“Magdalena”/Violin Concerto in D

Commenting on my post the other day (in which I provided three tables listing Zappa’s borrowings from Stravinsky), Brett writes:

I’ve heard the claim before (don’t remember where) that the melody from “Magdalena” is based on the Violin Concerto.  I’m not convinced, as its just a simple scale from 1 to 5.  One could claim hundreds of pieces as models.  Any comments by Zappa backing that up?

Good question, Brett! I wasn’t able to find any primary sources to confirm the borrowing, but took the opportunity to listen to the two pieces again. There are a few notable differences, but I remain convinced that Zappa had the Violin Concerto in mind with “Magdalena.” Here’s why…

I should probably begin by indicating which particular part of the Violin Concerto is Zappa’s source. I’m referring to the recurrent solo violin theme in the fourth movement. We hear it first at rehearsal no. 87:

Stravinsky - Violin Concerto in D - Cappricio - R 87

Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D (1931), Mvt. IV: Cappricio, rehearsal no. 87 ff.

The theme comes back twice more–at rehearsal no. 93:

Stravinsky - Violin Concerto in D - Cappricio - R 93

Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D (1931), Mvt. IV: Cappricio, rehearsal no. 87 ff.

and again at 108:

Stravinsky - Violin Concerto in D - Cappricio - R 108

Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D (1931), Mvt. IV: Cappricio, rehearsal no. 87 ff.

The three statements are more or less identical. (The second and third iteration feature some registral adjustments–octave doublings and leaps and the like–but are otherwise the same as the initial statement.)

I call attention to the repetition of the theme because I think that it’s an important facet of Zappa uses the material. In “Magdalena,” the melody that derives from Stravinsky’s concerto is repeated throughout the song. While the intervening material in “Magdalena” is decidedly different than that of the concerto, the recurring melody does have a similarly grounding function.

More convincing, however, is the similarity in melodic contour. Here’s a transcription I whipped up of “Magdalena”:

Zappa - Just Another Band from LA - Magdalena

Frank Zappa, “Magdalena,” from Just Another Band from L.A. (1972)

For me, the most convincing evidence is the initial repetition on D and the stepwise, ascending scales that characterize the melody. In both cases, the melody ascends an octave: from D to D. Neither melody ascends directly, however; both have overlap. “Magdalena” initially ascends a fifth (D, E, F#, G, A). It then steps down to G (“with a wife and a kid…”) and ascends another fifth at the end of the phrase (G, A, Bb, C, D). The Violin Concerto, on the other hand, ascends first through a fourth (D, E, F#, G) and then through a sixth (F#, G, A, B, C#, D). In the concerto theme, Stravinsky stays in D major, while “Magdalena” contains a brief modal inflection on the way up to the high D. Despite these differences, the two melodies are similar enough to indicate a connection.

That both pieces are centered around D, I think, is telling. This is likely an oversimplification, but I can’t help imagining Zappa listening to a recording of the concerto, guitar in hand, figuring out the notes and playing along. If this was the case, the correspondence in key would likely be from force of habit.

Something similar happens in “Status Back Baby.” There, for his guitar solo in the bridge, Zappa uses a set of melodic fragments from the first tableau of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Those fragments fragments appear with the same pitch-class content as their source and their delivery is highly suggestive of a guitar based conception.

Stepping back, I think it’s worth pointing out that Zappa was still actively referencing Stravinsky around the time he and Howard Kaylan wrote the song. The version on Just Another Band from L.A. comes from a live performance at UCLA on August 7, 1971. (This is the first performance of the song listed at the Zappateers FZShows index, Version 7.1.) Throughout the tours of “Flo & Eddie” incarnation of the Mothers, Stravinsky references pop up with dependable consistency. (“Igor’s Boogie” and “Status Back Baby” made regular appearances on the shows’ setlists.)

Coming in 1971, “Magdalena” isn’t too far off chronologically from Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968)–Zappa’s so-called “neo-classical” album, made in conscious tribute to Stravinsky. The Violin Concerto–one of the most important compositions to come out of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period–would have certainly been familiar to Zappa.

I think that in this case, the audible similarities are enough to declare this a case of borrowing. In other words, I’m letting my ears be the judge.

You can listen to the Stravinsky in the video at the beginning of this post. I couldn’t find a clip of the Just Another Band from L.A. version of “Magdalena,” so here’s a recording from a different performance (apparently from the infamous December 4, 1971 concert at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland):

Anyone else have an opinion?

“Magdalena”/Violin Concerto in D

7 thoughts on ““Magdalena”/Violin Concerto in D

  1. brett says:

    Thanks for the detailed response! Greatly appreciated! Personally, I still doubt the connection, given that Zappa’s other Stravinsky quotations are much more overt. The key and register correspondences are interesting, however.

  2. martin says:

    I can’t help hearing ‘Magdalena’ in that excerpt of the Concerto. Considering that FZ certainly knew the piece, it’s hard to think of the similarity as pure coincidence.

  3. I haven’t been able to find any direct evidence that Zappa knew the Violin Concerto. To the best of my knowledge, he never mentioned it in his music, writings, or interviews. I’ve been operating under the assumption that he must have been familiar with such a well-known work by a cherished composer.

    If I ever come across anything, I’ll be sure to post it!

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