wonder whether you recall that court case involving the song My Sweet
Lord supposedly by George Harrison. The song came out in 1971 and bore
striking similarities to He’s So Fine recorded nine years earlier by
a female group from New York called The Chiffons.
By the time the
Harrison song was released, The Chiffons were under the Bright Tunes Music
Corporation which swiftly filed a lawsuit against George Harrison. The case
was finally heard in court in February 1976 when Harrison’s lawyers tried to
prove that the songs were different. The judge decided otherwise. Harrison
was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and fined $587,000.
In contrast, the
Church of the Middle Ages regularly re-used melodies because it was the
standard way of creating new works. One process, known as “troping” was to
extend an existing musical setting of sacred verses by simply adding more
material. There was no conception of music being a commodity, having
monetary value or even having an owner.
The first British
copyright laws date from 1709, though they were probably interpreted
somewhat liberally. Nevertheless, the German composer and theorist Johann
Mattheson claimed in 1739 that “borrowing was acceptable and necessary”.
However, he added that “one must so construct and develop imitations that
they are prettier and better than the pieces from which they are derived.”
Clearly, Mattheson had no scruples about using someone else’s music. His
father was a successful tax-collector, which may have had something to do
Bach, Handel, and most
other professional composers of the day routinely recycled their own music
and the music of others. Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook of 1725
contained short pieces written for his wife, but many of them were
borrowed. The Minuet in G for example, was actually written by
Christian Petzold. Over two hundred later it was borrowed again for a song
called A Lover’s Concerto and sung by another female group from New
York called The Toys.
Both Haydn and Mozart
borrowed music freely. Not until 1909 was it realised that Mozart’s
Symphony No. 37 was actually a re-working of Michael Haydn’s Symphony No
25. The idea of the composer as a singular genius forging an original path
was virtually unknown to seventeenth and eighteenth century sensibilities.
It’s been estimated that Beethoven reworked existing music in more than a
third of his compositions.
The 1911 musical
Kismet used music written by Alexander Borodin who had died twenty-four
years earlier. You may recall the songs Baubles, Bangles and Beads
and the more well-known Stranger in Paradise, both of which were
revived in the 1950s. There are dozens of other examples. The song Hot
Diggity was recorded in 1956 by one Pierino Ronald Como better known as
Perry, except perhaps to his mother. The song went to the top of the charts
and while the words were nonsense, the melody was wonderful. As you may
have guessed, it was stolen.
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): España.
symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin
(Duration 06:25; Video Resolution: 360p)
Chabrier went on a
tour of Spain in 1882 and wrote España a year later. The work isn’t
all flamenco and castanets as you might expect, nor is it descriptive music
in the usual sense. I think Chabrier was more interested in creating
something more impressionistic, reflecting the exuberance and colour of
Spanish life. He was after all, close friends of the Impressionist painters
Claude Monet and Édouard Manet.
The orchestration is
sizzling and brilliant and the work exudes tremendous gaiety with an
unmistakable Spanish flavour. The trouble is, every time I hear the main
tune, I can’t get the idiotic words of Hot Diggity out of my head.
The words of another
Perry Como hit, Catch a Falling Star weren’t a great deal more
sensible. They suggested that you should “catch a falling star and put it
in your pocket”, which I would have thought would be the last place you’d
want to place a red-hot meteorite. This time though, the music had been
stolen from Brahms.
(1833-1897): Academic Festival Overture.
Orkest 2012, cond. Lucas Vis (Duration 11:41; Video Resolution: 1080p
In a twist of
delicious irony, Brahms had also stolen the tune. He composed the
Academic Festival Overture during the summer of 1880 as a token of
gratitude to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary
doctorate degree. The dull-sounding title belies the fact that this is a
very jolly piece indeed, composed largely of student drinking songs. The
work is scored for large orchestra and Brahms conducted the premiere for a
delighted audience in 1881. It’s full of memorable tunes, ending with a
thunderous rendering of the popular academic song Gaudeamus Igitur.
The words of this song poke fun at academia and they probably appealed to
the composer’s dry sense of humour.
And in case you’re
wondering, George Harrison did pay the fine. Being one of the Beatles, he
could probably afford such a modest sum.