You’ve Heard This One Before: When Classical Composers Use Samples

Monday, March 13, 2017 - 01:04 PM

Classical composers have long sampled other works, much like today's DJs. Classical composers have long sampled other works, much like today's DJs. (Bala Sivakumar)

The history of art is a rogue’s gallery of sloppy thieves. Though artists often wallow over whether they are being original — the Bard himself moped in the Sonnets about whether he was capable of leaving a mark that was his and his alone — each has perused the work of her predecessors and decided, consciously or not, what to steal. Her fingerprints are everywhere.

In music, the tradition of “sampling,” or using fragments of others’ recorded work, is time-honored. Rap, pop, hip-hop—across genres, musicians and composers have founded their practice on embracing the music of others. Who Sampled, a log of what samples comprise what music, provides the sort of long-term dissection for which your nauseated biology-lab self so longed. Classical music, likewise, thrives on samples (and has yielded what may be our most notorious sample, Pachelbel’s Canon). Take a listen to how composers have paid their respects to their predecessors.


Italian composer Luciano Berio took the name of the third movement of his Sinfonia (1970), “In ruhig fleissender bewegung,” from the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) — as well as a chunk of the way it sounds. Rising out of the din with which the piece begins is, in fact, the Mahler copied note for note. The orchestra proceeds to romp blithely through fragments, some obvious, some buried, of, among others, Berlioz, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berg, Stockhausen and Beethoven (the opening is actually a few choice measures from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra). Over this, the voices mutter, sing and bellow the words of Lévy-Strauss, Beckett, and Berio himself; in the fourth movement, they say only the syllables comprising “Martin Luther King.” (Michael Hicks has done admirable work in identifying its various quotations in this analysis of the score.)

The result resembles a symphonic Wikipedia search, starring Berio as the curious clicker. Listen below to a performance by the Orchestra of the Academy of Saint Cecilia, Rome featuring the Swingle Singers, who premiered the work.


Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partita for Eight Voices, based her in manus tuas (2009) on a motet of the same name by the 16th-century English choral composer Thomas Tallis (listen to it here). As she writes, the piece is meant to evoke the “sensation of a single moment of hearing the motet in the particular and remarkable space of Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut.” Cellist Hannah Collins performs in the video below at WQXR:


In Absolute Jest (2012), John Adams places a string quartet in front of an orchestra in a rousing palimpsest of Beethoven’s Quartets Op. 131 and 135. Adams’ nods to his own Chamber Symphony and Grand Pianola Music, as well. The work is at once devotional but also wholly the composer’s own. Here is Adams himself conducting the piece, played by the Yale Philharmonia featuring the Brentano String Quartet.


The second movement of Charles Ives' Sonata No. 2 (1914-1917), “In the Barn,” is a jigsaw of American hymns and folk tunes that includes “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” and “Money Musk.” To his first and third violin sonatas, Ives left copious notes, but he believed the titles of the second spoke for themselves. As indicated, the piece is an inebriated hoedown that is perhaps best performed as one. The evocative performance below is by violinist Kathia Zinn and Illya Filshtinskiy of aTonalHits.


“Motown Machaut” (2005), by Eve Beglarian, does what physicists have thus far failed to facilitate in arranging a meeting between 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut and Marvin Gaye. The piece has the lazy, Motown-inspired swing from Gaye’s “The Bells” and the meditative bent of Machaut’s Tels rit. It's available here, with the score, on Beglarian’s website.



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Comments [3]

Les from Miami, Florida

This post brings to mind Mozart's self-quotation of the beginning of the Count's "Non piu' andrai" from "Le Nozze di Figaro" being briefly referred to by Don Giovanni briefly during the festivity scene at the end of Act I of "Don Giovanni" when he sings (in Italian, of course), "they're playing that too much". And Puccini made another self-reference in "Il Tabarro" when the beginning of "Mi Chiamano Mimi'" is very briefly quoted to words of "That's the story of Mimi'" again in Italian. And Puccini made a reference to Richard Strauss's "Salome'"...the piccolo and oboe motive (short short long long) heard in "Salome's Dance" and during the final scene... in "La Rondine" Act I. And Richard Strauss quoted the funeral march from Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony" in his "Metamorphosen".

Mar. 19 2017 10:18 AM
Janos Simon

Handel was famous for "borrowing" from other Baroque composers, including from his own works. Earlier, Renaissance composers based masses on preexisting music.

More recent examples include Beethoven in Variation 22 of the Diabelli Variations, which quotes Mozart's Don Giovanni, or Puccini's self-quote in Suor Angelica. Brahms, when told about the similarity of the finale of his 1st Symphony to the final of Beethoven's 9th, famously replied "any ass can sse that!."

Mar. 16 2017 08:07 PM
William Zucker from Brooklyn, NY

The performing repertoire is full of such obvious cribs that at times can be embarrassing to note.

Beethoven was at least very subtle about it when in the first few bars of the Scherzo of his Fifth Symphony, he quoted note for note the main theme of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony. But it was done in a manner that one would ordinarily not notice it unless it is specially pointed out.

Mahler was a shameless plunderer. In his Sixth Symphony, there is a direct, quite blatant quote of a theme from Liszt's First Piano Concerto.

Dvorak, in his early Fourth Symphony, in a passage in the Trio section of the Scherzo, there is a crescendo passage leading to the full orchestral restatement of the idea that is embarrassingly similar to a crescendo occurring in Wagner's Die Meistersinger Overture.

The English composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, in the second movement (Scherzo) of his Nonet (a chamber work for nine instruments) at the very outset, becoming basic to the whole movement, there is a direct quote of a motive appearing in R. Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel. This, by the way, I originally caught while listening on WQXR, a good many years ago, I believe in the year 2000.

I'm certain that there are myriad other examples of this sort of thing throughout the active repertoire.

Mar. 16 2017 02:47 PM

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