Archive for February 27th, 2014

Stop, Thief!

He stole music from all and sundry, sometimes even himself – and then produced masterpieces from his swagbag. Michael Oliver looks at music’s greatest thief: Handel.

Any musical pedant will tell you that the first four notes of the opening theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony are identical to the first four notes of the overture to Mozart’s opera Bastien und Bastienne. Plagiarism? Coincidence, more likely: both figures are simple arrangements of the notes of a common chord, the sort of thing that might occur to any composer almost by accident: you’ll find exactly the same pattern in the first movement of Handel’s Organ Concerto Op. 4 No. 4, in what we used to call ‘Haydn’s Toy Symphony‘ and in Strauss’s Salome. A case that’s almost as famous, but much more interesting, is a song that Liszt wrote around 1845 which contains, note for note, the pregnant phrase that Wagner, twenty years later, used to open his Tristan und Isolde. Here it’s a case, I suspect, of great minds thinking alike: the two were very close, personally and musically (especially after Wagner became Liszt’s son-in-law), and Wagner acknowledged Liszt’s influence on him (it was mutual).

But these are isolated incidents: you’ll search in vain in most musical dictionaries for an article on plagiarism because there are so few serious cases of it among great composers. With one exception: George Frideric Handel. Whole books have been written about his ‘borrowings’, and new examples of his light-fingered way with other composers’ music are still being discovered.

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