Quotation in Rufus Wainwright

January 26, 2006

The tradition of American composers quoting music by other composers goes back to the Bohemian-born early American composer, Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781 – 1861), known as “the Beethoven of Louisville, who quoted “Yankee Doodle” in a number of his compositions. The notorious Charles Ives (1874 – 1955) quoted band tunes, hymns, patriotic songs, and other found musical objects throughout his career. After seven decades of atonal exploration, George Crumb (b.1929) dared to return to tonality through mysterious quotes of Bach and Chopin played through a chromatic musical mist. Rufus Wainwright has tried his hand at this technique. I’ve identified a number of quotations in his music and ask your help in identifying more.

“Vicious World” quotes “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“Oh What a World” quotes “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel.
“I Don’t know what it is” quotes the theme music from “Three’s Company.”
“Sally Ann” quotes the alternate version of “Away in a Manger.”
“Ups and Downs” quotes “Boris Godounov” by Modest Mussorgsky.
“The Money Song” evokes Francis Poulenc’s “Mouvement Perpetuelles.”

What else?


Courtesy of Early American History Auctions.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rhapsody January 27, 2006 at 5:36 am

“Sally Ann” Immortal – Invisible, God Only Wise (brass accompaniment)

This Love Affair – Force of Destiny, Verdi

As in Happy – This Love Affair -Force of Detiny (Okay, that’s cheating. 🙂 )

jan2 January 27, 2006 at 10:37 am

Agnus Dei – Oum Kalsoum (style of)
Art Teacher – Philip Glass

There are lots of ‘style’ quotes I guess, eg in Peach Trees, Gay Messiah – as well as more generally… This could be heard as pastiche (on which, in contemporary culture, Fredric Jameson wrote a useful piece)


Rhapsody January 27, 2006 at 10:40 am

“Between My Legs” Phantom of the Opera

Rosa January 27, 2006 at 1:05 pm

As a singer-songwriter, stylistically, Wainwright behaves like a kid in a candy shop. Everything flows from a voice and the songwriting. The words are not particularly brilliant, just personal, witty, sarcastic, encumbered, and idealistic – to me. I can think that lyricist Bernie Taupin said so much more. The music elicits everything from Elton John to Elton in Clueless.

This music is not, to my mind, music that is possible to parse in the context of the classical style. Is much of the use of quotation from everyone at Def Jam to Charles Ives to The Orb adding up in “the traditon of American Composers”?

Roger Bourland January 27, 2006 at 8:43 pm

Rufus has not yet earned the stripes to be in the tradition of the American composer; the American songwriter — yes. And a damned good one in my book. I once asked a doctoral candidate to name the great American tunesmiths of the 20th century. He was mute. I said: “exactly; they are Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Kern, and so on, but Barber, Rorem, and Ives are not really on that list as far as I’m concerned.” Rufus is.

twarner January 28, 2006 at 9:33 pm

I apologize if you’ve covered this already, but what is the reference (musically, that is? Not lyrically?) in “Vicious World” to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?


Roger Bourland January 28, 2006 at 10:03 pm

It starts in the synthesizer around 1:52 in the background. The tune only covers “somewhere over the rainbow” and stops.

twarner January 29, 2006 at 9:30 pm

I just checked it out… maybe I’m missing something. Are you talking about those barely auidible little ‘ding dings’ in the way distant back ground?

I’m not a musicologist, but what are the chances that that’s just a coincidence?

“Some” and “where” are an octave. And “over the rainbow” is just five notes in a row. Would, eventually, someone wrote those seven notes in a row thinking “wow… I’m creative!” and by pure coincidence, do the same thing?

In literature, sometimes something isn’t an allusion. It’s just the same idea. Is the an analagous phenomenon in music?

Roger Bourland January 29, 2006 at 9:45 pm

TW: I’ve been to Medjugorje where millions of pilgrims swear to see the Virgin Mary in the clouds as they fry their eyes permanently. I truly understand “seeing/hearing what we want to see/hear.” Rufus IS obsessed by Judy Garland. We can differ on what we hear and what we don’t hear, but I hear a very clear countermelody of “somewhere over the rainbow.” You do know he is recreating the Judy Garland Live in Carnegie Hall” this June don’t you?

A more debatable quote ID is the Poulenc reference at the opening of “The Money Song.” As someone who played Poulenc’s “Mouvement Perpetuelles” I hear the similarity clearly. I have no idea as to whether Rufus knows or has played that piece; my wager is that he has.

The notion of influence is really an interesting one as sometimes we composers are aware explicitly that when we are quoting something, and sometimes we just are not. I wrote a piece once and only 20 years later did I realize that I ripped it off almost verbatim from Villa Lobos! George Harrison claimed to be oblivious to not realizing that he ripped off “She’s So Fine” in “My Sweet Lord.” Despite his protest, he lost.

mick January 31, 2006 at 6:43 am

Maybe I’m hearing things … but Memphis Skline – packed with references to Hallelujah (as in Lenny Cohen, not Handel). Especially the piano solo halfway through. Quite cute, really, with Rufus signalling what he’s doing in the lyric.

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