Soothing the savage beast: Michael Jackson and classical music (part 2 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)

Daily dose of calm

The ‘immortal’ or ‘timeless’ quality of classical music was important to Jackson’s work, but the genre meant more to him than just a source of professional inspiration. Classical music also functioned as his daily dose of calm.

Jackson first indicated this in 1983, when he was interviewed by Ebony/Jet Celebrity Showcase. When asked whose music he liked best, Jackson answered: “Who do I like? Classical music. That’s what I sleep to. People come around and they’re surprised ‘cause that’s what I listen to all day. It’s classical music.”

The habit of listening to classical music both day and night was something Cherilyn Lee, a registered nurse who monitored Jackson in 2009 to help him find a solution to his chronic insomnia, observed as well. “I said, let’s just dim the lights. Let’s cut down on some of the music, because he had classical music that was ongoing in the house itself. (…) It stayed on all day”, she told On the Record in 2009.

Similarly, Frank Cascio, a longtime friend of Jackson, recalled in his book My Friend Michael: “Michael liked to go to sleep to classical music, especially the works of Claude Debussy.” Here, Jackson may have been aware that Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from Suite Bergamasque No. 3, is often recommended for a good night’s sleep.

In addition, private footage that surfaced on YouTube seems to confirm Jackson’s music habit. The footage shows Jackson being videotaped while spending time off with his nephews in Singapore in 1993. While Jackson relaxes in his hotel room, an orchestral version of ‘Claire de Lune’ can be heard playing in the background.

Neverland soundscape

Whether it helped him sleep or not, classical music formed a staple ingredient in Jackson’s daily life. He used it to create an atmosphere in which he felt safe, calm and musically inspired. His private estate, Neverland Valley Ranch, for example, offered a continuous, artificial soundscape of classical music, film scores, musicals, and even prerecorded bird songs.

Brad Sundberg, who installed various sound systems at Neverland, recalled on his Facebook page: “We played classical and movie soundtrack music around most of the ranch (except in the park), but in the zoo we sometimes experimented with some cowboy music – Gene Autry and such. Michael knew the power of music to set a mood, and he trusted me (mostly) to create a suitable soundtrack for the various areas. That said, he was very hands-on in choosing music for the specific rides and primary guest areas.”

Sundberg further recalls on his website: “If you walk through the various sections of a Disney park, you’ll hear the music and sounds change to reflect the mood of that particular location. We did the same thing at Neverland, using music and sound effects to create ambience for the guests. We even had different line ups of music and effects for day and night time. Each song was chosen by Michael personally. He would listen to my ideas, and often agree, except when I suggested some of his own songs. That was not allowed.”

Jackson’s preferred music for the main house and  gardens included uplifting songs from well-known musicals such as The Sound of Music. Additionally, orchestral film scores by John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith alternated with gentle classical compositions such as Debussy’s ‘Arabesque No. 1’, Vaughan Williams’s ‘Lark Ascending’ and ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’, as well as Bach’s ‘Partita for Solo Flute in A minor BWV 1013’.

Most of these compositions have a romantic, fairy-tale quality which enhanced Jackson’s world of magic, fantasy and escapism. Adding to a sense of wonder, the music discreetly sounded from speakers that were disguised as boulders lining the flower beds of the ranch. In contrast, loud pop music blasted from most of the amusement rides that were located in another section of the vast Neverland estate.

Classical all the time

On the road, classical music prevailed as well. In Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in his Final Days, bodyguard Javon Beard recalled: “One thing I learned real quick was whenever we were driving him, he only listened to classical music. He’d send us to the store to buy it by the armload. He’d say, ‘I need some CDs. Classical. Get all the classical CDs you can find.’ So one of us would go to the store, go to the classical section, grab a bunch, bring them home. If he got in the backseat and either me or Bill had the radio on an R&B station, one of us would quickly turn it to classical. Every now and then, he’d want to listen to the R&B but otherwise it was classical pretty much all of the time.”

Eager to share his music interest with others, Jackson educated his friends and family on the topic. Jackson’s daughter Paris, for example, told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2017: “My dad worked with Van Halen, so I got into Van Halen. He worked with Slash, so I got into Guns N’ Roses. He introduced me to Tchaikovsky and Debussy, Earth Wind and Fire, the Temptations, Tupac, Run-DMC.”

Frank Cascio wrote something similar in My Friend Michael: “Michael went on about Aaron Copland, whom he considered the greatest composer of the twentieth century. He introduced me to all types of music – country, folk, classical, funk, rock. He even turned me on to Barbra Streisand. I fell in love with her song ‘People’.”

Jackson’s interest in various music genres, including classical music, seems to have been rooted in a profound sense of musical freedom. “I wouldn’t be happy doing just one kind of music or label ourselves,” he told Creem Magazine in 1983. “I like doing something for everybody… I don’t like our music to be labeled. Labels are like… racism.” It should come as no surprise then, that Jackson eventually set out to explore avenues of collaboration with classical composers.

© 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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