Behind the Mus(e)ic
Alternative rock band Muse, formed in England in 1994, has been long known for their progressive amalgamation of operatic falsetto, crackling guitar, virtuosic piano and thick harmonies. Although the band did not break into the U.S. music scene until the early 2000s, they persevered with what Rolling Stone calls “a combination of apocalyptic imagery and sci-fi guitar work,” eventually becoming an immense force on the world rock stage.
While Muse pulled influences from many of their superstar predecessors — Radiohead and Queen amongst other greats — most striking is frontman Matt Bellamy’s proclivity for imitating Romantic period composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin and Hector Berlioz. In an interview with Ricardo Baca of The Denver Post, Bellamy recalled:
I first heard Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts … when I was 19. And that was my first exposure to classical music. I guess everybody knows a little bit of it, but you don’t take it seriously like you do rock music when you’re a teenager. But then I heard that, and it blew me away, because it was so heavy and powerful in the way that rock is heavy and grand and extreme, and it shocked me that there was that kind of music out there.
Although Bellamy is certainly not the only artist to pay homage to the classical greats (take rapper Nas’ conspicuous use of Beethoven’s Fur Elise for example), the emphasis on classical themes in the band’s music is significant. The riff in Muse’s 2001 song “Plug In Baby,” for example, was famously inspired by Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. As BBC notes, the nod to the masterwork paid off: Total Guitar Magazine readers voted it as the number one riff for the 2000s.
More overtly, “I Belong to You” off the 2010 album The Resistance, directly quotes the aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah. Bellamy goes so far as to sing in the aria’s original French to keep its intended sound intact.
Additionally, one of the most notable and perhaps bizarre examples of Muse’s classical influence is in “Exogenesis: Symphony,” a three-part orchestral work (proclaimed a “sci-fi rock opera") with over 40 musicians and a through-composed, programmatic style that tells of a dystopian future.
Romanticism as the muse
Muse’s influences stem largely from the Romantic period, a 19th to early 20th century musical era following the Classical period and marked by dramatic expressionism and a newfound freedom of musical technique. The inexorable impact that this had on Muse’s style is illustrated through three defining aspects of Romanticism:
Expressionism and theme
First is the expansion of emotion and expression. The Romantic period drew inspiration from folklore, the supernatural, poetic texts and social stressors of the time, and the result was a deeper exploration of “self” in the music.
With the human condition as their proverbial muse, Romantic composers brought program music — compositions with a theme, subject and plot — to the spotlight. These pieces, such as Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, told a story, often with the intention of probing the reaches of the psyche.
Anyone familiar with Muse would admit that their music abounds with expressionism. Most interesting, however, is their proclivity for telling grand tales (often bordering on epics, as is the case in “Exogenesis Symphony”).
Muse’s 2006 song “Knights of Cydonia” is a perfect example of this programmatic style. The song, inspired by Bellamy’s father’s 1960s band The Tornadoes, is a ridiculous fusion of spaghetti western and deep space sci-fi. In an interview for Under the Radar, Bellamy explains the reasoning behind the overblown themes:
There is this feeling of waking up and trying to fight back, or it’s time to actually try and change yourself and the things that are going on around you. I think to me that’s very optimistic, this strength … at the end of “Knights of Cydonia,” when I’m just saying, “No one is going to take me alive” … I think it’s the strength of the human spirit fighting against the forces that are manipulating it.
Next, Romantic composers expanded harmony to include the full range of the chromatic scale. The result was complex chords and harmonies that allowed for richer tone, larger instrumentation and expanded techniques. These pieces, such as Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, pushed the boundaries of tonality: Where music was once centered around a single, conventional tonal center, chromaticism allowed composers to move more freely between keys (a practice that eventually gave way to atonality, or the lack of a central key completely, in the 20th century).
Suitably, Muse’s songs are full of chromaticism, and a few go so far as to obscure the tonal center altogether. Again, “Knights of Cydonia,” which jumps from E minor to C minor to G# minor in the course of three uninterrupted phrases, is a great example.
In “Butterflies and Hurricanes” off the 2003 Absolution album, Bellamy presents a heavy piano interlude with lush string harmonies and sweeping arpeggios reminiscent of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. The interlude uses a more linear form of Rachmaninoff-inspired chromaticism, and the piano moves up and down the chromatic scale without changing keys:
Virtuosity and the rise of the piano
Finally, the widening of musical themes and harmonies meant more intricate works, and thus more virtuosic performers. The piano, thanks to its wider range and larger sound, replaced the Classical and Baroque harpsichord and paved the way for some of the greatest pianists in history, including Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. "With Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Chopin, there’s a mystery to the music,” Bellamy told Keyboard Magazine, “it’s much more abstract and much more able to stimulate your imagination.”
Virtuosity as the new form of exhibitionism was so popular with the public that Romantic pianists became some of the earliest musical superstars. Liszt had such a fandom that the term “Lisztomania” was coined to describe his audiences’ frenzies. His friend, Chopin, was similarly considered a piano luminary of the time. And, of course, both artists remain two of the most widely known pianists to this day.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russian composer and the second subject of the March 1 concert, was a talented musician from an early age, later becoming known for his clarity and precision despite the complexity of the music — something that may have had to do with his famously large hands. His works span from heart-rending lyricism, such as his famed song without words Vocalise, to keyboard-sweeping arpeggios, complex harmonies and memorable themes.
Not only have Romantic pianists inspired Bellamy with their works, but the piano itself has been critical to Muse’s song writing process. In an interview with Guitar Player, Bellamy notes:
I’d say the biggest influence of all is simply being a pianist. I think that being a piano player automatically gives you a more even perception of how harmonies, chords, and melodies are created…When I write on the piano, I also feel like I’m unhindered by influence of the shape of scale boxes or frets or strings, and this presents some interesting inversions when I transfer the piano parts to the guitar. For example, a few people have commented on some of the unusual chords I play during the chorus of “New Born.” They’re unusual inversions on the guitar—and I had to tweak around a little bit to get the exact notes — but they’re really straightforward and simple on the piano.
The test of time
Muse’s fusion of arena rock, electronica, metal, experimental rock, opera and 19th century expressionism may seem like a bombastic combination, and it’s true that Muse is hardly known for minimalism. However, the band’s mark on music history is remarkable for its unprecedented revivalism of genres. “Unlike the simplistic, monochromatic exclamation mark that can be used to define many pop acts of similarly mammoth stardom,” says Michael Molenda, “Muse is one long sentence— and almost a run-on sentence at that—meandering through myriad styles, influences, and musical textures.”
With this concert, Denver Nexus Project seeks to prove that music does not become outdated, but that it simplyevolves to embolden the next generation of artists. Matt Bellamy stands testament to the fact that the veins of classical tradition can still run deep in modern music and, most importantly, that the creative muse cannot be constrained by time or genre.