Jane Ellen

1.15 Classically Billy Joel

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 15: Classically Billy Joel

Followers of Billy Joel's Instagram on Thursday, 18 September 2019, were treated to a picture of Joel sporting his brand new World Series ring. The ring was given to him by Red Sox President Sam Kennedy in recognition of becoming the first inductee into Fenway Park's new Music Hall of Fame. It's certainly neither his first, nor probably his last award, but it's a sign of how much Joel's 50 plus year musical legacy continues to be relevant to contemporary generations. (full bio here)

The singer-songwriter has the distinction of being one of the best-selling artists of all time. Joel received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2013, and in 2014 became the 6th recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The artist has also received 7 honorary doctorate degrees from such institutions as Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music.

It's hard to choose a single example of his work: his catalogue includes the 7 and a half minute suite 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant', the eternal love song 'Just the Way You Are', the bluesy 'New York State of Mind', the 50s-inspired 'The Longest Time' (where he sings all of the vocal lines), and the semi-autobiographical 'Piano Man'. There are also songs with blazing fast keyboard work, such as 'Prelude/Angry Young Man' which made Rick Beato's Top 20 Greatest Keyboard Intros of All Time:

But because I swear he was looking right at me one night, as I stood in rapture at the foot of the stage with friends from Massapequa, NY, I'm going to have to pick this song:

I've now been a Billy Joel fan for more years than I care to admit, but lately I find myself yearning for his classically-influenced repertoire. Here's an example from the piano solo album entitled Fantasies and Delusions as interpreted by Hyung-ki (formerly Richard) Joo:

However, what I really want to hear is the completion of his proposed 40 minute orchestral work The Scrimshaw Pieces. In September 1997 Joel dropped tantalizing hints about the work in an interview with Stephen Holden of the New York Times, but so far only the final movement has come to light. Here, in a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Tim Janis, is the movement, 'Elegy: The Great Peconic':

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Upon first hearing, one is impressed by the lyrical and evocative qualities of the piece. In fact, it wouldn't go amiss as part of a film soundtrack. Without a cinematic accompaniment the opening section could depict absolutely anything from wide open spaces to rolling vistas, sunlight on water, or even the aftermath of a passionate encounter. But the title 'Elegy' hints at the true nature of this work meant to pay tribute to the history of Joel's Long Island home. In the book The Words and Music of Billy Joel, author Ken Bielen writes: 'Elegy: The Great Peconic' is an expressive and expansive work dedicated to a body of water loved dearly by Joel. He bewails the condition of what was once a vibrant environment of marine life. With this amplification, Joel's programmatic work can begin to take shape in our minds; this is a nostalgic memory framed as a mournful lament for the dead and dying.
  • 2. Listening to the beginning again, the first 3 notes of the melody (D G B) are the same notes as the beginning of the military Lights Out or funeral tune Taps (D D G, D G B), albeit in a different key. The opening notes now convey the unmistakable emotion behind the work as Joel pays tribute to a vanishing landscape. At the 2 minute mark, we hear a variation on the main melody (with harp prominently featured) which crescendos into a recap of the theme at 2.30 min marked by a cymbal clash. If this were a song, we could expect the piece to end here, having heard what could be considered a refrain, a bridge, and another refrain. But there's more ...
  • 3. Just shy of the 3 min mark, the music becomes softer and begins to feel unsettled. It's clear that we're in mid-transition, but where is it going? We don't have long to wait before another clash of cymbals at 3.25 returns us to the main theme, now accompanied by full orchestra with the brass doubling the melody. Surely there is something else in store? Yes ... there is.
  • 4. With the main theme now indelibly etched in the listener's mind, the piece begins a final transition at 4 mins with a series of 8 rising chords, growing louder and louder until we reach a new undulating passage at 4.30 which is clearly meant to evoke the water of the bay. But even if we accept the main thematic material as a melancholy lament, it is impossible to resist smiling at this new section. This is sunlight glistening on endless rolling water; the music positively sparkles. The violins work effortlessly in counterpoint to long, low bass notes as the work moves inexorably forward into a final recap of middle section of the main theme at 5.30.
  • 5. At 6 mins we are home. The main theme rises and falls, imitating the ebb and flow of the tide - or is it the ebb and flow of our lives? - until it slowly and gently fades away.

This symphonic poem only hints at the genius of Billy Joel. Even taken out of context, without the other two historical movements he planned (and perhaps, sketched), we can see that this composer has visions beyond his pop and rock strengths that have served him so well. Although it seems as if The Scrimshaw Pieces are now a moot point, I shan't give up waiting. There's so much more to this exceptional Piano Man than meets the eye.

Find Billy Joel:
Billy Joel's website
Billy Joel on Twitter
Billy Joel on Instagram

This episode goes out to my friend Lorrice, the only person I know who loves Billy's work more than I do.
If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)