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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Could It Be Magic": From Chopin to Manilow — with a slight detour

This site is dedicated to discussion of popular music, but explaining today's choice necessitates a flashback to the Romantic era.

Today, March 1, 2022, would have been Frédéric Chopin's 212th birthday. Of the big names of Romantic and broader "classical" music — a moniker that has its own problems relating to era that are ripe for a discussion in another space — Chopin is one whose music catches my attention the most. The sense of motion in his compositions consistently intrigues me. Both dense polyrhythmic passages, like in Ballade No. 4, Op. 52, and slow, deliberate composition such as that of his Marche funebre (Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35, mvmt. III), demonstrate his unmistakable voice.

Chopin's famed Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20, in C minor, demonstrates the composer's artistry in his slowest, most heart-wrenching work. It continues to amaze me how a 13-measure piece can be so emotional and so complete. Given both its weight and its brevity (despite its slow tempo), it's unsurprising that the prelude has been one of Chopin's most enduring compositions and an inspiration to countless artists. In the early 1970s, Barry Manilow became one of those artists, using the famed prelude as the jumping-off point and the bookend to his own hit, "Could It Be Magic."

I only learned when researching for this article that this solo version by Manilow — first released on his self-titled debut record in 1973, then retouched for 1975 — is not the song's original release. Rather, the first version was released two years earlier by a group of session musicians called Featherbed, which featured Manilow on lead vocals. The Featherbed version is a bubblegum pop arrangement overseen by Tony Orlando, who also altered Adrienne Anderson's lyrics in the verses. It's likely a shocking listen for many of you, as it was for me. In retrospect, I hear some arrangement similarities to British boy band Take That's 1992 cover... but I'm getting a bit side-tracked, plus that's far from Take That's best, as you'll learn here in a couple months' time. Back to the best version.

One of the things I most appreciate about (the real) "Could It Be Magic" is that Manilow didn't hide his inspiration at all. It likely helped that Chopin's works had long been in the public domain, but regardless of his reasoning, the fact that he opens and ends his piece with a direct statement of sections of the prelude demonstrates his reverence for the original composition in a manner rarely seen in popular music. This respect additionally comes through in Manilow's following of the top voice for much of his chorus melody. Understanding the age-old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Manilow saw a good thing and (importantly compared to many other compositions, legally) used it to his advantage.

Manilow's main formal contribution was thus the verses, which are in the parallel key of C Major. Parallel keys only share three of their seven notes, meaning the shifts between them are quite noticeable, especially in the difference between the root chord being major or minor. However, because they share their root note (in this case, C), their relationship is abundantly clear despite their differences. Manilow exploits this parallel key relationship by contrasting the dramatic chorus — especially considering Ron Dante's string arrangement — with a more peaceful verse, consisting of rising chords as he sings his lover's praises. (His lyric of "Sweet Melissa," by the way, is a tribute to his label-mate Melissa Manchester.) Manilow still hints at the minor key, though, by borrowing the note E-flat and its chord E-flat Major from C minor; I feel that him doing so helps link the sections together as much as, if not more than, the key relationship does.

"Could It Be Magic" is a demonstration of a new composer's vision building on top of an older one. Because of copyright law and royalties, this type of composition is most plausibly done with music in the public domain, which makes me wonder which pieces that more recently attained that status may garner a similar treatment. It's definitely food for thought, especially for someone like myself, with my musical education predicated on older compositions but my main interests lying in more contemporary material.


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