A while ago I really enjoyed Les Intouchables, a charming French sidekick movie about an unlikely friendship that develops between a wealthy quadriplegic man and Dris, his African-born physical therapist. The theme music for the film is “September,” a song by the band Earth, Wind & Fire. And then later in the movie comes a feel-good scene when Dris leads a group of staid Parisians as they dance to “Boogie Wonderland,” another song from Earth Wind & Fire.
It’s fun, right? I have to admit that until I saw that movie, I had hardly heard of Earth Wind & Fire. I guess that during the years when they were topping the charts, I had my head stuck in opera scores and books of Schubert songs. But I got curious, went on YouTube, and found some videos of the band’s songs, including “September” and “Boogie Wonderland.”
It sure is a ton of fun to watch and listen to “Boogie Wonderland” especially. Yet as I did, I was struck by the fact that “Boogie Wonderland” offers a very good example of how a lot of Baroque music is structured.
In conservatory-style terms, the song is structured in Concertino Style (“Stile Concertino”). There are sections of concerted playing (“tutti”), when basically everybody is singing or playing. Those sections are clearly differentiated from passages in which smaller groups of performers or soloists step out and perform against diminished forces in the orchestra. When those passages are over, the “tutti” concerted passages come roaring back again. It is a great structure, to be sure. It sure keeps this song chugging along with high energy.
You can hear this structure at work from the very beginning of this performance of “Boogie Wonderland.” The opening concerted passage runs for about 19 seconds. At that point, the concerted section ends and a trio of female singers sings a contrasting ensemble. At about 30 seconds, that ensemble flows into a solo by the male lead singer. The rest of the song alternates between solos, smaller ensembles and the concerted “tutti” sections.
Earth, Wind & Fire performs “Boogie Wonderland”
I will spare you a second-by second analysis of the whole song. Once you get to notice how it is set up in Baroque style, you will immediately see what is happening.
Bach Did It Nearly as Well . . .
Now I encourage you to watch this video of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, as performed by the Freiburger Barockorchester. In this excellent performance, the “tutti” concerted passage ends at about the 37-second point on the counter, when a violin starts a solo passage. Then the alternating structure, just like Earth, Wine & Fire’s, is off and running. You can clearly observe how the soloists and small ensembles alternate with the full forces of the ensemble.
What Am I Saying Today?
I am most certainly not saying that Earth, Wind & Fire was cribbing a structure from Baroque style. I am saying that Earth, Wind & Fire’s sophisticated chart-writers hit upon a concertino-like style because it offers a strong and organic kind of way to structure music. Soloists stand out, the big band comes back in again, and it is all just works and is a lot of fun.
I am also saying that maybe we can learn about so-called “classical” music by sort of backing into our study of it. That is to say, by observing fairly recent popular hits and using them to better understand older music.
I’m going to keep trying at this line of thinking. I think I might publish a post called “Katy Perry and the Flatted Sixth.” I’m not kidding. I just know that if I get you to watch a Katy Perry video, you are going to thank me.