A Composer is Accused of 'Theft.' But Did Originality Ever Really Exist?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

sheet music (Flickr/wheatfields)

Osvaldo Golijov, one of today’s most successful composers, is facing accusations of plagiarism. Sidereus, a nine-minute piece commissioned by a group of 35 orchestras, contains a significant chunk of music from a 2009 work by Michael Ward-Bergeman, a close friend of Golijov’s. The similarity was discovered by Tom Manoff, a music critic for NPR’s All Things Considered and Brian McWhorter, a trumpet player.

But a composer recycling a preexisting melody is hardly new. Bach repurposed music all of the time -- both his and other people's. Bartok and Dvorak rewrote folk tunes. Copland incorporated his Fanfare For The Common Man in his Third Symphony. And in other genres, like hip-hop or jazz, sampling and quotation are intrinsic to the art.

In this latest case, Ward-Bergeman had authorized Golijov to use his music. But was this arrangement adequately disclosed? And where does any borrowing cross the line? 

In this podcast, Naomi Lewin poses this question to three guests: Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; David Smooke, a composer and chair of the music theory department at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; and Robert Clarida, an intellectual property lawyer at Reitler Kailas & Rosenblatt as well as a composer.

Weigh in: Do you care if a composer borrows from others? How should an audience be informed? And what are your favorite examples of composers' recycling?


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Comments [20]

Musy-cologist from New Jersey

Ah, just saw this blog! It's a fascinating topic. I've yet to see anyone note that "Ruht wohl," the final chorus in Bach's St. John Passion, is similar to the title song from Jesus Christ Superstar, and that "I don't know how to love him," also in "Superstar," is reminiscent of the second movement of Mendelssohn's violin concerto. Hmmmm ...

Aug. 07 2012 08:45 AM
MIchael Meltzer

If the question is ever what appears to be unattributed plagiarism, we simply should look at whether it is an isolated occurence and therefore possibly inadvertent, or is it what seems to be a habit. The latter would need heavy-handed attention.

Mar. 11 2012 03:36 PM
Marie from Wanamassa, NJ

Ecclesiastes 1:9 - What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

I think almost all art is derivative in some way or another. We build on what has come before. If you listen closely to movie soundtracks from the 1930’s and 1940’s you hear many echoes of classical music. There are whole sections of music in Gone With the Wind that are straight from Siegfried’s Idyll.

But I do agree, when it is conscious, attribution is the key to a piece of art not being considered plagiarism. As a writer, I always have an underlying concern that I might inadvertently use a phrase or idea that is not original. That I might write something that stuck in my head but belonged to someone else and I didn’t remember that. I suppose if you use something unconsciously all you can do is apologize. Or, if it was me, apologize, slink away and hide for several decades.

Mar. 11 2012 11:24 AM
Bhaskar from Little Egg Harbor, NJ

History is clearly replete with examples in which a composer has plagiarized/borrowed from another composer or from his own work, consciously or unconsciously. However our standards of disclosure in the 21st century are quite different from those in the 20th century or earlier. These days, students in universities are not disbarred from taking passages from another work in their papers, but they are required to attribute and acknowledge the source material. Failure to do so results in charges of plagiarism and serious consequences for the student. Similar things happen when authors knowingly lift passages of other people's work without suitable acknowledgement. Thus in Golijov's case (since this is a 21st century work) the standards of disclosure have to be different from those of his predecessors. If in his original written material of the score, he has clearly stated that a specific part of the melody was inspired by Ward-Bergeman's earlier work, then he is up to modern standards. If he has failed to state this in writing, some sleight of hand is indeed involved.

Mar. 09 2012 11:20 PM
John O'Rourke from Ottawa, Canada

I have only four words!


Mar. 09 2012 02:10 PM

Mat Divjich's comment is so good, I shall make it my rule. Hoswever, I leave off the last six words. That is to say, I would end with tough lashing.
Francis D. Coleman

Mar. 09 2012 01:30 PM
Ron Bianchi from Purchase, N.Y.

Sibelius loved Tchaikovsky's music so much that to insure the acceptance of his first sympthony the last movement of the sympthony was copied note for note from the Russian composer. That sympthony should be titled "Sibelius' First Sympthony In Collaboration With Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky". If one appropriates from another composer's music he should give him or her credit.

Ron Bianchi

Mar. 09 2012 12:42 PM
ramon from new york

such as when bruckner was accused of copying from his hero wagner, he made the remark something like "even an idiot can see that", except the copycat in this case is nowhere even close to the artistry of either bruckner or wagner.

Mar. 09 2012 11:02 AM
Kevin Moore

Let us recall Picasso's "Don't borrow, steal," and the rule of context in art. Re-place a phrase in a new context and you have effectively replaced it, made it yours.

Art has always build its temples on other art...it is only the 20th century that seems to ave idolized "creativity" as making something from nothing...pure creativity as pure novelty.

Mar. 09 2012 10:55 AM
Fred from Queens

I think it's what the composer does with the music for example, the Ravel quartet inspired by Debussy, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini(Rachmaninoff), Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Britten), Charles Ives use of American tunes, etc.

Creativity can turn someone's original theme or idea into something quite different like another great work of art.

Mar. 09 2012 02:54 AM
Constantine from New York

Then there is the case of "Avalon," in which Puccini's publishers won a case claiming that this song was stolen from "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca. This strikes me as a miscarriage of justice. One is in major, the other in minor, the rhythm and the effect is totally different. Very likely the "theft" was unconscious if not fortuitous.

Mar. 08 2012 06:10 PM
Michael Meltzer

When you finally get down to the listening experience, and survey for instance, the Paganini Variations by Brahms, by Rachmaninoff, by Lutoslawski, and the Liszt Etude, how important is a melody anyway? Could Frederick the Great have written the Musical Offering? Did Bach really even need Fred's melody?
Popular music has different parameters, but in classical music, we may be making a mountain out of a molehill.

Mar. 07 2012 11:53 PM

While borrowing in all fields of music is definitely ubiquitous, I think for it to be accepted, the majority of the idea needs to be original. In Golijov's case, while the orchestration is certainly beautiful, it seems like too much of the foundation was built by Ward-Bergeman. Of course, I'm not one to decide what is ethical or not, and the fact that Ward-Bergeman knew about it shows that Golijov is not some cold-blooded plagiarizer, but in this case, listeners should be publically informed of Ward-Bergeman's contribution to the piece.
The hip-hop example is definitely a good point. Some of my favorite samples are Chiddy Bang's use of Passion Pit, Childish Gambino's use of Adele, and Talib Kweli's use of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. However, these samples are obviously credited. The point of using them is to follow the trend of directly quoting other artists. While Golijov might have had a composer's block, he should have given more credit to the person who got him out of it.

Mar. 07 2012 01:30 PM
Mat Dirjish from New York NY

Borrowing a chunk of music from a living composer with the blessing of the 'borrowee' should be acceptable. Whether it's effective and successful musically is purely subjective. Extracting music from deceased composers who are now in the public domain is acceptable IF the 'borrowee' gives credit for it. If the composer is deceased but not in the public domain, I would think it's not acceptable because even if the heirs give permission, who knows exactly what the dead composer would've really wanted? Of course, lifting music from living composers without their permission should be frowned upon, if not punishable by a sound tongue lashing from a banished soprano with OCD.

Mar. 07 2012 11:03 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont

Composers did borrow from each other. The Cry of the Rhine Maidens from Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla comes from Rossini opera about Moses. Wagner dipped into Bellini for the Rhine Journey, Chopin dipped into Bellini music. Puccini used a Japanese melody in Madama Butterfly when Cio Cio San is displaying some objects. Let's enjoy the music. Forget who stole from whom.

Mar. 07 2012 10:59 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I don't mind if fragments or motives that are familiar are used by composers, the outstanding example of which is the "Must it be?" motive. I think Irving Kolodin wrote a book about the myriad ways in which it's been used by diverse composers. It's even in "Tosca" once. A theme from the love duet in "La Fanciulla del West" turning up as "Music of the Night" does disturb me, however, but I admit that my negative feeling is probably because I don't care for "Cats". Remember Sigmund Spaeth, the "Tune Detector"? So my comment is that the degree of annoyance depends upon one's overall feeling toward the piece in question.

Mar. 07 2012 09:08 AM
Steven Baric

Mozart hoisted the overture to "The Magic Flute" directly from Clementi after flat out insulting the man's art. I think musicians borrowing thematic material from their friends is not only far more ethical, but represents the often communal exchange and organic growth of ideas intrinsic to our art. He didn't present the other composer's complete work as his own. He derived ideas from the themes. Esotericall
y, the themes are given new life by being filtered through another's experience. If he merely scratched out thr name there might be plagiarism. This is merely variation, executed with the other artist's permission.

Mar. 07 2012 07:55 AM
Bernie from UWS

Fascinating discussion. I agree with Ms. Midgette. It's hypocritical for composers and others to "pile on" Golijov if he's having a creative block. His colleagues should help him work through it while not encouraging more borrowing. That said, I'm wondering if those orchestras will take some sort of action against him for not delivering a thoroughly original piece?

Btw, it sure would be nice to hear more of Golijov's music (at least his earlier work) on WQXR! He's still a major composer and yet I never hear it during the daytime hours.

Mar. 07 2012 07:28 AM
Michael Meltzer

In 1980, I was the manager of the Manhatan School of Music bookstore, and I ate lunch from time to time with clarinetist David Greitzer. Mr. Greitzer had a lucrative side career as a forensic musicologist: he had n encyclopedic memory of music he had heard, and was called upon in copyright infringement cases defense attorneys to find examples in the public domain classical repertoire that would disprove originality on the part of the litigators. He had found those surprising examples often enough to earn a reputation in the field of copyright law, and he told me that they were plentiful: the main body of a popular tune in question could turn up in the second horn part of a Mozart symphony, for instance.
This is so often a tangled complex area that it is better to know all the precise circustances of each supposed infringement than to try to apply a blanket principle and make casual, sweeping judgments.

Mar. 07 2012 06:31 AM
David from Flushing

Part of the fun of listening to Handel is trying to figure out where else the tunes were used. Telemann was a frequent source, but fortunately, they were friends to the end. Of course, Handel often borrowed from himself with horn concertos ending up as oratorio choruses.

Handel's tunes also might have been used by Wagner. "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" recalls a segment of an aria in "Israel in Egypt" and the opening Rhine music of the "Ring," the funeral music of "Samson" that Handel recycled from a wedding march in his "Joseph." However, these may simply be coincidences and raise the point of whether it is possible to write anything entirely new at this point.

Ward-Bergeman seems to have crossed the line from borrowing a tune to outright theft of another's work. This is little different from copying a chapter from another's book.

Mar. 06 2012 08:17 PM

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