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

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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?