“It seems I’ve heard that song before” is the first line of a classic by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne that turned up in a 1942 film called “Youth on Parade.” How many times do we had that reaction to a melody being played that instantly brings to mind yet another song but with the same melody? If you are hearing “Kismet” for the first time and know your Borodin, you would soon catch on that the score is based squarely on that Russian composer’s more popular melodies. As is “Blossom Time” with a Sigmund Romberg score based on Schubert’s works and “Song of Norway” on Grieg’s.
But when Della Reese sang back in 1959 “Don’t you know I have fallen in love with you for the rest of my whole life through?” one could check the label to see that the words and music were by Bobby Worth, while your operaphile friends grinned knowingly at the adaptation of Musetta’s seductive Waltz from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
The business of taking over classical melodies must go back to the ancient world—or at least before copyrights became a problem. The most famous example of tune-snatching must be “Greensleeves.” Some say it was written by Henry VIII, some say he merely wrote the lyrics. But when one hears that loveliest of all melodies, one cannot help but think of “Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off ungratefully.” By Shakespeare’s time, it was familiar enough to be mentioned twice in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely “Fantasia” on the melody helps preserve it in the public’s mind.
However, at one point or another, it was given new lyrics that now and then show up on recordings of seasonal songs: “The old year now away is fled, the New Year it is enter-ed, Then let us now our sins downtread, and joyfully all appear.” This can be found in a 1642 collection now in the Ashmolean Library at Oxford. It is also on a CD of Alfred Deller recordings, the cover of which is shown.
The transition from love to New Year celebration was followed by a second one to Christmas celebration when a certain William Chatterton Dix (the date was around 1865) changed the lyrics to “What child is this, who laid to rest” and so on. If any reader knows any other non-parody set of lyrics to “Greensleeves,” please let me know.
Those who recall the very first Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, “The First Churchills,” already know that the John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, kept giving the French a series of thorough lickings on the battlefield. And so the French came up in 1709 with an insulting little bit called “Malbrough [sic] s’en va-t-en guerre” in which the death of the Duke was narrated—notwithstanding the fact that he actually died in 1722.
Well, the tune was bouncy enough to have the English (and this is one version of what “really” happened) jettison the lyrics and substitute “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” From there, the music appeared as a children’s song, “The bear went over the mountain,” which has made many a long drive seem even longer to the adults who have to hear the children make the drive seem shorter by singing the repetitious adventures of that wretched bear.
Now: what does a French folk song, a little star, a black sheep, and the alphabet have in common? Read on, s’il vous plait.
One melody was so immensely popular in Europe that even Mozart composed a set of variations on it (K. 265). It also shows up as the major theme in the second movement of Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony.” In France, the words were “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman,/Ce qui cause mon tournament?” It is a child’s plea for candy! It shows up with variations in Adolphe Adam’s delightful but pretty much unknown light opera “Le Toreador” (1849). We know it best as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” the lyrics of which were written in 1806; and I was quite surprised to realize it also shows up as “Baa, baa, blacksheep, have you any wool?” And let us not forget the “Alphabet Song” (1834), with the immortal lyrics: “a b c d e f g (pause) h i j k (slight pause) l m n o p (etc.).” I also read that a German, a Dutch and an Hungarian Christmas carol use the same melody.
Many a popular song is a “steal” from the classics. Remember “Hot Diggity (Dog Diggity Boom)” from 1956—try Chabrier’s “Espana” for that source. And the beautiful “Tonight We Love” (1941)—Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.” And the parodies of Spike Jones (the horserace narrated to the Gallop from “William Tell Overture”) and Allan Sherman’s 1963 letter from Camp Granada, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”—“The Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.”
But there is a website list of dozens of such adaptations at en.wikipedia.org.
Moral (if one insists): You can’t keep a good tune down.
Footnote: The Mozart Variations to the French song can be found on a Naxos CD, “Piano Variations, Vol. 2.” “Le Toreador” is available on the Decca label with soprano Sumi Jo. I think I found it sung on YouTube also.
Postscript. Some time after writing this essay, my son and I were in some record shop and he spotted a CD titled “The Artistry of Nelson Eddy” (which is still available as “used” on Amazon.com). It has as a subtitle “Popular songs adapted from classical themes” and includes 12 tracks such as “Tonight we love” from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor, “Full moon and empty arms” from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and “‘Til the end of time” from a Chopin Polonaise. It would be a cute party game to plays few bars and see who can name the classical source for each! (Doing it the other way around is no recommended.)