Although best known for his work in the pop world (particularly with The Beatles), producer Sir George Martin, who died yesterday at 90, had a life-long love of classical music which he put to great use over his career.
Born and raised in North London, Martin saved up for piano lessons as a teenager, wanting to play Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, and at school his interest in classical music was further fuelled by a visit by the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Adrian Boult. After serving in the Royal Navy during World War Two, he consolidated his grounding in music, studying composition, conducting and orchestration at the Guildhall School of Music. He also took up the oboe to ‘earn a bit of living’ – in later years, he cited Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, K370 as one of his favourite pieces.
Martin spent a brief time after his graduation working in the BBC’s classical music department, before his move to Parlophone records in London (a subsidiary of EMI) in 1950. At this time, he developed an interest in comedy recordings. In one of these the actor Peter Ustinov sang in a 'mock' Mozartian opera style (see below).
Martin's work with The Beatles, who he signed in 1962, saw him gradually introduce classical music elements into their recordings, beginning with a string quartet arrangement to accompany Paul McCartney’s song ‘Yesterday’ in 1965. He later developed more complex orchestrations, including the famous glissando performed by a 41-piece orchestra in ‘A Day in The Life’ on the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
Martin was no mean composer himself, as displayed in his cleverly constructed score for Yellow Submarine film in 1968 – as well as quoting JS Bach, the score also showed touches of Stravinsky and Holst. His work as a composer included writing for classical guitarist John Williams and the Medici Quartet.
In the 1990s, Martin made a recording of George Gershwin Songs, featuring bass-baritone Willard White while, in 2002, he curated a series of discs called ‘Sir George Martin Presents’ focusing on different composers, including Mozart, Holst & Vaughan Williams, and Beethoven.
As for his own favourites? On a 1996 episode of Desert Island Discs, Martin picked Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, calling it ‘one of the greatest pieces of love music ever written'. He also regarded the 1974 album Apocalypse by the Mahavishnu Orchestra – featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra with guitarist John McLaughlin – as ‘one of the best albums (he) ever made.’
Five classically influenced George Martin recordings…
Peter Ustinov – Mock Mozart (1953)
In his early days at Parlophone, Martin produced a run of comedy records, including this gem from 1953 that featured the actor Peter Ustinov and broadcaster Antony Hopkins. Ustinov lampoons various operatic singing styles with earnest, garbled vocals, while Hopkins tinkers away on a harpsichord.
The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby (1966)
In Eleanor Rigby, when Paul McCartney asked for something in the style of Vivaldi, Martin instead based his staccato string arrangement on Bernard Herrmann’s intense soundtrack to the film Psycho. When the piece was recorded, the instruments had microphones placed up close, to pick up the scratching of the strings. This added a spiky texture to the sound.
The Beatles – Penny Lane (1967)
Martin made increasing use of classical references in his work with The Beatles. The band’s single ‘Penny Lane’, for instance, features a Baroque-style piccolo trumpet solo, inspired by JSB's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. This was played by the Philharmonia trumpeter David Mason.
The Beatles – All You Need Is Love (1967)
Marking a landmark in broadcasting history, the song ‘All You Need is Love’ was performed to a live TV audience of 400 million people. Martin insisted on the use of a backing track in order to keep the musicians focused, including his studio orchestra. The song begins with a quote from the French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’ and during the long fade out at the end, there are quotes from ‘Greensleeves’ and JS Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F.
George Martin – Three American Sketches (1995)
Martin wrote a group of pieces for classical guitarist John Williams and the Medici Quartet. Three American Sketches, which Martin humbly described as his ‘attempt to paint a picture of America’, is a beautiful suite that contains three movements – ‘Westward Look’, ‘Old Boston’ and ‘New York, New York’.