By Charles Berger
More than 100 years ago, singers Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan ushered in the practice of “repurposing” motifs from classical music compositions into the popular music of the day. In their case it was “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune” (Victor 16472), a ragtime tribute to the composer’s “Spring Song” recorded in 1910. Irving Berlin is credited as the composer and lyricist. It’s not like the 19th-century composer and pianist was in a position to do anything about it; Felix Mendelssohn — aka Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy — been dead since 1847.
Since then, plenty of other songwriters and performers have taken a page out of the Collins and Harlan playbook: Come up with some lyrics, dabble in the no-copyright zone of classical music, and see what happens.
Since the 1940s, one of the most-borrowed composers has been Frederic Chopin. He was born in Zalazowa, Poland, in 1810 and died, presumably of tuberculosis, in Paris in 1849, at the age of 39. Chopin was a sickly man; he weighed less than 100 pounds. He never married, either. But he sure did write a lot of music — more than 200 pieces, to be exact.
Here are six modern-day pop songs — some successful, some not — that owe their existence to Frederic Chopin.
One of the earliest recordings was by Perry Como in 1946 with “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (first published in 1917), based on Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromtu.” It was one of many such classically-based “tributes” Como recorded; a whole article could be devoted to those alone. But Como’s suave performance here went to No. 5 on the Billbaord charts.
In 1949, pianist and orchestra leader Larry Green recorded “My Promise to You” with vocals by Don Grady. (Not the one from “My Three Sons” fame, by the way.) Their song, based on “Nocturne in D,” never charted and is typical of 1940s “bland band” arrangements.
One of the best adaptations of Chopin’s work was Jo Stafford’s 1950 recording of “No Other Love” (Capitol 1053), which is not to be confused with a song by the same name that Perry Como recorded in 1953. Stafford’s version is based on “Etude No. 3 in E, Opus 10,” and her sweet voice propeled it all the way to No. 8 on the Billboard charts.
“The Eddie Duchin Story” in 1956 featured Chopin’s “E-Flat Nocturne.” Artists including The Four Aces and Woody Herman recorded their versions under the title “To Love Again.” Vic Damone (born Vito Farinola in 1928), recorded it on Columbia 40682, but the song never charted.
Como borrowed from Chopin’s “Polonaise,” renamed it “Till The End of Time” and rode it all the way up to the top of the charts in 1945. The classic song has been recorded many times over the years, including a 1958 version by The Nobles (ABC 9984), which drew praise from Billboard magazine, which wrote “The evergreen is done pleasantly by the crew with shuffler rhythm backing by a lush ork …”
In 1973, long before Barry Manilow told the tragic tale of Lola and Tony’s ill-fated night at the hottest spot north of Havana, he recorded “Could It Be Magic” (Bell 45-422), based on Chopin’s “Prelude in C Minor.” The song went on for an unheard-of 7 minutes, 17 seconds, which, no surprise, kept it off the charts. But in 1975, Manilow reworked the tune on Arista 0126 to fit into a modest 3 minute, 37 second playtime, and it shot up to No. 8 on the Billboard charts.
One would think the record companies would give credit to the original composers out of respect. Some do; some don’t.