By Richie Unterberger

Almost immediately after the Beatles exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney were adapted into instrumental/orchestral/quasi-classical settings. Most of the earliest attempts were forgettable or, in fact, lamentable, such as the infamous The Beatles Song Book LP by the Hollyridge Strings that was advertised on the back covers of early Beatles albums in the US. In contrast, The Baroque Beatles Book was perhaps the first project both to successfully adapt Lennon-McCartney tunes to classical arrangements, and to stand on its own as a genuinely creative reinvention interpretation of their catalog within the classical idiom. Many similar matings have been attempted over the subsequent forty years, but few have been as successful critically or, remarkably, commercially, with The Baroque Beatles Book selling so well that it cracked the Top Hundred.

        As Elektra founder and president Jac Holzman wrote in his autobiography Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws), in the fall of 1965 he developed the idea of "doing Beatles songs that would lend themselves to baroque interpretation, as a serious musical exploration, but packaged with humor and an eye toward the Christmas season." He even went to the trouble of going to London to get publishing clearance directly from the Beatles themselves. The arrangements would be created by 21-year-old Joshua Rifkin, who had already recorded for Elektra as part of the Even Dozen Jug Band (a folk group also including John Sebastian, Stefan Grossman, Maria Muldaur, and David Grisman), and also wrote and edited liner notes for the label's classical imprint, Nonesuch.

        "I think Jac came to me very soon after he got the idea, asking for advice," Rifkin remembers today. "He'd figured out that the Beatles songs could fit well into the idiom of Baroque music, which was itself quite fashionable at that point. He didn't in fact come out and offer me the project. This wasn't unreasonable—after all, I was a kid of twenty-one, without much experience. I suggested that he approach Peter Schickele"—best known as the force behind the music of P.D.Q. Bach—"to do this. Peter and I were friends; we knew each other at Juilliard, and I had even sung the first performance of the P.D.Q. cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn. So it seemed to me that he would be an ideal candidate for this job. Peter, however, had just come into an arrangement with Vanguard [Records], and so he wasn't free to do the album for Elektra."

        Continues Rifkin, "When Peter didn't work out, I said to Jac, 'Well, you know, you might let me try this.' Jac said, 'Okay, do a demo of some sort.' The demo we did was a trio on 'Eight Days a Week'—the first movement of what became the last piece on the album. Jac liked the result, and gave me the job. But also, because I think he was still nervous, through contacts, he enlisted a collaborator, an experienced Broadway and commercial arranger named Gerald Alter. Gerry was sort of supposed to be my assistant or maybe keep watch on me—I don't really know. He was a very good musician but in fact found himself with little to do, possibly because the nature of the job was different from what he knew best, possibly because I sort of froze him out. Over the years, I came to feel rather bad about that, if that's what indeed I did."

        Unbelievably—at least from today's perspective, where it can take months just to get a drum sound—the album was arranged, recorded, packaged, and in the shops within five weeks of conception. "We had to do this very fast," Rifkin emphasizes. "Jac was absolutely persuaded that if he had the idea, someone else would get it as well, so we had to strike first. So basically I embarked on a schedule of writing ten to eighteen hours a day. As I got scores ready, we had a very fine, established Broadway copying agency, one that turned out musicals and stuff like that, more or less waiting on my every move, picking up the music pretty much the minute it left my hands, taking it and copying out parts so that we could go right to the studio with it. One of the things I learned from this was a kind of hands-on sense of what it was like for Bach, Handel, or people like that to turn out music at the incredible pace at which they worked, also with a team of copyists waiting on their every move. I had just started graduate school, squeezing this all in between seminars in which I was studying things like eighteenth-century music, and here I was pretty much back into an eighteenth-century situation! Predictably, I suppose, I got a bad flu and was pretty much holed up in bed, but fortunately my girlfriend of the time—later my first wife—kept me supplied with chicken soup. And somehow, I just managed to turn the stuff out. It can't have been more than a couple of weeks from the time Jac first asked me until all the music was written, and we were going into the studio and starting to record it."

        While some of the Lennon-McCartney songs Rifkin selected were big hits such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Please Please Me," "She Loves You," "Help!," and "Ticket to Ride," others were relatively off-the-beaten album tracks and B-sides like "I'll Be Back," "Thank You Girl," "Hold Me Tight," and "You're Going to Lose That Girl." "All of us knew all of the tunes," recalls Rifkin. "We just loved every bit of the stuff—Jac loved it, everybody did. I always, from some very early point on, tried to get every single Beatles recording. It wasn't just that it had become so tremendously popular. We were absolutely crazy about this music. Even if we had fun with it, it was fun with it in a way that was taking it seriously, giving it its due. And we weren't looking to do the only 'hits.' We did do our share, but we were just looking to do the stuff that mattered most to us. I was pretty much free to choose the tunes I wanted. 'I'll Be Back,' for instance; that was always one of my very favorite songs of theirs, and it came to me as a very natural song to have in the context where I used it."

        As to what in the Beatles' background could have caused them to write compositions that lent themselves to the baroque treatment, Rifkin speculates, "This is somewhat mysterious. In pop music, in rock, there is a certain branch that has a kind of rich but at the same time very crystalline harmonic style that can slide over into this. You think of the Everly Brothers, which is something that the Beatles did know very well. The Beatles also knew folk music, and there's a lot of that neo-modal stuff there that is, in some ways, closer to baroque harmonies than a lot of rock. It's a language without the blues chords, without the added sixths and all of that, that makes it something that could swing so easily into the baroque style. Clearly they had tapped into something that had enough common elements to make them produce music that could be turned around in this other rather weird direction."

        Producing the album was Mark Abramson, assisted by Elektra's other main staff producer of the time, Paul Rothchild (who had worked with Rifkin on the Even Dozen Jug Band's album). The orchestra, like many aspects of the LP, was put together with the kind of seat-of-the-pants energy characteristic of many Elektra projects of the era. "The company hadn't produced what was essentially classical stuff, and didn't really have experience with this," notes Rifkin. "So when I was writing, they asked me, 'Who shall we get for the band?' I reeled off the names of all the best-known New York freelancers, particularly people who had some experience playing baroque music. You can imagine my astonishment when they actually got these people! These were kind of legends to me, famous names. That they would actually show up at a recording session that I was conducting seemed quite astonishing to me. There were a couple of younger musicians who were friends of mine also, Juilliard people and recent Juilliard graduates. One or two of them became themselves well known in the business soon enough after that—the flutist Paula Robison, for example. It was a very stellar lineup, kind of state-of-the-art New York freelance classical scene mid-'60s. My old conducting teacher from Juilliard was even among the players!" In addition to conducting, Rifkin himself played harpsichord on several of the album's pieces.

        "Certain things gave me particular pleasure to do," he adds. "The last two tunes in the opening orchestral piece, the 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away'/'Ticket to Ride' arrangements, because they were tunes I particularly liked. I really enjoyed working in not only the melodies and harmonies of the song, but details of the records themselves—getting the flute solo in 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away,' getting that coda in 'Ticket to Ride.' Those two things are about the most successful. I also liked doing the slower tunes—not just 'I'll Be Back,' but also 'Things We Said Today.' I'm really very fond of a lot of it."

        With knowing nods to Beatles lore inserted into the track listings and credits—i.e., references to "Epstein Variations," "Murray the Klavierkitzler," and the "Baroque Ensemble of the Merseyside Kammermusikgesellschaft"—The Baroque Beatles Book did indeed make it into the shops in November 1965, in time for the Christmas season. It did amazingly well for a nominally classical release on an independent label, climbing all the way to No. 83 in the album charts. "What is very gratifying about it is that somehow, despite the pressure under which we did it, the result was still very good," observes a proud Rifkin. "The reaction was enthusiastic pretty much across the board. There were a tremendous number of classical Beatles fans in those days, and I think a lot of the pop people, too, found it amusing. It seemed just to win everybody over. One of the earliest reviews even said that not only was the music itself beautiful, but the performances were about some of the most enlightened examples of baroque practice one could find at that time."

        It's not well known that a sequel to the LP was planned on Elektra, and a few arrangements that would have been on that record were performed at a concert based around The Baroque Beatles Book in the spring of 1966. "At the time, I was writing volume two, and this was going to be the first outing for some of the pieces," explains Rifkin. "We had about half the thing already written. I was planning to do an orchestral piece, a sort of concerto grosso with a first movement based on 'Another Girl.' We had another cantata; this used 'Girl,' complete with a chorus inhaling, and 'I've Just Seen a Face,' and the text came from some of Lennon's writings. The final chorus was 'We Can Work it Out,' one of the really great, stunning, beautiful Beatles songs. Turned into baroque music, it had an almost religious feeling to it. It was just beautiful. People cried when they heard it; it's been heard in one or two concert performances since. That I'm sorry that we didn't get to record."

        As to why a second volume never appeared, Joshua elaborates, "I remember very distinctly one evening going over to Mark Abramson's apartment in Lower Manhattan to eat dinner and do some more planning on the album. We ate, drank wine, and talked for a couple of hours. Somewhere around dessert, we looked across the table at each other and said, quite suddenly, 'Let's not do this record.' Mark and I had come to a feeling that this was not something we wanted to repeat. We were very, very happy with the way it was done, and it would not be the same to do it again."

        But Abramson and Rifkin would put their Baroque Beatles Book experience to productive use by continuing to work together on Judy Collins's In My Life and Wildflowers albums, where they concocted some of the most gorgeous, and influential, classical-inflected orchestral arrangements in 1960s pop-folk-rock. "It was doing The Baroque Beatles that got me hooked up with Judy. She came around to some of the editing sessions; the whole Elektra gang showed up at one time or another, and she was close to Mark in those days. Everyone seemed to like what I could do with an orchestra, both writing and directing, and by the time we did the concert in the spring of '66, In My Life was already in the works. I was able to take my kind of classical and heavily baroque-influenced sensibility, and turn it loose on Judy's folk and pop material." So in a very real sense, while The Baroque Beatles Book was a classical adaptation of popular music, it in turn influenced popular music itself.

        And what of the reaction of the Beatles themselves? "I was often asked in those days by interviewers, 'Have you met the Beatles, have you ever had any contact with the Beatles?' The response was always, 'No, dammit!'" Rifkin laughs. "I remember being rather pissed off when Jac came back with a record signed by Paul McCartney, sort of congratulating Jac on the project and wishing him well on it. I thought, you know, I'm the guy who wrote this thing! But being the boss of a record company has its own prerogatives too." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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