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.
Meeting David Michael Frank
Although the project with François Glorieux disappeared off the radar in the 1990s, Jackson returned to the idea of a classical or acoustic music album in 2009. This time, however, he seemed to take his endeavours more seriously.
First, Jackson contacted American composer and conductor David Michael Frank, who specialized in television and film scores. The two had met before at a television tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. in 1989. Twenty years later – and only two months before his unexpected death – Jackson invited Frank to his home in Los Angeles, where he had been quietly working on an album of acoustic music.
“He said he listened to classical music all the time; it was his absolute favourite”, Frank told the Baltimore Sun in 2009. “I was impressed with the pieces he mentioned: Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait; Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I mentioned Bernstein’s On the Waterfront. Then Michael mentioned that he loved Elmer Bernstein’s film music, too, and he specifically mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird.”
As the two discussed their favourite compositions, Jackson played some of the acoustic music ideas he had recorded on CD, asking Frank’s input for the missing music sections. “I sat at the piano and Michael hummed the missing part of one of the pieces. I had taken a little digital recorder with me and asked if I could record him. He was in perfect pitch. I tried to figure out chords to go with it as he hummed. He said, ‘Your instincts are totally right about the chords.’”
Continuing the dream
Happy to have found an opportunity to proceed with his ‘classical’ project, Jackson was eager to record his compositions with a large symphony orchestra. Since Jackson was bound for London, where he was to perform his final concert series in 2009, Frank proposed to record the acoustic album in the UK, to which Jackson agreed. Two months later, however, the legendary King of Pop suddenly passed away.
Frank was left with a number of unfinished compositions that would have been Jackson’s first album of ‘classical’ music. “My guess is that each piece would be seven to ten minutes long,” Frank said. “[Each one] is more substantial than a song. It’s very pretty music. One piece had an Irish quality about it. I suggested that we could use a Celtic harp. The pieces sound like pretty film score music, with very traditional harmony, and definitely very strong melodies. One of them was a little John Barry-ish, like in Out of Africa – that kind of John Barry score. I could hear [in my head] sweeping strings and French horns in unison.”
Since Jackson’s death, the project has been in limbo. Frank still has the recordings he made when Jackson hummed his tunes. He hopes that the album will someday become a reality. “I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that. I guess I still will use that baton if I ever get to conduct the music.”
Jackson: a classical composer?
Whether or not Jackson’s classical music album will ever see the light of day remains a question. If it does, it could shed a new light on Jackson as a composer. For although Jackson did not read sheet music or write music notes, he did create entire music scores in his head. He would have been well able, for instance, to create orchestral works to match his growing ambitions in film-making.
In fact, classical composition was not an unfamiliar topic to Jackson. In his memoir You Are Not Alone: Michael Through a Brother’s Eyes (2011), Jermaine Jackson recalls that his brother began to study the art of classical composition as early as the 1970s, when he was still a teen. Even at an early age, Jackson knew that music was more than just an audio experience.
“Michael viewed music as a ‘science’ as well as a feeling”, Jermaine Jackson wrote in his book. “From the moment we moved into Bowmont Drive, he started to study composition. He strove to understand the make-up of someone’s song in the same way a scientist set out to understand a person’s DNA. Together we tuned into any classical station we could find on the radio, listening to the structure of a piece of music and ‘seeing’ what colour, mood and emotion each instrument would create. ‘It’s about seeing the music, not just hearing it,’ he said.”
Jermaine Jackson also links his brother’s longtime interest in classical music to his lasting success as a pop singer: “Michael’s favourite composition was the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, but he loved so many classical pieces, how they started slowly with the strings, swelled into something dramatic or racing, then calmed again. This structure – the A-B-A form – was something we constantly dissected. And this classical inspiration runs as a thread through so much of his music because his forte was being able to combine a melodic structure and great lyrical content with a beat that gave it a pop feel.”
Eleonora Beck, Professor of Music at Lewis & Clarke College in Portland, Oregon, had the opportunity to briefly discuss Jackson’s understanding of classical composition with David Michael Frank. Frank is of the opinion that Jackson did, indeed, understand the structure of classical music, even though he often relied on others to fine-tune the compositions he had in mind.
This way of composing may be unorthodox for a classical composer, but it seemed to work well for Jackson. Examples of his ‘classical’ endeavours can be found on some of his later albums, such as the middle section of the song ‘Morphine’ on Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, as well as ‘Childhood’ and ‘Little Susie’ on HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I.
Music in everything
There is no doubt that, had he not passed away, Jackson would have furthered his passion for classical music. His impeccable work ethic would have pushed him to create yet another succesful music album that would quite likely have surprised both friend and foe. Music was, after all, Jackson’s extraordinary gift to the world; a gift he acknowledged, worked with, and recognized as a universal theme in the physical world around him.
“Deep inside I feel that this world we live in is really a big, huge, monumental symphonic orchestra”, he told Ebony/Jet Magazine in 1992. “I believe that in its primordial form all of creation is sound and that it’s not just random sound, that it’s music. You’ve heard the expression, music of the spheres? Well, that’s a very literal phrase. In the Gospels, we read, ‘And the Lord God made man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.’ That ‘breath of life’ to me is the music of life and it permeates every fiber of creation.”
Jackson is no longer here to share his classical take on the music of life. What is left, is his vast music archive and the hope that David Michael Frank will be allowed to publish Jackson’s acoustic compositions in the future. Even if these would somehow fail to impress hardcore classical music enthusiasts, they would still reveal more of Jackson’s musical mindset. That in itself is worth exploring by anyone interested in music history.
© 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.