I heard an interesting piece of music trivia the other day on the Sirius XM Beatles channel. It seems that John Lennon was inspired to write perhaps the group’s most complex song involving vocal harmonic arrangement (nine-part, in fact) after listening to a famous “classical” romantic piece played backwards to see what it sounded like.
Now obviously what he came up with is not simply a rendering of that piece played backward. But, according to Snopes and Wikipedia, there are similarities, including the key of C-sharp minor, chord structure and the use of arpeggios (tones of a chord played in succession rather than simultaneously).
Musicologist Walter Everett is quoted as observing (for those who might actually understand music theory — unlike yours truly) that “both arpeggiate triads and seventh chords in C# minor in the baritone range of the keyboard instrument at a slow tempo, move through the submediant to flat II and approach the vii dim(7)/IV via a common tone.”
Please don’t ask me to explain that. Lennon, although clearly a musical genius, was a provincial working-class bloke from Liverpool who was musically unschooled and essentially self-taught, as compared with the composer whose work inspired him, who was classically trained and considered one of the great geniuses of the Western musical canon.
That composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, completed the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor “Quasi una Fantasia” in 1801 and dedicated it in 1802 to his pupil (with whom he was infatuated), Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. And it was that particular work that inspired Lennon to write “Because,” which appeared on Abbey Road (1969 — and attributed to Lennon-McCartney), immediately preceding the extended medley on side two of the record.
Lennon himself detailed the “backwards” story of the origin of “Because” to journalist David Sheff in a lengthy 1980 interview in Playboy three months before he was murdered.
“I was lying on the sofa in our house, listening to Yoko (his wife) play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano. Suddenly, I said, 'Can you play those chords backward?' She did, and I wrote ‘Because' around them. The song sounds like ‘Moonlight Sonata,' too. The lyrics are clear... no imagery, no obscure references.”
All of this sort of begs the question where Lennon may have gotten some of his other inspiration.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps Lennon was better versed in the Bible than he might have let on at the time.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but consider one of the most famous passages out of the New Testament, the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, beginning with the first verse of Chapter 1.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made ...”
And now consider part of the lyrics from “All You Need is Love,” a song written by Lennon and credited to Lennon-McCartney. It was released as a non-album single in July 1967 but had served as Britain’s contribution to "Our World," the first live global television link, when the Beatles were filmed performing it at EMI Studios in London the previous month:
“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing that you can sing that can’t be sung ...
There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.”
Well, like I say, it’s a stretch. Lennon had complicated views on religion and actually wrote a song titled “God” that appeared on his first post-Beatles solo album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) in which he lists many idols he does not believe in while proclaiming that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”
Although his song “Imagine” is considered something of an atheistic anthem, Lennon made it clear in the Sheff interview that he had a definite spiritual side.
“People always got the image I was an anti-Christ or anti-religion. I’m not. I’m a most religious fellow.”
As for his interest in Buddhism, he told Sheff that compared with Christianity he admired its lack of proselytizing. But, he said, “I’m not pushing Buddhism, because I’m no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian.”