Bell, The Beatles and Brushes on the Zebra
It was an amusing thought. And it led to so much more than I could have expected.
It wasn’t the first time I noticed that a classical music recording was made at Abbey Road Studios in London. But for some reason, while preparing to play a selection from Joshua Bell’s 2003 recording Romance of the Violin (Sony 87894), I imagined the American violinist checking out the famous crosswalk.
Given the fact that he already was at the studios, he didn’t have to go very far to see it. And he may well have had to cross the road there. It’s probably the only place in the world where people get excited about using a crosswalk.
The recording was made well before Joshua Bell became only the second Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in 2011. I’m guessing that the novelty of crossing Abbey Road has worn off a bit over the past decade.
I once considered making a list of classical music recordings which I noticed were done at Abbey Road. I shelved the idea years ago. Recently, I discovered a website that kept track of the non-classical recordings that were made there. Eventually, I was led to the actual website of Abbey Road Studios. Just the thought was exciting! For one thing, it put me within virtual proximity of “the crosswalk.”
While browsing, I learned that November 12 marked the 90th anniversary of the opening of the studios. And there’s a film of Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in his Land of Hope and Glory (the “graduation” portion of his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1) for the occasion.
I then came upon an article in The Guardian by Laura Snapes, written in March of 2020 at the time of the lockdown. And I learned that the “zebra crossing,” as they call it in London, had been repainted. Without all the traffic from the locals and the tourists, they were able to complete the project. Snapes quoted a spokesperson for the Westminster City Council who explained: “This is a very busy zebra crossing and we repainted the line markings to ensure visibility and increased safety for drivers and pedestrians.”
There’s more. According to Snapes, the government designated the crossing a site of national importance in 2010. As a result, it can be altered only with the approval of local authorities. She also quoted John Penrose, Minister for Tourism and Heritage at the time: “This London zebra crossing is no castle or cathedral but, thanks to the Beatles and a 10-minute photoshoot one August morning in 1969, it has just as strong a claim as any to be seen as part of our heritage,”
There’s a webcam of the crossing, I learned. And, of course, I had to check it out. On a sunny afternoon here, it was a rainy night in London, other than cars passing by, the crossing was deserted. And the view is from the direction that photographer Iain Macmillan was facing when he took the photo of the Beatles on the zebra, which was used for the cover of their album “Abbey Road” in 1969.
I already had looked into the history of the now famous road and of the abbey for which it’s named as a part of my blog post of Jan 31, 2019. That was around the time of the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ album. Here’s a link to it.
The Hungarian-born French pianist Georges Cziffra recorded at Abbey Road in the early 1960s. But that was when it was still known as EMI Studios and crossing the street outside was as ordinary as crossing any other street.
Cziffra’s life was not at an ordinary one. As a child, he improvised on popular tunes at a local circus to earn money for his family. He went on to more formal music training at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest when he was 9. And at age 12, he began performing in European concert halls. While serving in the military, he was taken prisoner during World War II and later imprisoned by the post-war regime in Hungary.
In 1956, Cziffra and his family escaped to Vienna. He continued his concert career, eventually settling in France. November 5 marked the centennial of his birth. He died in 1999.
I mentioned those events from Cziffra’s life on Classic Mornings and played his recording of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy, made with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by André Vandernoot at Abbey Road Studios (EMI 67366). Having learned that Studio 1 is large enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra and that it’s been the recording site for legendary soundtracks and performers, it seemed to be a fitting venue for Cziffra as well.