Notes and Editorial Reviews
Musicologist-conductor-pianist Joshua Rifkin’s The Baroque Beatles Book is a milestone from the early days of Nonesuch Records. It began as a marketing concept-cum-youthful prank: How about writing Baroque-era arrangements of the Fab Four’s Top 40 hits, as if Lennon & McCartney were contemporaries of Bach & Handel? Beatlemania and the Baroque were both in fashion with their respective audiences, and the disc became a crossover hit at the height of the 1965 holiday season. But The Baroque Beatles Book was no mere novelty item; over the years it has gained downright legendary status among Beatles fans and classical enthusiasts alike. Newsweek declared the collection “inspired”; the Boston Globe called it “brilliant.”
The 21-year-old Rifkin was fresh out of Juilliard and a stint in the Even Dozen Jug Band, a Greenwich Village folk combo that boasted David Grisman, John Sebastian, and Geoff and Maria Muldaur as members. He was working in the Nonesuch office, helping to repackage the European classical releases that were the label’s stock in trade at the time, when Nonesuch founder Jac Holzman gave him the project and a very tight deadline—plus the wherewithal to hire his favorite freelance classical players. Mark Abrahamson (Judy Collins, Paul Butterfield Blues Band) would produce, with Paul Rothchild (Phil Ochs, The Doors) assisting.
As Rifkin recounts in the liner notes he contributed to this new edition, “With the holiday season looming, we managed to do everything—composing, recording, editing, mastering, packaging—in five mad weeks. I wrote music 10 to 18 hours a day, day in and day out. As I got scores ready, a wonderful staff of copyists picked them up pretty much the minute they left my hands and copied out parts ... I had learned, in my studies, about how Bach and Handel had turned out oratorios or operas at breakneck pace. Now I found myself living it.”
Rifkin would later garner worldwide recognition as the catalyst for the ragtime revival with his best-selling Nonesuch recordings of Scott Joplin’s works. Of course, the Beatles were doing well enough in 1965 without Rifkin’s intercession, but his arrangements for The Baroque Beatles Book perhaps helped facilitate the growing creative dialogue between popular and more high-minded culture, something the Beatles themselves would engage in as the matured. And Rifkin’s spur-of-the-moment inspiration has proven to be just as much fun 40 years later as the pop songs upon which it is based.