Who really wrote the music?
A case of musical appropriation, if not outright plagiarism, has just rocked has classical music. Standing accused is one of America's best-known classical composers. The victim is...well, it's not certain who if anyone is the victim in this case, which is partly what makes it so interesting. And it raises the question occasionally posed by listeners over the years: When one composer bases a work on music by another composer, who really wrote the piece?
To summarize: Argentine-American composer and Holy Cross faculty member Osvaldo Golijov (above right), acclaimed for his Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion), his opera Ainadamar, and other works drawing on such styles Latin, Klezmerand electronica, was recently outed by a pair of audience members in Eugene, Oregon, for lifting substantial portions of his new work "Siderus" from composer-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman's "Barbeich". The thing is, Ward-Bergeman says that he knew about it already, that he and Golijov, as friends and collaborators, had reached an understanding about it, and that he's ok with it. There's more to this story, including a second allegation against Golijov and concerns that the once-productive composer may have hit a creative block, as reported by New Yorker critic Alex Ross.
But let's leave aside for now the practice of out-and-out classical rip-offs, one with a long and notorious history stretching from Handel (undergraduate thesis on the topic here) to the present day. Instead, permit me to compose a variation on my original question: At what point does a composer's use of pre-existing music in a new work invalidate the composer's claim to the work's authorship? I've taken this question or one like it over the years from a few listeners puzzled by such classical titles as Brahms's "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" or Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis". These listeners don't quite get how these works could be by Brahms or Vaughan Williams, when they prominently feature earlier music by Haydn* or Tallis.
Actually, such practices are at least as old as written musical history, and probably much older. Whether it's the earliest known composers developing new works out of ancient chants (e.g., the organum of Leonin and Perotin), or Medieval and Renaissance composers doing "parodies" (not in the funny sense) of earlier songs or sacred works (e.g., the many Masses based on the song "L'homme armé"), or instrumental fantasies on the greatest hits of the Elizabethan (e.g., the keyboard works of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), it's the oldest trick around. For the least three hundred years or so, the practice has been most evident in the innumerable variations composed on folk tunes, operatic arias, classical melodies — everything is fair game in a practice that probably goes back to dance musicians improvising variations to prevent boredom over long dances. Far from being "shocked, shocked", it would be impossible to imagine classical music without such "sampling", as the DJs (not of the radio sense) now call it.
Because the art in such music is not just in coming up with the tune. Mostly, it's in what the composer makes of it. In 1819, the composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli sent a little waltz out to more than fifty Austrian composers for their variations, so he could publish the results in an anthology. 51 composer complied. But only Beethoven could take this Schusterfleck ("cobbler's patch") of a piece and turn it into his magnificent "Diabelli" Variations. And whenever we program this work, there's no question whose name we put into the "composer" field in our playlist.
Admittedly, some other cases are not so clear-cut. Recently, for instance, we played the Italian guitarist-composer Carlo Domeniconi's Chaconne — or was it really his? What Domeniconi had done, you see, was take J.S. Bach's great Chaconne for solo violin (frequently played also on guitar) and while maintaining its structure and contours, re-write it with different notes and harmonies. In this case, Domeniconi freely acknowledged Bach as his antecedent, and we broadcast the piece as "Chaconne (after J.S. Bach) by Carlo Domeniconi". I'm sure we would do something similar if we ever play Golijov's "Siderus". Or is it really Ward-Bergeman's "Barbeich"? Oh, never mind!
*Actually, the piece from which Brahms took the melody (the "St. Anthony Chorale") for his "Haydn Variations" is probably not by Haydn at all, but the name has stuck.