sound recording, seems like it happened yesterday and not 100 years ago – it is hard to know what or how to think about art, or sometimes to even care. The upside is that we do have the opportunity to make up our own minds without resorting to tribalism and esprit de corps. In a time where pop borrows freely from classical and vice versa we can place David Bowie alongside Beethoven and just ‘see what happens.’ Rebel Rebel has more in common with an experiment than a concert; it is a way of firing the imagination and creating questions rather than answers.