Tonight is one of what we might call Elton's
epic compositions. It features two distinct sections, the
first one being an instrumental, and a total length of just
under 8 minutes. This is probably as close to classical music
as Elton has ever gotten, a point I'll discuss in greater
length. This particular version was another part of Elton's
fabulous solo tour as performed October 15th/16th, 1999 at
Madison Square Gardens, New York. (Elton's piano triggers
a synthesizer through portions of the song, providing a string
The original Blue Moves version featured the incredible
orchestrations of James
Newton Howard. Howard graduated from
USC with a classical piano degree, but was hugely interested
in how to use an orchestra in the pop-rock medium. He was
a big fan of Buckmaster's work with Elton's first few albums
and had been quoted as saying the strings in "Levon" and "Tiny
Dancer" were seminal pieces in the history of popular
music. He welcomed the opportunity to work with Elton for
several years, appearing on six albums and touring for two
years. From the reputation he gained with Elton, Howard moved
on to work with artists such as Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand,
Cher, Neal Diamond and many other major stars. He is now
one of the great film soundtrack composers, doing several
major films a year.
Now let's talk about this performance. Tonight is a song
that presents emotions, both musically and lyrically, as
it takes the listener through the journey of a relationship
that is falling apart.
The first section presents the melancholy opening theme. It's a sad yet hesitant
theme that is built from a simple motif that's repeated in D-minor, B-flat
and G-minor. It's voiced in a manner to give it elegance, using sixths and
octaves. For the most part, restatements of this theme use the same approach,
although Elton will shift octaves and dynamics so that the theme is never
repeated in note-for-note exactness.
[Note for pianists: although not always the case, Elton
tends to play with a heavy thumb. For the octaves in the
right hand, he leads with his thumb.]
We find here some of the most significant left hand work
that we've ever seen from Elton. Although staying within
simple harmonic boundaries, the left hand provides a bed
to support the right hand theme. Elton plays it with great
expressiveness, his phrasing incorporating dynamic and tempo
swings in the classical tradition. The 4-bar theme ends with
a dramatic Am7-sus4 voiced as a quartal.
From a classical composition standpoint, Elton does not
expand his themes using devices such as theme development,
exposition, or call-and-response techniques. Rather Elton
uses the piano to state the theme and then leaves it to Howard
to work these into the orchestra. This is fairly standard
in the pop format and its why I tend to refer to this as
quasi-classical - it has the sound of classical music, but
its simpler structure is easier for the audience to digest.
After the first 8, Elton takes off into a rumbling section
in A. This is a colorful and menacing followup, perhaps expressing
an anger or mounting rage that is purely designed for the
orchestra. It also sounds great in this solo piano rendition,
with the repetitive left hand figure providing the low rumble
while he replicates the fast moving strings with his right
hand. It resolves up a half step into a Bb mixolydian run
that jumps in 4ths, Bb - Eb - Ab, up the keyboard.
contrast of this second 6 from the first 8 is magnificient,
perhaps representing the conflicting emotions. The run
up the keyboard resolves neatly back to D-minor.
After repeating the entire 14-bar section, Elton resolves his piano run to
Eb to begin the second section of this song. In this section we shift to
something a little more familiar to Elton fans. Elton uses his 4-note arpeggiating
style with 16th notes in the right hand and octaves in the left hand. It
starts with a melody neatly woven in Elton's right hand in kind of a tinkly
piano style. The harmony uses a descending bassline starting from the Db,
the flat-7th of the tonic.
The first section can be viewed as presenting the conflict
between the emotions of sadness and anger. This section serves
to calm things down before the singer finally begins to express
his feelings lyrically. The Eb gradually evolves into its
minor key of C-minor. Rather than the simple 4-bar
theme statements of the previous section, this section evolves
and slowly moves towards a target.
After all of the emotional build up of the instrumental
portion, we finally reach the song itself.
[Note for pianists: As always, the pianist should observe
the voicing. Elton anchors either the bottom note or the
top note in his right hand with either the thumb or the
4th or 5th finger. This helps to provide a smooth legato
phrasing to his 4-note arpeggio figures.]
The song uses a straight verse - verse - verse structure.
The title of the song is stated at the beginning of the first
2 lines of each verse. No chorus per se. The odd number of
lines works out to an 18-bar song structure. This is merely
a reminder that Elton and Bernie have worked with and created
songs with diverse structures throughout their career.
After a brief restatement of the opening section, Elton
ends the song with a grand classical flourish. I've done
my best to suggest how to play this run up and down the keyboard.
While Tonight never gained the stature of some of Elton's
other so-called epic compositions, it has grown in reputation
over the years. It has become recognized as a significant
accomplishment and Elton's fans love to hear it in concert.