Words: Joe Bourne
Classical music is comparatively speaking something of an untapped resource for sample material. The term ‘classical’ itself is used to reference the best part of a millennium of musical creativity in the Western world, and as such it is perhaps unsurprising that popular music styles have only just touched the surface of this vast pool. Nevertheless, a good start has been made in a number of genres in uncovering this wealth of musical potential. In recent months major label house signings Clean Bandit have re-interpreted Mozart following in the footsteps of a catalog of dance acts from the past 20+ years. Here WhoSampled takes a look at the composers who have had the greatest influence on music of the recent past. While the first few on our list are best remembered for individual works, the top 5 most sampled composers correlate closely with the esteem these composers hold in the classical world:
10. Erik Satie (1866-1925) – 31 samples
French pianist and composer Satie makes the list in the most part due to his First Gymnopédie. Two of his three Gymnopédies were ‘covered’ (re-orchestrated) by Debussy at the end of the 19th century. While this increased the popularity of the collection during Satie’s lifetime, it is the composer’s original piano version that has dominated the work’s recent past. This piano miniature, with its familiar chord sequence, has become a favourite in film and TV, notably suiting the ethereal climax of Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire. The piece has also been covered by Gary Numan and sampled by artists including Blood, Sweat & Tears and Janet Jackson. The latter’s anecdotal account of the origins of the chorus of “Someone to Call My Lover” sums up the unidentified nostalgia that much classical music tends to represent.
9. Carl Orff (1895-1982) – 32 samples
Orff goes down in today’s classical repertoire as something of a ‘one-hit wonder’ due to the unparalleled fame of the movement “O Fortuna” from his cantata Carmina Burana, composed in the mid 1930s. The text, primarily in Latin, covers a wide range of 13th-century moral issues ranging from gambling to eroticism. The powerful chorus was embraced by the Nazi party and the composer’s output has since struggled to escape these polemics. Orff’s relationship with Nazism is the subject of some debate – the popularity of his music with the Nazis is thought to have served him well financially, although he sought to distance himself from the association. Outside the classical sphere however, “O Fortuna” has become a go-to piece when evoking terror and destruction in movies, and it is often used to comic effect in TV commercials. This rousing segment has led to plenty of samples, particularly in hip hop including tracks by Nas and Cam’ron, and an apocalyptic outro by Busta Rhymes.
8. Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – 36 samples
The oldest composer to make our Top 10 is the German Baroque organist Pachelbel. His Canon in D major was immensely popular among contemporary audiences, but thereafter it lay forgotten until its revival in the 20th century. In many ways, its form could be considered a model for much chord-driven popular music. Its fundamental elements – a basso ostinato on the organ and a short and repetitive chord progression built from a three-part string canon – translate to the modern day bass riff beneath a four-bar chord sequence. Beyond the broader influence of classical music on popular music, this piece has had a specific impact on recent music too. Coming to prominence as the focus of the soundtrack for Robert Redford’s 1980 Oscar-winning Ordinary People, it has gone on to form the backdrop to tracks across the genres, including a hip hop instrumental for Coolio, bubblegum pop-rap by Vitamin C, and a song by N-Dubz in the 2010 movie StreetDance 3D.
7. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) – 45 samples
The sole Scandinavian composer in our list is the patriotic Norwegian pianist Grieg. An important figure during the Romantic period, his music ranges from celebrated piano music to orchestral portrayals of fairytales. His Piano Concerto in A minor has been sampled by Army of the Pharaohs, but it is the Peer Gynt Suite that remains the composer’s best-known set of pieces. “Solveig’s Song” is featured in a track by Wax Tailor, and the most recognisable number is “In the Hall of the Mountain King“. Its pointed bassoon melody has been borrowed by Delinquent Habits and transformed for the digital generation by Zedd.
6. Julius Fučík (1872-1916) – 50 samples
Czech composer Fučík is easily the least famous person to make the list. Despite his celebrity not extending beyond a few military marches, it is his “Grande Marche Chromatique” that survives today under the better-known title “Entrance of the Gladiators“. Due to its circulation in North America in the early part of the 20th century, the work has become synonymous with circus imagery and theatre-organ pipes. In hip hop, the tricksy melody has been sampled by House of Pain, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, but many other genres have also borrowed this ditty. Frank Sinatra, Elton John and even the Backstreet Boys have interspersed this melody with the surrounding textures.
5. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) – 55 samples
The top 5 consists of composers whose output is sampled in a far broader sense than simply in terms of individual masterpieces. It begins with a second and more noteworthy Polish composer-cum-pianist, Chopin. His solo piano works – particularly the book of 24 Preludes, Op. 28 – helped to establish an important part of the keyboard lineage connecting back to the great J.S. Bach, who features later in this list. Perhaps the most famous of these Preludes is the one in E minor, whose sliding chromatic harmony has been sampled by French hip-hop group Suprême NTM, and the funereal progression of the C minor Prelude has been used by Estelle. However, Chopin’s most sampled work is the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, which has featured in tracks by Duke Ellington and Deadmau5, and you may also remember it as the wrestler Undertaker’s entrance music.
4. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – 69 samples
The late-Romantic Russian composer wrote works across the genres, with a Violin Concerto that has been sampled by Billy Joel, incidental music that has been borrowed by Deep Purple, and an Overture-turned-guitar-shred in the hands of Rush. Nevertheless, his mainstream popularity endures thanks to the continued success of his ballets, including The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, the latter of which forms the basis for Natalie Portman‘s Oscar-winning performance in the 2010 blockbuster Black Swan. These pieces have been sampled over and again by artists including RZA, Exile and Pet Shop Boys.
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) – 74 samples
The final three on our list are the unrivalled heavyweights of classical music. Those who have seen the biopic Amadeus will be familiar with the conception of Mozart-as-Wunderkind, and although the composer did not live long, his output is phenomenally large and undeniably important, comprising concertos, choral works and countless miniatures. However, composers of the classical period were measured primarily by their success in the genre of the symphony, and Mozart’s contributions – numbering in excess of 40 – place him alongside Haydn as one of the great classical symphonists. His works have formed the backbone of a wide range of songs. One features as a Ludacris beat, another can be heard in a Supertramp song, and part of the Requiem Mass became the anthem for a Dutch festival. Most recently, Clean Bandit reused the composer’s work in the aptly titled ‘Mozart’s House’.
2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – 85 samples
Our second entry from the Baroque period is also a German organist, but one of incomparable stature. Given Bach’s legendary status even in the present day, you may be surprised to learn just how long he has commanded this level of respect. The vast majority of the great composers of the past 250 years will have used Bach’s two books of 24 Preludes and Fugues (one for every key) as a model for learning to write counterpoint. That the influence of these masterworks has not faded is a testament to the clarity of the composer’s compositional method. The famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor has been sampled many times by artists including DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and, more recently, Eminem. Other great artists to have borrowed from Bach include The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
1. Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) – 113 samples
It is fitting that the most-sampled composer is also arguably one of the most influential musicians of all time. It is not the volume of Beethoven’s output that is remembered, but the unparalleled impact the composer had in his own time, bridging the gap between what we now know as the Classical and Romantic periods, and thereby uprooting the tried and tested system of tonality by pushing it to a point of no return. A broad range of his works have been sampled: the piano work Für Elise has been used by Nas; the fifth Symphony was sampled in a Walter Murphy track, which subsequently was built upon by Robin Thicke; and the Moonlight Sonata was sampled by Alicia Keys.