Classic Mornings

Railway to Heaven


There’s no such thing as being able to stand in line for the jury duty assignment of your choosing. But I’m guessing there are lots of rock and roll fans who would have camped out to have had a chance to sit on a jury that recently had to determine if a classic rock song’s acoustic opening was borrowed from a lesser-known song.

With that thought in mind, I was reminded of at least one similar occurrence in classical music history. So I decided to let the Classic Morning Prelude audience of July 12th be the jury in a mock reenactment trial of sorts.

The song that a California jury examined is the famous Stairway to Heaven.  I gave the radio audience jury the chance to spend a little time with a song you might call “Railway to Heaven.”  It’s a song that was inspired by a railway that extends not as far as heaven, but to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, which for some might seem at least a little closer to heaven.

“Railway to Heaven” is not the title of the song. But the actual title refers to a type of railway – one used to carry passengers up or down a steep mountain with the use of cables and pulleys. The railway cars counterbalance each other. It’s known as a funicular railway. In 1880, Italian composer Luigi Danza wrote the melody for the song Funiculi, funiculà at the time of the opening of the funicular railway that carried tourists up to and down from Mr. Vesuvius, which is close to Naples, Italy. Peppino Turco wrote the lyrics.

And with that introduction, I presented to the members of the audience jury what I labeled Exhibit A: Funiculi, funicula in a performance featuring Luciano Pavarotti. Imagine that – a jury being asked to enjoy the singing of Luciano Pavarotti in a courtroom!  I needed something spectacular to compete with the California trial which had Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of the rock group Led Zeppelin in the courtroom.  At one point, another former bandmember, John Paul Jones, made an appearance as well. They didn’t perform. There were some instrumental illustrations, but not by the rock and roll legends.

Page and Plant wrote Stairway to Heaven in 1970. It appeared on Led Zeppelin’s 4th album released in 1971. Singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka had written a song titled Stairway to Heaven with lyricist Howard Greenfield 10 years earlier, but the Zeppelin title wasn’t on trial for plagiarism, just the acoustic opening of the song.

The “railway to heaven” song by Denza and Turco is said to have sold a million copies – the sheet music, that is - within a year of its publication. Not bad for 1880. I’m sure it earned a bit more in the years since. The song outlived the original railway which was destroyed by the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius – after parts of it had been repaired following earlier eruptions.

I then asked the radio jury to listen to Exhibit B: an orchestral work by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov titled Neapolitan Song.  I wanted the listeners to determine whether Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed a significant portion of Luigi Denza’s melody of the song Funiculi, faniculà.

He sure did!  But in his defense, he explained that he thought it was a folk song, which means it would have been in the public domain. I asked whether Rimsky-Korsakov should have been let off the hook. As it turned out, he was, unlike German composer Richard Strauss, who also pleaded ignorance of composer Luigi Denza when he used the melody in the finale of his work titled Aus Italien (From Italy).

Are you surprised by all of this? You shouldn’t be. The more you listen to classical music, the more you come to realize that there are all sorts of musical borrowings. Composers have written fantasies and variations on tunes by other composers. There are orchestrations or arrangements of other composers’ works. There are parodies and musical jokes of all kinds that include a little quoting here and there. Peter Schickele has spent a lifetime “unearthing” the music of PDQ Bach, which relies heavily on the juxtaposing of tunes from throughout music history. And, needless to say, there have been copyright lawsuits as well.

I was amused to read that at one point during the Stairway to Heaven trial, the defense used Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell as an example of a common centuries-old musical chord progression that inspired the Zeppelin song. And while Dick Van Dyke was dazzling folks in Danville last month, his spirit swept across the country to the same courtroom  where his signature song Chim Chim Cheree from the film Mary Poppins (written by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman) was doing its part to give Plant and Page a ”whole lotta support” with its use of a similar progression. In the end, the jury determined they did not make a misstep in building their “Stairway.”

You don’t need to be selected for a jury to listen closely to music both old and new. That jury was not made up of music experts. Even those who consider themselves unseasoned classical music listeners hear tunes that remind them of other tunes. Those are the beginnings of endless music enjoyment and exploration. Maybe the real “crime” is not to have heard how the old and the new often come together, sometimes with delightful surprises. Stay tuned, listen and judge for yourself what rightfully steals your attention.

And while I have your attention for a moment, let me thank you for your support in the fiscal year that just came to a close. We did in fact meet our June 30th goal thanks to your contribution!