The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #107784   Message #2237936
Posted By: Don Firth
16-Jan-08 - 04:24 PM
Thread Name: Composers 'stealing' folk themes
Subject: RE: Composers 'stealing' folk themes
The first person to ever use the term "folk song" was Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), a German philosopher and collector of volkslieder (folk songs). He was referring to songs of the "rural peasant class." He noted that there were marked differences in style and sound between the volkslieder of different nations, and often between different regions of a single nation. He suggested to composers of his day that if they wished to give their music a regional or national character, they should listen to—and make use of—the themes they heard in folk music. Many have done so, such as the aforementioned Bartok, Vaughan-Williams, Copeland, etc. Grieg. Smetana. Dvorak used both American ("New World Symphony") and Czech ("Rusalka") themes. Lots of composers incorporate folk songs, old hymn tunes, all kinds of stuff in their music. It works. Mission accomplished.

But don't make the mistake of thinking these composers can't—or haven't—written a lot of darned good original stuff. Most of it is original. And usually the way they incorporate other things into their compositions is quite original.

Vaughan-Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves" uses two English folk songs, "Greensleeves' and "Lovely Joan," and he doesn't make a whole lot of changes in the original melodies of these songs. They're right out there in the open. But all the arrangement and orchestration is his, and the way he puts the two songs together—songs with similar story themes (young man trying to 'have his way' with a young woman who is not being too cooperative)—and interlaces them, is quite original and very nicely done. Very English and pastoral, which is what he was trying to do. He succeeds.

Hardly "stealing."

Composers have been borrowing from each others for as far back as anyone can remember. Oftentimes, the composer borrowed from regards it as an honor or an homage. And sometimes the borrowing composer is quite frank and open about it: Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme of Paganini," Fernando Sor's virtuoso guitar piece, "Variations on a Theme from 'The Magic Flute' by Mozart," and a whole list of others where the composer tells you who he borrowed from.

Leonard Bernstein borrowed a theme from the second movement of Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" and used it as the melody of "There's a Place for Us" in West Side Story. Some music critic spotted it and got all bent out of shape about it, accusing Bernstein of plagiarism. Bernstein responded, "Of course I borrowed it! Composers have always borrowed from each other. And besides, it's too beautiful a melody to be used only once!" Other musicians and music critics agreed with Bernstein and told the complaining critic to take two aspirin and go to bed, then spend some time learning something about the history of music.

It's usually only popular music writers who get their noses out of joint if someone uses a tune similar to something they've written. Gives them a chance to sue. Wasn't there some unpleasantness about Lennon's (or somebody's) "My Sweet Lord?"

Tempest in a tea cup.

Don Firth