Pastiche, homage, or rip-off?
In a recent blog entry, I wrote about who gets the credit when one composer bases a classical piece on music by another. The most common examples of such musical appropriation are the innumerable sets of "Variations on a Theme by," such as Brahms's on themes by (or attributed to) Haydn, Handel and Paganini. In such works, the composing credit invariably goes to the varier, rather than the variee, to coin a word. In other words, it's not the tune that counts, it what gets done to it. The same goes for Rhapsodies (e.g., Rachmaninoff's on Paganini), Fantasias (e.g., Vaughan Williams's on Tallis), and even the lone known example of Symphonic Metamorphosis (the rather dull title chosen by Paul Hindemith for his delightful take on Carl Maria von Weber).
But in other genres involving similar appropriation, assigning composing credit gets a little dicier. Take, for instance, the pastiche ballet, a common genre of the 20th century, in which pieces by one or more earlier (i.e., public domain) composers are arranged and orchestrated as a ballet score. Whose name goes first on the program in such cases?
It depends. When the arranger is one of the gods of the classical pantheon, and the original pieces get transformed almost beyond recognition, the arranger gets the composing credit. Thus, Igor Stravinsky's name alone generally goes on the listing for "his" Pulcinella (based on obscure 18th-century composers) and Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss, based on Tchaikovsky). When the original composer and later arranger are more-or-less equal in stature, and their contributions to the ballet are about equal in importance, they tend to share hyphenated credit. Thus, the ballet La boutique fantasque is typically listed as "by Rossini-Respighi," referring to composer Gioachino and orchestrator Ottorino, respectively. And when the ordinal composer's name is much better known and more saleable than the arranger's, then the composer gets the main credit and the arranger gets stuck inside parentheses. Thus, the listings for Jacques Offenbach's Gaîté parisienne (arranged by Manuel Rosenthal) and Chopin's Les sylphides (arranged by many, including Roy Douglas).
So far, so good. In neither the variation nor the pastiche ballet is the later composer quoting without attribution. And while not all such pieces are created equal, the best of them can be as fresh and personal as works in any classical genre. But get deeper into the subject of musical quotation and appropriation, and questions of artistic originality, or lack of same, must be raised.
Take, for instance, the German romantic composer Max Bruch (above left). An accomplished musician, Bruch remains well-known today mostly for three works, the Violin Concerto No. 1, the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, and "Kol Nidrei," a rhapsody for cello and piano (or orchestra). Well, of the three, only the Concerto showcases Bruch's own melodic invention. The other two works are based on Scottish folk tunes and Jewish liturgical melodies, respectively. The fact that only one completely original work by Bruch remains in the repertoire does not speak kindly to his abilities as a tunesmith, does it?
Or take, for instance, a work I mentioned in my earlier post, the Chaconne (after J.S. Bach) by the Italian guitarist-composer Carlo Domeniconi (above right). You can hear this work in two parts, here and here. What Domeniconi does here is take Bach's Chaconne for solo violin (frequently also played on guitar), and while maintaining the rhythms, melodic contours, textures and structure of the original, re-write it with his own notes and harmonies. As someone who knows and loves the Bach original, I find Domeniconi's version both interesting and frustrating — interesting because of Domeniconi's powerful imagination, frustrating because after a while I want him to knock it off and just leave Bach's original alone. I don't mean to pick just on Domeniconi, a fine and prolific composer whose "Koyunbaba" is deservedly one of the modern hits of the classical guitar. I could just as easily pointed out similar examples in classical music, popular music, music theater, or anywhere else. But isn't Domeniconi's "homage" (as composers might typically brand such a work), however much you enjoy it, also his admission that he couldn't come up with as meaningful, as resonant, as good a Chaconne on his own?
So, my unsolicited, likely unappreciated and certain-to-be unheeded advice to composers: If you're going to build your music on an earlier foundation, whether that foundation is a theme, a concept or a whole piece, please build something original and personal, and which will stand on its own, not on what lies underneath.
P.S. An even better (meaning, worse) example of excessive appropriation comes in the form of the Kronos Quartet's new CD of music by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov. Of the three works on the CD, only one, the brief "The Beatitudes," is completely original. The others are "Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished)," a "meditation" (a word right up there with "homage") on Schubert's sublime String Quintet, and "Der Abschied," based on the movement of that name (meaning "Farewell") from Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth"). Of the two, I've spent more time with "Der Abschied," and can tell you that whatever meaning or power it has comes entirely from the emotionally shattering Mahler passages that Martynov (according to the booklet) "transformed into a pronged state of grace." Please. Mahler already did plenty of transforming in "Das Lied,"and achieved his own state of grace, without relying on anyone else's music to do the hard work for him. (Added on March 2, 2012)