Can I quote you?

Borrowing other people’s music and weaving it into your own composition is far from uncommon. We’re not talking plagiarism here i.e. passing other people’s music off as your own, which seems to happen far more regularly in pop music than in classical.

A composer might borrow from himself, which explains why you might get a sense of déjà entendu when listening to different works by Mahler, for example. You might similarly hear self-references in the music of Handel, who also dipped his quill into the pot of plagiarism on more than one occasion.

Selecting a notable melody by another composer on which to build a set of variations has numerous examples: Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (8.557430) is one. It’s a high compliment to acknowledge your source in this way. Many composers have chosen Beethoven as their thematic source, and continue to do so. The Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe wrote his Beethoven Variations for orchestra with optional didgeridoo in 2003. We’ll return to Beethoven and his tendency to pop up unexpectedly in other people’s scores later. Meanwhile, we’ll exemplify this subject of variations-on-a-theme-by with an extract from Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland (8.572630), which is essentially a set of eight variations for solo guitar; the seminal piece was premièred in 1964 by Julian Bream. 350 years separate the births of the two composers, and yet they are as one in the music, not least when Britten’s variations give way to a statement of Dowland’s original toward the end of the piece.

Composers have been known to use snatches of another composer’s music to achieve a variety of effects, ranging from sarcasm to emotional profundity. Bartók was dismissive of the bombast of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony when he heard a performance of the work on the radio in 1942, and he took the opportunity to express himself on the subject in his own Concerto for Orchestra (8.571201), completed the following year. He introduced Shostakovich’s ‘Nazi’ theme, quoted above, into his Intermezzo interrotto movement, not so much an interruption and a parody, you might think, as an unpleasantly barbed lampoon.

In similar vein, we find Debussy alluding to Wagner in his Children’s Corner (8.553291) for solo piano. Published in 1908, he wrote the work for his daughter Emma-Claude, known in the family as Chou-Chou and born in 1905. The English titles of the six movements are a reflection of Debussy’s anglophilia, echoed also in his habit of taking strong tea for breakfast and in a liking for whisky, and evidence of the influence on Chou-Chou of her English governess, Miss Gibbs. Children’s Corner was first performed in Paris at the Cercle Musical by the American pianist Harold Bauer, to whom Debussy pointed out a parody of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the central section of the Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk, to be played avec une grande émotion. By émotion he probably meant disparagement, recalling how Wagner represented the arch enemy of French music at the time.

Rachmaninov based his song “Fate” (9.80439) on the first two measures of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which are now familiarly known as the fate motif. The song is one of Rachmaninov’s longest. Dedicated to the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, it tells how no-one is spared fate’s scrutiny. Here’s the opening, sung in Russian, and translated as follows:


With her walking stick,
With her dark eyes
Fate, like a terrible sentinel,
Follows us everywhere.

Her awful face threatens,
She has turned grey with threats,
She has indeed conquered many,
And always knocks, and always knocks:

Knock, knock, knock…
Enough, my friend,
Stop seeking happiness!
Knock, knock, knock…


Shades of the symphony’s opening also appear in Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 (8.559221). The work’s original conception was as an orchestral work to celebrate men of literature. The second movement titled Hawthorne has a couple of passages in which the hymn tune Martyn (1834) is heard in hushed tones. In the following movement, The Alcotts, a variant of Martyn seems to recall the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Richard Strauss began writing his Metamorphosen (8.570895) for 23 solo strings in March, 1945; it received its first performance in January the following year. These were times of the greatest difficulty for the German composer, not least in terms of moral suffering, with the destruction of many of the great monuments of German culture, the opera houses and theatres, the Goethe house in Frankfurt and the historic city of Dresden. To Strauss it must have seemed that the world he had known had been destroyed. Hence he quotes from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, adopting the four-note, descending dotted motif that’s heard near the start of the second movement, marked Marcia funebre (Funeral march). The quotation can be heard not long after the opening of Metamorphosen, and then with increasing intensity throughout the course of the piece.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was widely recognised as Latin America’s greatest composer by the 1940s, a period when he made regular visits to the United States. Working there gave him new perspectives; his later symphonies moved away from the folk influences and exotic effects heard in the works he wrote in the 1920s and 30s towards a conciser, rather neo-classical output. The conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky, an authority on Villa-Lobos, observes: “This reverence for the 19th century is a virtual link between Villa-Lobos and the components from which he tried to detach himself but to which, with the proximity of death, he would return with conviction.” Which would explain the references to the opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, which can be clearly heard at the opening of Villa-Lobos’ Symphony No. 8 (8.573777).

We’ll end with music by the Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov, who couldn’t be more up front about invoking the shades of other composers: “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.” Here’s an extract from the first movement of his 2 Dialogues with Postscript, titled Wedding Waltz (1826 … 2002) (Fr. Schubert … V. Silvestrov) (8.573598). If you like what you hear, you’ll have to wait a little longer to sample more; the recording will be released next month, and you can quote me on that.

1 thought on “Can I quote you?”

  1. Indeed, couldn’t agree more! We in the West seem fixated on ‘originality’, whatever that is… even the likes of Tchaikovsky were borrowing tunes from folk and other sources, and referring to another composer deliberately in your compositions is a way of saluting that other composer, giving credit for inspiration – however oblique it might be. What composers need to do is find their VOICE. That is a different thing entirely, and if a composer has ‘something to say’, then however they say it, that is a valid creational statement. I personally try and create music influenced and informed from my own time – so that, if I have got it right, people would know that it had to have been written in this time period. Nods to other composers are quite legitimate.

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