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James Bond theme resembles Sibelius's Cassazione, Op 6 says music buff

16-Sep-2010 • Bond Style

Was Monty Norman, who wrote the James Bond theme, a secret fan of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius? -- asks Guardian blogger Tom Service.

A continuation of an occasional series featuring my serendipitous discovery of musical connections, cross-fertilisations and unusual thematic ancestries that centuries of musical history have managed to suppress – until now. This week: Jean Sibelius and James Bond. Idling through part of the "J" box of BIS Record's brilliant complete Sibelius edition (each box gives you one initial of Sibelius's whole name) that – apart from including the best, most faithful and most terrifying Luonnotar on disc – also contains Sibelius's 1904 piece Cassazione, a little-known orchestral work written around the time of the first version of the Violin Concerto. It starts with a typical Sibelian shimmer of strings playing tremolo. And the music they perform is the riff from the James Bond theme.

Now unless you've got Spotify (in which case, see Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – Cassazione, Op 6) you're either going to have to take my word for this – the free samples everywhere else are from the wrong end of the piece – or just buy the whole album by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Neeme Järvi. The strings repeat an unmistakable collection of three notes three times, first on their own and twice under a heraldic tune in the brass. The precise technicalia of this ancestral likeness involve Monty Norman's Bond theme transposing the original Sibelius up a major third (what starts on G in the original begins on B in Bond, or at least in John Barry's arrangement of the tune). Both share a symmetrical semitonal ascent and descent up a major second in equal note values, and are played in roughly the same tempo. Music: easier to listen to than describe …

Is this mere coincidence? Or was Monty Norman a secret Sibelius fan? If it's true – alas! – it seems retroactively to confirm that old Teutonic criticism (in the pejorative sense) of Sibelius as a composer of "film music". Or it just means that chromaticism was a good, suspense-filling way to open a piece in 1904, just as it was in 1962 at the premiere of Dr No. The name's Bond, Jean Bond. Doesn't quite work, does it?

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