Musical Borrowing—Grand Larceny or Great Art?

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On January 16, 1964, David Merrick produced in the St. James Theatre in New York City a new musical comedy based on Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker. The principal character of the play and the musical is a professional busybody named Dolly Gallagher Levi, and when Dolly made her entrance into the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant in the second act, she sang a song which became a hit within weeks of the show's opening night. The music to that song was written by Jerry Herman.

Or was it? About four months after the first performance of Hello, Dolly!, Mack David, a country music composer residing in Los Angeles, claimed that the song was copied literally from one he had written sixteen years before, in 1948, to the words, "She's a sunflower, she's my sunflower, . . ." Actually only the first four measures of the two songs are identical, but that four measures was sufficient for Mack David to bring suit against Jerry Herman, asking for all of Herman's "gains, profits, and advantages," as well as punitive damages. After eighteen months of negotiation Herman's lawyers settled the matter out of court for a sum reputed to be $250,000. At $62,500 per measure that must make Mack David the highest-paid composer in history, at least for those few seconds.

The most interesting aspect of this case, apart from the amount of money which figured in the settlement, is how emphatically it establishes the exclusive right of the artist to the benefits that accrue from the use of his intellectual property. If this is characteristic of modern culture (and I believe it is), we have arrived at a point diametrically opposed to that on which our Western musical system was established, namely, that a new musical work should be based on one already in existence. The techniques of imitation, of the employment of a cantus firmus, of a soggetto cavato, and of what is known in the Renaissance as parody, lie at the very heart of Western musical practice. Among the Meistersinger, imitation of a work already in existence was the accepted way to begin, and even the song given top honors in their singing contests might carry an echo of another work. In Wagner's opera the baker Fritz Kothner explains the rules of the Mastersingers' guild to Walther von Stolzing, and concludes:

Und wer ein neues Lied gedicht'
das über vier der Sylben nicht
eingreift in and'rer Meister Weis'
dess' Lied erwerb' sich Meister-Preis!

That is, "Whoever invents a new song which does not duplicate by more than four notes another master's melody, that song wins the Master-Prize." If the Mastersingers' tabulatur had only specified "four measures" instead of "four notes" Jerry Herman might have been $250,000 richer!

Our word plagiarist comes from the Latin plagiarius, which meant kidnapper. The word seems to have entered the English and French languages about the year 1600 (about a century and a half after the invention of printing, it should be noted), and has since been adopted by all others. It has retained its original meaning through 375 years, i.e., someone who appropriates the intellectual property (kidnaps the "brain child" so to speak) of another for his own benefit. But a definition of the crime is not nearly so easily arrived at as a definition of the word. When does borrowing become a crime? Of Shakespeare's 38 plays, hardly a one can be said to be original. All are based on other plays, or on the literature of his age or of previous ages. Eugene O'Neill's play Mourning Becomes Electra is patently based on the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and Aeschylus is supposed to have said that his works consisted merely of crumbs from Homer's banquet table. Perhaps a literary idea can be more easily reworked and camouflaged, while in music a theme is a theme is a theme. It can hardly be quoted without being recognized and identified by origin and composer. But even so, we find in the history of music that the culprit has been rewarded about as often as he has been punished.

I suggest that there are three kinds of musical borrowing: the first is borrowing from oneself, the second borrowing from another but in a civilized or acceptable fashion, and the third is simple larceny. Or to use a more common term, stealing.

As for borrowing from oneself, almost every composer does a certain amount of this, especially over a long career. Rossini thought nothing of using an aria or an overture again in a later work. The overture now played for The Barber of Seville, for instance, is also the overture of three previous operas, L'Equivoco stravagante in 1811, Aureliano in Palmira in 1814, Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra in 1815, and finally The Barber in 1816. Mozart reworked his Mass in C Minor, written in 1782 and 1783, into the cantata Davidde penitente three years later. Four of the numbers in Handel's Messiah are rearrangements of his own works. In Bach's Mass in B Minor seven of the numbers are rearrangements of earlier cantata movements. Friedrich Blume remarks in his article on Bach in MGG that "the reworking has been accomplished in such a masterful fashion that it might have been the original music to which the new text has been composed," and that statement might apply to all the above examples.

These references are to entire movements transplanted more or less intact; but composers have often quoted themselves in briefer form, using motives or themes from earlier works. A comprehensive list would run to great lengths. Let me note, as examples, Richard Strauss' quotations from his previous works in Ein Heldenleben, Wagner's quotation of two themes from Tristan und Isolde in Act III of Die Meistersinger, and Mozart's quotation of Figaro's aria "Non più andrai" in the last scene of Don Giovanni.

Self-quotation can sometimes be a very mysterious procedure. The later works of Beethoven are filled with subtle reminiscences of earlier compositions; are they conscious borrowings? Many are so obvious they could hardly have escaped the composer's notice. Compare, for instance, the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata, Opus 13, with the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, Opus 125; the opening of the string quartet, Opus 18, No. 2, with the trio of the scherzo of Opus 131; or the opening theme of the Fantasia in C Minor, K. 457 by Mozart with the last movement of Opus 131.

As a second kind of borrowing let me distinguish that of borrowing from other composers, but in a manner which might be termed "socially acceptable." This would include all the "Variations on a Theme of _________," a borrowing which constitutes a kind of implied honor, and indeed in many cases has served to rescue the original composer or his work from later anonymity. Probably the best-known theme of Frank Bridge is that on which his pupil Benjamin Britten wrote variations; and witness the forgotten or nearly-forgotten composers from among the variations of Beethoven: Diabelli, Dressler, Dittersdorf, Haibl, Righini, and Winter. Paisiello's opera La Molinara has disappeared, but one of its airs, "Nel cor più non mi sento," is well known to nearly every young pianist through Beethoven's delightful variations.

However, the most interesting kind of borrowing in this second category is done not to honor the composer but more often for burlesque or ironic reasons. In the final scene of Don Giovanni, Mozart quotes the music of two other composers. (The scene, you will recall, is the one in which Giovanni sits down to dinner and calls for music while he dines and awaits the Stone Guest.) The first selection is from Martin y Soler's Una cosa rara, and the second from Sarti's Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode. I used to wonder why Mozart did not choose more interesting music for the Don's dinner; I have come to the conclusion that he selected these dull tunes purposely so that they could be followed by his own sprightly aria. Indeed the selection of an air from Una cosa rara represents a sort of personal joke, since it was that work which prevented Le Nozze di Figaro from achieving its full measure of success in Prague the year before.

Irony is evident in the trio to the Golliwog's Cake Walk by Debussy, where the composer introduces a theme from Wagner ordinarily associated with pain and suffering, but in such a manner that the effect is a burlesque one. Burlesque quotation also gets a workout in Saint-Saëns' musical romp The Carnival of the Animals. The can-can from Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers, usually played at breakneck speed, is slowed until it is barely recognizable and labeled Tortoises. The elephant is portrayed by the string basses playing first the Dance of the Sylphs from Berlioz' Damnation of Faust and then the scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The movement called Fossils is introduced by the osseous theme from the composer's own Danse macabre and followed by three French folk songs, the quasi-military "Partant pour la Syrie" and a few measures of Rosina's "Una voce poco fà." Presumably Saint-Saëns is saying that these old tunes either are, or ought to be, extinct.

The essential prerequisite for successful satire or burlesque is that the audience must already know what is being satirized or burlesqued, otherwise the point is missed. In that sense musical burlesque or caricature implies a certain amount of fame and is therefore a back-handed form of compliment; that is why I put it into this "socially acceptable" category. The critical points are familiarity and association. However, it occasionally happens that a melody becomes burlesque not because of its own nature but because of changing circumstances or associations. Such is the fate of the overture which Von Suppé wrote for his opera Light Cavalry; the gallop has become the theme to which the cavalry marches over the hill to relieve the besieged fort, and today brings on a smile totally unrelated to the music. The same is true of the fanfare which begins the final section of Rossini's Overture to William Tell. It is almost impossible to play this overture on a concert program today. The audience will listen attentively through the first three-fourths of the work (the unfamiliar part). But with the famous trumpet call pandemonium will break loose, especially with a youthful audience. Shouts of "Hi yo, Silver!" and "Kee-mo sah-bay" will be heard along with whistles and other disturbances, and the decorum necessary for listening will cease to exist. This has nothing to do with Rossini's music as such, but only with the audience's associations firmly linked with that music. About twenty years ago a small loan company was formed in Jacksonville, Florida, which called itself The Loan Arranger and advertised on radio with the William Tell fanfare as an introductory theme. Trendle-Campbell-Muir, Inc., which then owned the Lone Ranger series, went to court and obtained an injunction requiring the loan company to give up its name and to desist from its advertising methods. The judge ruled that the William Tell music was thoroughly identified in the public's mind with the Lone Ranger, and defendant was infringing on copyright privileges. If only Richard Wagner could have lived to see his theory of the leitmotiv so thoroughly vindicated by an American judge!

The third kind of musical borrowing we shall have to call by its rightful name: larceny. Larceny is defined as the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal goods of another from his possession, with intent to convert them to the taker's own use. Obviously this does not fit Mozart's use of tunes from other operas in Don Giovanni, or Debussy's quotation of the opening theme of Tristan und Isolde in the Golliwog's Cake Walk. The whole point of their use is that they will be recognized as extraneous in their context.

While every composer borrows to some extent from himself and others, some standard of fair use is recognized by the musical world. Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance, arranged the works of many of his contemporaries for his own use; the editors of the Bach-Gesellschaft edition took many of them for his own works, and the identity of the true composers has only emerged during the twentieth century. Bach's contemporary George Frideric Handel also borrowed widely. But Bach's borrowings, made largely for performance by the Collegium Musicum of Leipzig or for his use in church and school, have never generated the excitement caused by similar acts of appropriation by Handel, who incorporated his borrowings into his own works and passed them off as his creation. When Handel's borrowings began to be established during the nineteenth century, his admirers were appalled. It was as improbable that Handel should be a thief as the King should be a Catholic! And yet, there was the evidence. When it was suggested that Israel in Egypt was partly based on compositions by Stradella, Kerll, Erba, and Urio, excuses were made. Erba and Urio were towns in Italy, said Percy Robinson in his work Handel and His Orbit, where Handel had written several early works from which he later borrowed. Newman Flower in his monumental biography of the composer agreed with Robinson. That may well be, reasons Paul Henry Lang in his biography of Handel, but there are no towns named Muffat or Habermann. And so today Handel stands convicted (if that is the right word) of borrowing from Astorga, Bononcini, Carissimi, Cavalli, Clari, Erba, Graun, Habermann, Keiser, Kerll, Kuhnau, Legrenzi, Lotti, Muffat, Porta, Steffani, Stradella, Telemann, and Urio. Quite a list!

Except for a celebrated affair involving Bononcini, Handel's borrowings went largely unnoticed by his contemporaries; but at least one other eighteenth-century composer was not so fortunate. In the Mémoires secrets the chronicler Petit de Bachaumont records under the date of August 8, 1774, "The music of Orphée et Euridice [of Gluck] was printed in Paris eight or ten years ago, but it has excited such little interest that at the end of that time the printer has not sold twelve copies. Nonetheless it seems that this mine of harmony is not unknown to everyone. We have been very much surprised to find in performance that Messrs. Philidor, Gossec, Floquet, etc., have borrowed from it at their convenience and that entire pieces from their works may be found there, which has embarrassed them slightly."

This was not the first such allegation against Philidor. In February, 1769, Baron Melchior Grimm had written, "When it will be possible for you to examine his opera, you will find that this composer knows the right sources and that he especially has been able to profit from the works of Jommelli. But I always come away saying that, nonetheless, it takes a great talent to steal in this manner." Grimm's remarks seem to corroborate a previous report of Bachaumont, made the month before, in January, 1769, "The major reproach of his [i.e., Philidor's] enemies centers at the moment on the ownership of several pieces which they contest with him. They claim that all the excellent parts of his opera are stolen from the great modern musicians of Italy. They are challenging him and attempting to prove his plagiarisms by a comparison with the works of these great masters, which they have sent for, and which they jokingly call the Collection of the Works of Philidor. These assertions, difficult to establish definitely, are basically trifles and redound to the glory of this music whoever the composers may be."

I find this a most unusual passage, since it tends to pinpoint Philidor's culpability, and then proceeds to dismiss it as inconsequential. It does contain a grain of truth in stating that these assertions are difficult to establish definitely. In the case of Philidor the accusation is true, at least in part. His opéra-comique Le Sorcier (1764) contains an air based almost literally on the romance of Orpheus "Objet de mon amour" ("Chiamo il mio ben cosi" in the Italian version) from Gluck's Orphée et Euridice. His first serious opera, Ernelinde (1767), contains at least four and perhaps as many as eight numbers based on the music of other composers, principally Gluck.

How can the presence of these works, the intellectual property of another composer, be explained in an opera by Philidor? Is this a mere coincidence, or does there exist the shocking possibility that all his works are filled with borrowings of this nature? After Ernelinde Philidor wrote nine comic operas and three serious ones, plus a considerable amount of liturgical music. In all of this later work there is not the slightest indication that it is not entirely original, either in the scores themselves or in the contemporary literature.

But that does not solve the problem of what the eighteenth century thought about this sort of thievery. Philidor's borrowings were quite obviously recognized by his contemporaries, but he was not condemned. Indeed, the literature of the age seems to take a decidedly jocular attitude to the whole idea. In fact, Christoph Gluck attended a performance of Ernelinde while residing in Paris in 1777, and afterward expressed an opinion. Baron Grimm quotes him as saying, "This opera is a richly-mounted watch, decorated with the most precious stones, whose interior movement is worthless." I am not sure what that means. Reduced to a somewhat more prosaic form of speech, it would seem that Gluck is saying that the opera enjoyed an impressive mise en scène, but the music or the drama did not warrant such extravagance. But at least he is not quoted as saying one word about the fact that Philidor had stolen some music from him. Yet how could Gluck possibly have sat through the performance without recognizing his own music, and later commenting on the fact?

In 1906 Sedley Taylor published a volume entitled The Indebtedness of Handel to Works by Other Composers, documenting many of Handel's borrowings. Taylor makes two statements which summarize the kernel of the problem. He says of Handel's thefts, "The similarities are much too minute and extensive to be accounted for either by fortuitous coincidence or by unconscious reminiscence. The former would demand a series of gigantic improbabilities, the latter a combination of superhuman memory with infrahuman forgetfulness of authorship." And further along, he states, "As matters stand the fact remains that he accepted, indeed practically claimed, merit for what he must have known was not his own work. That this was wrong, can, it appears to me, be denied only by those who are prepared to establish the morality of an act according to the amount of genius shown in performing it."

Those are true words, but they do not solve our problem, either. In fact, despite the provocative nature of my title, I must regret not being able to provide a definitive answer to the question. I do not think that history provides sufficient evidence for us to use as the basis for a firm answer. Moral and ethical concepts are not static, as witness the fact that just a few centuries ago it was held to be a virtue to burn a witch and a vice to lend money at interest. I fear that basically we are trying to judge an eighteenth-century act with a twentieth-century conscience.

I began by saying that there are three types of borrowing: (1) borrowing from oneself, (2) borrowing from another composer without his permission, but in a socially acceptable way, and (3) stealing. I should like to add a fourth category to those. It is closely related to the second category, but the purpose is not satire or burlesque but something quite opposite, an honor of the most exalted kind. I will cite four examples.

Beethoven's favorite composer is generally believed to have been Handel. So it can only be taken as a tribute to Handel when Beethoven in writing the Missa Solemnis quotes the phrase from Messiah "And he shall reign forever and ever" in the final "Dona nobis pacem" of that work.

Beethoven died on March 26, 1827. Almost exactly one year later Franz Schubert spent the month of March composing his great Symphony in C. At the beginning of the development section in the final movement Schubert included a testimonial to the master, a paraphrase of the choral theme from the Ninth Symphony.

Eight years later Schumann also quoted Beethoven, but in a quite different context and for vastly different reasons. The work is the Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17, first movement. The quotation is from the beginning of the last song in the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, a setting of the words "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder, die ich dir, Geliebte, sang." ("Take these songs then, beloved, which I sang to thee.") The words are almost certainly chosen for their relevance to Clara Wieck, but the musical procedures are Schumann's "Hail and Farewell" to Beethoven. With Beethoven's theme Schumann heralds the arrival of the Romantic Era by composing a work which spits in the eye of the Classical concept of form and of stable tonalities clearly contrasted. Indeed, it is not until the final page of the first movement that we hear not only the principal theme but also a tonic chord of C in root position.

The final example is likewise a rather touching one. In February of 1883 Richard Wagner died. During the following summer Johannes Brahms composed his Third Symphony, Opus 90, and in the first movement of that work, just before the entry of the second theme, we hear an unmistakable echo of the Venusberg music from Tannhäuser. There was no personal enmity on Brahms' part toward Wagner, although they had been widely publicized as artistic rivals for years. Here, it seems, Brahms is saying, at least to himself if not to the world, pace to all that dissension.

Here, if at no other point in this review of borrowing, I believe that we have reached the level of great art.

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Last modified on Friday, 09/11/2018

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