148) The Supremes – “I Hear a Symphony”

After “Nothing But Heartaches” broke The Supremes’ run of number-one records – failing to even scrape the Top 10 – it was time to rethink the formula. “I Hear a Symphony” offered a more complex take on the Supremes sound, even more than “Stop! In the Name of Love” had been. “Symphony” may have been inspired by fellow girl group The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” a record pairing an adaptation of the Minuet in G Major from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with lyrics about the ecstasy of falling in love. “Symphony” attempts the same sort of pop-classical fusion but in reverse, dressing a simple pop melody in an elaborate, faux-orchestral production.

While “I Hear a Symphony” retains some of the Supremes’ trademarks (vibes, heartbeat bass, Flo and Mary’s cries of “baby, baby”), the stomping rhythm that had dominated all their previous hits is replaced with a sprightlier backbeat. “Symphony” also adds strings to the mix – first, just as an accent when the girls sing the word “symphony,” then a constant, if subdued, presence from the second chorus on. There are no fewer than three key changes over the course of the song, beginning in C and rising by semitones till it reaches E-flat. Together, the key changes, syncopated rhythm and soaring strings help the song maintain a degree of lightness, even as the record swells in its second half. This light touch extends to the song’s lyrics, the purest, sweetest declaration of love that had appeared on a Supremes number-one to date. When Diana Ross cries here, her tears are not over an unsteady boyfriend, but out of sympathy “for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.”

In a way, “I Hear a Symphony” can be considered as The Supremes’ “Yesterday,” and not just because of the strings. Both records find their respective groups moving forward by looking backward, cutting their respective genres (R&B and rock) with MOR pop and crossing over to a wider audience in the process. (Incidentally, The Supremes’ version of “Yesterday” appears on the I Hear a Symphony LP, alongside their take on “A Lover’s Concerto.”) But while The Beatles were free to indulge their eclectic streak, The Supremes began catering more and more to the mainstream, performing in supper clubs and stocking their LPs with Top 40 covers and easy listening standards. Surprisingly, the group would take their biggest artistic leaps on their singles.  After “I Hear a Symphony,” Supremes songs no longer had to fit a narrow definition, freeing them to trade consistency for greatness. 8

Hit #1 on November 20, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
148 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.60% through the Hot 100

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4 Comments

Filed under 08, 1965

4 responses to “148) The Supremes – “I Hear a Symphony”

  1. Stein

    The lyric you quote here always jumps out at me as being stunningly beautiful. There’s an anecdote in the recent Florence Ballard bio about one of the Holland brothers – I can’t recall if it was Eddie or Brian – hearing the song on the radio decades later and having an emotional reaction to that same lyric.

  2. GeorgeL

    I was always impressed with the way that Diana Ross handled all of those key changes. No, she is the greatest singer of all time, but I think she is a bit underrated as a vocalist.

  3. GeorgeL

    oops. Meant to say she ISN”T the greatest singer of all time.

  4. Mo

    what exactly are Mary and Flo saying in the background….can’t make out their second background line

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