Whether you are a classical music fan or not, Beethoven’s ”Symphony No. 5” is arguably the most familiar piece in the history of classical music. The strings reverberate in the opening eight notes and lead the piece through rises and falls that have captured imaginations for decades. Richard Perlmutter, a classically trained guitarist, pianist, composer, and arranger from Los Angeles has dared to add new appeal to Beethoven’s Fifth. Lyrics.
With his Grammy-winning series of Beethoven’s Wig CDs, Perlmutter has perfected a new concept in music appreciation—writing kid-friendly words to the songs of the masters. Perlmutter is not the first to set classical music to words. In fact, he was thinking about his predecessors a few years ago while walking down the street humming little bits of Beethoven’s symphony. “’Beethoven’s wig is very big!’ popped into my head,” he says. Admittedly silly, Perlmutter liked the sound of the line. “The wig is a symbol of classical music,” he says. “Many classical musicians wore wigs and musicians are often called long hairs.” Perlmutter wrote lyrics for one classical song after another and in two years’ time released the Beethoven’s Wig and Beethoven’s Wig 2 CDs—what he likes to call the greatest hits of classical music.
Virtually all of Perlmutter’s lyrics convey historical information about the composer or the piece of music itself. “I do a tremendous amount of research,” he says. “And I get to know the song really well.” The finished product is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what he uncovers in his research.
Part of the genius of Perlmutter’s lyrics is that anyone can enjoy them. He calls his music family entertainment that transcends age boundaries. There’s even a Beethoven’s Wig fan club at his son’s college, the University of Oregon. “The themes in each song are not children’s issues, but are accessible to children,” says Perlmutter.
Perlmutter searches for the best musical interpretation of each piece—sometimes relying on prerecorded orchestral arrangements, sometimes recording the piece himself. Accompanying Perlmutter are professional opera singers and musicians. According to Perlmutter, performing his music with a live orchestra is the most satisfying of all. “It’s thrilling. It’s astounding! I love it!”
A natural outgrowth of children’s music is often a picture book that illustrates the song’s lyrics. Think Raffi (Down By the Bay—Raffi Songs to Read) or Jessica Harper (author ofNora’s Room and who appeared in a past issue of this column). Children’s literature is an ideal segue for Perlmutter, too, because it’s his favorite type of literature. He fondly remembers the Homer Price stories of his youth and Dr. DeSoto, The Giver, and the Roald Dahl’s titles he read to his three children. Beethoven’s Wig: Read Along Symphonies(Rounder Books, 2005, illustrated by Maria Rosetti) is a wild romp through the wig with all the zaniness Perlmutter intended.
It’s stylish and it’s handsome.
It costs a small king’s ransom—
Five hundred bucks and then some.
But the hair’s so long and flowing
That wig seems like it’s growing.
And it keeps his face from showing.
Poor Beethoven’s wig needs mowing!
Perlmutter isolates himself in the guesthouse behind his home when he’s writing lyrics. “When I write, I focus hard and lose myself,” he says. But the spark of inspiration for a new idea must come when he least expects it—walking, bike riding, or even showering!
Prior to his successful career as a musician, Perlmutter laughs about his “long odyssey through school.” With degrees from Cornell University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Yale University, Perlmutter tried to find a balance between creativity and marketability. Starting with art history, he moved to the fine arts and architecture before settling on business management. Today, he’s achieved the balance he searched for so desperately. He combines his love of classical music and children’s literature with the business aspects of writing, arranging and producing his projects. Look for more of Perlmutter’s wacky lyrics on your bookstore shelves!