13 Most Interesting Versions of Happy Birthday

A US court has ruled that one of the world’s most popular songs, Happy Birthday, is no longer under copyright. This could potentially mean that a company which has collected millions of dollars in royalties since 1988 will have to pay them back.

If the stories are to be believed, this all-time birthday celebration favourite tune was composed by two American sisters; Patty and Mildred Hill. They are supposed to have penned the song around 1893 when Patty was working as the Head of a Kindergarten School.

The other name of this song is “Good Morning to All”, and from this title, it may be easier to guess how Patty used this at her school. The Mildred sisters then did not write the lyrics as we now know them. These were probably added by another anonymous contributor with the first printed edition of the “birthday” song arriving around 1912.

Happy Birthday Song Versions

Warner Chappell acquired the copyright license in 1988, and according to the BBC, it has been collecting $2 million annually in royalties ever since, just by charging every time the song appears in films, TV programmes, advertisements and at public events. That means they could be looking at a bill of over $50 million if the court decides to make the company repay all the money it has received.

Things get even more confusing because the court ruling only applies to the copyright in the United States. A different copyright arrangement reportedly exists in the UK which won’t be affected directly by the court decision.

All of this only came to light because Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, decided to make a documentary about the history of the song. She received a request from Warner Chappell for over $1,000 in royalties for their use of Happy Birthday, and decided that instead of paying it, they would take legal action.

In this article, I am going to make a brief survey of some of the best versions of Happy Birthday currently out there on the internet. These are purely my choice and I would be delighted to hear of others that you find and enjoy to add to the list.

Different Versions of Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday by Victor Borge

Further back in time, this is a legendary performance by the pianist and comedian Victor Borge. This video shows Borge at is irreverent best playing his own interpretations of the Happy Birthday song in the style of some other Great Composers. He begins with Tchaikovsky in a terribly overblown rendition of the original tune, moving on to turn his attention to Brahms.

Borge begins with the well-known “Lullaby”, gently crowbarring the Birthday song indirectly. As if this variation was not enough Borge turns his attention to the grand composer of German opera, Richard Wagner. Borge destroys a small theme from Tannhauser, then, moves directly into an outrageous version of the original. Beethoven comes in for the Borge treatment next with the Moonlight Sonata serving as the prelude before the tune; this time in a minor key.

As the performance develops, Strauss comes next in line for the spotlight in what can only be described as a bombastic variation on the theme. The comedy continues with a Mozart variation, then in complete juxtaposition to the American songwriter Irving Berlin. As if in an attempt to not neglect the 20th Century composers, Borge chooses the unlikely Russian composer Shostakovich to round off his performance. Hilarity and great musical skill are used here to deliver a fabulous selection of variations from Borge to conclude this article.

Violin variations

Clearly it isn’t just one of the most commonly sung songs, but also one of the most versatile. At least that’s how Rachel Barton Pine has made it look with her Happy Birthday Violin Variations played in 2007.

Shostakovich style

As well as the variety of genres, you’ve also got renditions inspired by certain classical composers. This one, arranged by Martijn Dendievel, with its feeling of tense anticipation, is supposed to be in the spirit of Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Wagner—or Tristan— Style

Here is a version of a Happy Birthday performed in pure Wagner-like style. The opening bars sound just like the first notes of the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, which culminate in the famous and dissonant Tristan chord.

Piano improvisation

Gabriela Montero has become renowned internationally for her improvisational abilities. At her concerts she will sometimes ask the audience what tune they want to hear before going on to make up an original improvisation based around it. Here is what happens when she uses Happy Birthday as a starting point.

Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and others

Taking a slightly more light-hearted approach, Nicole Pesce tries to imagine what it would have been like if some of the greatest composers from throughout history were still alive today. How would Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Brahms have played Happy Birthday? Well, you can find out here. And she saves the most entertaining one until last.

Happy Birthday, Gypsy Jazz style

If you go looking around online for versions of the song, you’ll come across virtually every musical genre under the sun. But this one tries to do a bit more than just repeat the melody as in the standard version.

New Orleans Jazz

It shouldn’t come as a surprise with all of the differing takes on Happy Birthday that there’ is also a New Orleans jazz rendition. Led by Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, this septet’s version includes a trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums.

Six Jazz Styles

(The YouTube below works, click to play!)

This is one of the first examples I came across of an arrangement and performance of Happy Birthday, that was truly convincing. The pianist here is a gentleman called Jonny May, and in just under three minutes he explores the possibilities of a jazz version of the tune. What makes this version interesting is that fact that Jonny takes us through a variety of jazz styles and even a key change before arriving at a bluesy version to finish with. A great example of stride piano playing here and links to Jonny’s website if you want to try and play this arrangement.

From the world of Jazz, we step into the Classical domain for this arrangement of our chosen celebratory tune. The quality of the video is not outstanding but the sound quality is good enough to capture this splendid rendition. Jools Scott is the pianist here and unlike the jazz version above, Jools maintains the original three in a bar feel throughout. He carefully spins his way through a Mozartian opening, into a grander more Romantic central section before returning to the cheekiness of Haydn to conclude his arrangement. This is a light and innovative performance that offers a very convincing twist on the tune.

Edoardo Brotto is the piano soloist in this third version of Happy Birthday. In this arrangement, Brotto focuses on the great Romantic pianist and composer, Chopin. According to the source, this is an improvisation on the original theme and the transcription has been provided by one of his associates. What essentially is happening is a set of variations, presented as a Waltz, on the well-known melody. Both the harmony and original tune has been substantially developed.

The minor variation at around 50 seconds is magical and one of the most convincing parts for me. An expansive and technically challenging cadenza leads us into a section marked ‘Vivo’, where the piece returns to three in a bar. The repeated triplet figure that features in this variation is extremely virtuosic and difficult to perform. Following a tremendous flourish, the music settles back into the E Flat minor variation for the second time. The original melody makes another subtle appearance before a brief coda section finishes this little waltz.

Remaining for a moment with the Classical world, this is one of the most extraordinary versions of the tune that I have come across. This is another variation in the style of Chopin but this time by a completely different pianist called, Tartorov. His real name was Jean-Jacques Hauser and his alter-ego was Tartorov. What makes this individual exciting was that his skill was to be able to play fluently in the style of the Great Classical Composers. In this performance, Tartorov captures the style and feel of a Chopin waltz in a slightly more subtle manner than Brotto above. Many of the familiar traits and characteristics of Chopin are elegantly employed in this highly effective arrangement.

The link above will take you to an extensive set of variations written and performed by Werner Elmker. Interestingly, Elmker does not choose to settle on a single Classical composer but instead chronologically manoeuvres his musical variations. He begins with Bach, moves on to Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninov. For each of the composers, he chooses one of their best-known works. For Bach it is the C Major Prelude; Debussy, “Claire de la Lune”.

As we hear the opening of each famous piece Elmker then superimposes the well-known Happy Birthday melody before returning to the original classical piece. As a complete contrast the  preceding Classical pieces, Elmker ends with a boogie-woogie version of the tune. No true variation of the theme is attempted in this performance, but the addition of the original melody to such famous pieces is quite fun.

Authors: Jordan Smith & Dr. Justin Wildridge

Leave a Comment