Heard it all before?

April 26 is World Intellectual Property Day, a good moment to reflect on the issue of people pinching musical ideas from other composers. Whilst imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, plagiarism isn’t. On the whole, however, classical musicians seem to have been rather well behaved on the subject.

rosemary-brownRosemary Brown was an English medium and near-novice musician who famously claimed to have communicated with the spirits of composers such as Liszt, Brahms and Chopin in the 1960s. She was suspected by some of pilfering and recycling their extant ideas when she produced a stream of compositions purportedly dictated to her from the other side. Remarkably, the sceptics never outshouted those who were happy to suspend disbelief and saw her more as a remarkable conduit than a poacher.

By the turn of the century it was a computer that was worming its way into the minds of the great masters to extract their ideas. EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) is the musical software invented by the multi-talented American David Cope that has produced stylistic facsimiles of great composers, from Bach to Mahler, although the difference between computed and composed remains discernible – for now.

Copyright laws didn’t kick in until around 500 years after the 13th-century Latin hymn for the dead, Dies Irae, was penned, but whoever the composer of the plainsong tune was, he probably wishes he could have notched up an indulgence for every occasion it’s been performed subsequently.


While Berlioz used it in the demonic finale of his Symphonie Fantastique (Naxos 8.572886), written in 1830, the tune plays its calling card right from the start of Liszt’s Totentanz, originally written for piano and orchestra in 1849 (Naxos 8.570517) and subsequently re-worked for piano solo (Naxos 8.572491). The plainchant is still in demand today, as can be heard in the 5th movement of Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony (Naxos 8.559635), written in 1993.

Rachmaninov adopted the tune in a number of works, including his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Naxos 8.554477). The Paganini tune on which this ever popular work is built has in turn been borrowed by others, notably by Brahms in his two books of fiendishly difficult piano variations on the theme (Naxos 8.550350), and those for piano duet by Witold Lutosławski (8.553423).

God Save the Queen, the British national anthem that dates back to c.1745, was brazenly co-opted by other countries as their own national song, including Russia, Prussia, Switzerland and even the United States, before The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem in 1931; hence the reason why IvesVariations on America (Naxos 8.570559) sounds as though it was born on the wrong side of the Atlantic.


Staying on the right side of decency, however, is self-plagiarism, which has been practised by some of the finest composers to produce moments (or movements) that can disorientate the listener. JS Bach excised the opening movement of one of his secular cantatas, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214 and transformed it note-for-note into Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!, the opening movement of his Christmas Oratorio (Naxos 8.550428-30).

Mozart similarly recycled the Kyrie and Gloria from his Mass in C minor (Naxos 8.554421) to expedite the completion of Davide penitente (Naxos 8.570231), a commission he received from the Viennese Society of Musicians in 1785.

Over in London, Handel had wowed London audiences with the first entrance of the sorceress Armida in his opera Rinaldo in 1711 – the sound armidaeffects, sense of stagecraft and musical impact can be experienced on Naxos 8.660165-67, track 10. Armida then continues with the aria Molto voglio, molto spero. The piece had travelled well, having first been tried out by the title character in his opera Agrippina in Venice two years earlier.

A couple of centuries later, Mahler scattered a sense of déjà vu more liberally throughout his first four symphonies, making extensive use of themes from his song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Naxos Historical 8.111300) and his anthology of folk song settings in Des Knaben Wunderhorn: the song Das himmlische Leben permeates his Fourth Symphony, most noticeably in the last movement (Naxos 8.550527).

8.573051One of our new releases this month continues to remind us how Rachmaninov befriended that previously mentioned ancient melody, Dies Irae, right up to his later works. Keep your ears on alert for it while enjoying the performances of his Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances (Naxos 8.573051) by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.