'39

Composer: Brian May
Album: A Night At The Opera (1975)
Single (B-side of You're My Best Friend): 18 June, 1976
Key: Ab Major, (f minor), B Major, (ab, Bb, bb...)  (transcribed in G Major and...)
Meter: 4/4
Form:

Intro I-II | Verse | Chorus | Bridge I-II | 
           | Verse | Chorus | Chorus | Outro |
Outro = second half of Intro II

A song like this coming from Queen in 1975/76 this song was surprising both lyrically (sci-fi) and musically (folk). The stylistically closest Queen song is "Long Away" from the next album, but "Let Your Heart Rule Your Head" (Brian's solo song) has to be mentioned as well. Certain folk elements we can find in earlier works of May and Queen, but for just limited extent compared to '39. Brian May's arrangement and talent has lifted this song far above the "just another folk song" category, even though there are some generic elements in the song: square phrasing, no guitar solo, simple chords (during the verses and choruses, eg. no iii chord). The song is unusual, but still it's a nice catchy folk song that makes one tempted to learn on guitar, onn the oher hand the ca. 15 chords used results in difficulties for beginners.
 Strummed acoustic guitars dominate the accompaniment with built in melodic licks (in the intro). John plays doublebass (see also "...Leroy Brown"), Roger (?) plays the tamburine, no drums (and no synths). We have both guitar and vocal harmonies (arranged and the latter sung mostly by Brian May, at least the contrapuntal ones).
Unusual songwriting elements in context of folk: a strange modulation, long melodies, only two Verses, long intro, a bridge without lyrics for the vocals. About as much as 45-47 harmonically/melodically different measures are analysed below. That's extremly much compared to the lenght and the BPM value of the song, which is an indirect sign of the song is remarkably non-repetitive.
Classic early Queen trademark and major point of interest in this song is how some motifs are cleverly recycled in different sections.


Walkthrough

Intro I-II:
The song has an unusual long intro that consists of two big part. The first of these is a shortened version of the Bridge: its beginning (key-shifted and slihtly altered) and ending linked together. Brian used similar technique also in The Prophet's Song and later in Teo Torriate too.

The first phrase starts with an interesting chord progression (shades of Mrs. Robbinson - Simon & Garfunkel) that on paper looks like a-minor (or C major key) but the triumphant ending on E major sounds like a Picardy Third ending in the key of e-minor (the relative key of G Major, where the intro arrives) before the key was established at all. The second phrase modulates to the distant Bb major. Its a quite unusual modulation (bV of e, then and back to G = bVI of Bb). The phrasing 4+3 (the only time it's uneven), the harmonic rhythm is varied:

  | C   | -   | Am   | E    |
e:  VI  | -   | iv   | I    |

  | Bb  | Eb Bb C  F | G    |
Bb: I   | IV I V/V V |
              G: bVII| I    | 

The song starts with strummed acoustic guitars and fade in vocal harmonies with Roger screaming lead on top. The instrumental second phrase adds guitar harmonies.


The second subsection of the intro is already in the home-key. The phrasing is square 4+4, the harmony is closed at both end in both phrases, the second pharse ends "stronger" (V>I). The harmonic rhythm is more or less constant two chords per measure. Both phrases start with the same two measure chord progression. Basic chords are strummed with built-in figures, let's take a look at these. This figure is arch-shaped in the first phrase with stepwise moving octave long rising part (from B to B). It's very first notes work as hooks and foreshadow the "in the land that ou grand..." motif in the Chorus.
Measure 7-8 are close variants of the measures 7-8 in the Verses: the chord progression is tad different, but the built in melodic line mimick the lead vocal of the mentioned measures in the verses.

G:
| G  D | Em C | G  D | C  G |
| I  V | vi IV| I  V | IV I |

| G  D | Em C | Cmaj7  D | G    |
| I  V | vi IV|(IV-vi) V | I    |

Double bass and tamburine enters in the last measure. The alternating 8-5-8-5 bassline is frequently played during the song.

The last phrase is recycled in the outro with fermata ending (and muted third (G5)).

Verse:
This unusual long 16 measure section has square (4+4) + (4+4) phrasing. The key is a strong G Major. Parallels between two half of the section: the rhythm is similar in style (eg. the vocal pickup), the way they start on dominant in the first and arrive on the tonic chord in the last measure (omitting the closing D chord that introduces the chorus).

G:
| D    | Em    | C  G  | D    |
| V    | vi    | IV I  | V    |


| Em  7 | C    | D (sus4) | G     |
| vi    | IV   | V        | I     |


| D    | D#dim7 | Em    | Am   |
| V    | "V"/vi | vi    | ii   |

        (3/4    5/4)
| G    | D    | C  Em C  D C |G D    |
| I    | V    | IV vi IV V IV|I V    |


In the second half of the last phrase the harmonic rhythm speeds up where also 3+5 accents are used that can be interpreted as occasional change of meter. Note how the subdominant chord (C) steps to two different chords before it finally gets resolved to the tonic. (see also Ticket To Ride (Beatles) or Escape (Metallica)).
There's no guitar and vocal harmonies in the section except the lead vocal getting multitracked in the last line.


Chorus:
With eight measures (square 4+4 phrasing) it's half as long as the Verse. The vocal arrangement is tad complicated in the first phrase: once the lead vocal disappears for some measures (here the backing harmonies carry the lead tune), once the backing harmonies rest while the lead vocal is doubletracked.
The lead tune of the second half of the Chorus is V-shaped (octave down and up) stepwise moving and harmonized (three parts) in contrapuntal style, which is one of Brian's finest arrangements. (See also Teo Torriate). The countermelodies are partly altered in the second Chorus and also in the third Chorus (!) where the vocals are flanged during the first phrase.
 

G:
| G    | C  G  | G    | D    |
| I    | IV I  | I    | V    |

| G B7/F# Em G | C G Am   | G   D(7)| G    |
| I V/vi  vi I |IV I ii   | I   V   | I    |

 In the third (last) Chorus in the last two measures the chords are tad different and played staccatto. In fact this part is taken from the Verse's 7-8 measures, that was foreshadowed also at the end of the intro where Cmaj7 was played instead of Em.

... | Em  D | (G)   | 
    | vi  V | (I)   |

Bridge:
This section with continuosly ambigous harmony and unusual chord changes is the most interesting part of the song. The lead vocal (Roger's screaming, no lyrics) gets higher and higher and arrives at G#. Guitar and vocal harmonies complete the accompaniment.

The fist phrase with the relative minor chord change and the lead tune upon that is reminiscent of the beginning of the song, which orients one's ear to interpret it being in g minor, not very strongly though. The tonality is even weaker than in the intro.

g (?)
| Eb (5>b5>..| - (... 6>5) | Cm (...) | -     |
| VI         | -           | iv       | -     |

Then the harmony goes "somewhere else", A major sound the most tonic-like. Note the roots moving in minor thirds: Eb> Cm > A. Also note the tritone change: C > Fm > C. Bass stops in measure 7 and returns only in the last measure of the section.

A:
| A     |  -    | C     | F#m C  |
| I     |  -    | bIII  | vi bIII|
                         e:  VI
 | Am    | E    |
a: i     | V    |
e: iv    | I    |

The phrase end with C > Am > E chord progression like the first half of the intro, but this time the Am chord sounds like the tonal centre more than E/e, but it could not be established properly as the ending steers the harmony away again. The instrumental ending (Bridge II) is the same as in the intro...

  | Bb  | Eb Bb C  F | G    |
Bb: I   | IV I V/V V |
              G: bVII| I    | 

... only the guitar harmonies are different: they start with Mantovani-esque waterfall harmonies arranged for varispeed guitars (shades of Son And Daughter).