Soothing the savage beast: Michael Jackson and classical music (part 1 of 4)

It seems an unlikely pair – Michael Jackson and classical music. Yet the King of Pop’s longtime passion for classical music permeated both his work and private life. Compositions of the past satisfied his musical curiosity, supported his ambition to learn from the greats, and soothed his soul. Classical music is what Jackson had hoped to command and create, just months before he passed away.

Michael Jackson classical music
Michael Jackson and classical music (photo: video still)

‘Classical’ music

It’s a well-known quality of music, and classical music in particular: it soothes the soul. Michael Jackson knew this fact well. “I think music soothes the savage beast”, he told Ebony/Jet Magazine in May 1992. “If you put cells under a microscope and you put music on, you’ll see them move and start to dance. It affects the soul.”

This may have been one of the reasons why, from an early age, Jackson was attracted to acoustic music of the past. In contrast to the dance-oriented qualities of contemporary pop music that he lived and breathed, Jackson found peace and calm in compositions that he defined as ‘classical’.

But what did Jackson mean by classical music? Did he think of harps, violins and oboes? Did he picture concert halls with symphony orchestras playing Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn? Or did he perhaps define ‘classical’ as any type of serious, sophisticated or lasting music that was not pop, rock or jazz?

A glimpse of the answer may be found in Jackson’s autobiography Moonwalk (1988). “I love classical music”, Jackson wrote. “I’m crazy about Debussy. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Clair de Lune. And Prokofiev. I could listen to Peter and the Wolf over and over and over again. Copland is one of my all-time favourite composers. You can recognize his distinctive brass sound right away. Billy the Kid is fabulous. I listen to a lot of Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker Suite is a favourite.”

Other composers he admired included Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Bernstein and Gershwin. Clearly, ‘classical’ meant more to Jackson than a strictly defined genre or time period in music history. Yet even though Jackson’s favourite composers spanned a timeline of several centuries, they did have a common denominator, and that was their use of lyrical melodies.

Aaron Copland and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Aaron Copland (left) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (right) – (photos: public domain)

Melting into the melody

Melody was a music quality to which Jackson strongly responded. In 2007, Ebony Magazine asked Jackson what the key was to his creative process. His answer was straightforward: “It’s the melody, it’s the melody that’s most important. If the melody can sell me, then I’ll go to the next step. The idea is to transcribe from what’s in your mentality onto tape.”

The art of transposing an idea or emotion into a timeless piece of music may have been another reason why Jackson was attracted to classical music. Like the classics, he was drawn to the art of telling evocative stories in the universal language of rhythm and sound. Such ‘music stories’ captured the soul, regardless of time period, genre or composer.

“Great music and great melodies are immortal”, Jackson told Geraldo Rivera in a television interview in 2005. “I don’t care… you know, fashions change, culture changes, customs change. Great music is immortal. We still listen to Mozart today, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, any of them, any of the greats. Great music is like a great piece of sculpture or a great painting. It’s forever, you know. For generations upon generations to appreciate, forever. And that’s… I know that’s a fact.”


Fusing pop and classical music

As Jackson’s interest in classical music developed, he began to include fragments of classical works in his pop albums. Often, these classical music fragments functioned as a frame of reference or opening statement, reinforcing the dramatic components of Jackson’s pop music compositions.

Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ from Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Opus 125), for example, forms the prelude to ‘Will You Be There’ on his album Dangerous (1991). Similarly, a substantial part of Duruflé’s ‘Pie Jesu’ from Requiem (Opus 9) features as a prelude to the song ‘Little Susie’ on his album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995).

Another classic Jackson incorporated into his music is Mussorgsky’s ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ from Pictures at an Exhibition. The opening of the composition is sampled on the collage-like song ‘HIStory’ on the album of the same name. In later album versions, Mussorgsky’s work was replaced by a similar sounding orchestral piece to avoid a copyright conflict.

Also noteworthy is Jackson’s use of Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana, with which he opened the second leg of his Bad Tour in 1988 and his Dangerous Tour in 1992. Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was used to open ‘Can You Feel It’ during Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Celebration concerts in 2001.

Music critic and scholar Joseph Vogel has additionally identified Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major in the opening notes of ‘Hold my hand’ on the posthumous album Michael (2010). Here, Jackson appears to have used a variation of the motive rather than including the original melody in his song.


© Annemarie Latour

My gratitude goes to Prof. Eleonora Beck for sharing the brief outline of her unpublished lecture ‘The Influence of Classical Music on Michael Jackson’, which was held at Lewis & Clark College on the 9th of February 2010. I am also grateful to François Glorieux, whom I was privileged to meet in 2016 and who kindly shared his remarkable story of meeting Michael Jackson in person.

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2 thoughts on “Soothing the savage beast: Michael Jackson and classical music (part 1 of 4)”

  1. I love this, Annemarie – it’s funny how Michael (like a lot of people, I guess) get’s that Congreve quote wrong: “music soothes the savage beast [breast]” – but his meaning is clear, and spot on! Looking forward to the following parts of this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s right Kerry. The full original late 17th century text reads “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” It’s often misquoted, although the meaning behind it stays the same. I decided to stick with MJ’s quote as it is, flawed but faithful to his perception of the ‘hidden’ qualities of music. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

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