How classical music helped shape the music of rock legend David Crosby

David Crosby attends an award ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2016.Christopher Polk/Getty Images

January 20, 2023

David Crosby, who died Wednesday at 81, was such a legend in popular music that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him twice — as a member of the influential band the Byrds and as part of the folk-rock trio Crosby, Stills & Nash. Yet classical music played a key role from an early age in shaping his musical life.

“My parents played a lot of classical music in the house,” he said in a 2013 interview with Fretboard Journal. “I probably heard the Brandenburg concertos, you know, 289 times, by the time I was 6.”

It wasn’t only the musicianship on display in works such as those of Johann Sebastian Bach that ignited Crosby’s musical fire. The interweaving of notes and collaboration among performers that he witnessed as a child during an impactful orchestral performance played a major role in his views on creating music.

"The idea of cooperative effort to make something bigger than any one person could ever do was stuck in my head," he wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Long Time Gone. "That's why I love being a harmony singer, why I love being in a group."

Those qualities come to the fore in Crosby-written classics such as “Guinnevere,” recorded by CS&N for their debut album.

Even longtime collaborator Stephen Stills made a classical connection when he found out about the death of his former musical partner.

"I read a quote in this morning’s paper attributed to composer Gustav Mahler that stopped me for a moment: 'Death has, on placid cat’s paws, entered the room,' Stills said Thursday. “I shoulda known something was up.”

Stills added: “He was without question a giant of a musician, and his harmonic sensibilities were nothing short of genius — the glue that held us together as our vocals soared, like Icarus, toward the sun.”

Rest in peace, David Crosby.