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.

Recycling – or just theft?
It used to be said in his defence that it was a common enough practice in his day: true, up to a point, but none of Handel’s contemporaries indulged in borrowing as extensively as he did. It was also said that he only started recycling music relatively late in life, when he was overworked and sometimes unwell. Not true: the habit began in his twenties. Well anyhow, said Handel’s defenders, feeling themselves backed into a corner, he never simply passed off other people’s music as his own; he always transformed base metal into gold by the alchemy of his genius. The riposte to that, I’m afraid, is ‘true often enough, but not always’.

One frequent victim of Handel’s musical pocket-picking was Handel himself. Many composers have done this, of course: adapting an aria from an earlier, unsuccessful opera for use in a new one, for example. It saves time, it re-uses music that would otherwise gather dust: who could possibly object to it? Many of Handel’s self-borrowings come into this labour-saving, music-saving category, but there are other most curious examples that do not. In his early opera Agrippina, for instance, written in Rome when he was 24, there’s an aria that contains no fewer than 12 passages that are all lifted from other works of his: the aria is a patchwork quilt of self-quotations, the patches linked together by new material. That isn’t labour-saving, it’s labour-intensive: it would have been quicker and far less laborious to write an entirely new aria.

Throughout Handel’s life you find similar if less elaborate examples of this strange way of working. Many people listening to one of his operas or oratorios must have said to themselves ‘Hang on: haven’t I heard this in another of his pieces?’ The answer, often enough, will be ‘Yes’. Handel will begin an aria or a chorus with a phrase that he has used before – years before sometimes – and then continue it quite differently. This happens so often that it rather looks as though he needed some sort of stimulus to set his imagination going. Sometimes he found it in his own earlier music. In his later years especially, perhaps deplorably to us, he increasingly found it in the music of others.

The most famous example of Handel’s wholesale borrowing is in one of his greatest oratorios, Israel in Egypt. In the version of the score that’s normally performed nowadays there are 30 numbers plus an overture. No fewer than 15 of them are, to a greater or lesser extent, borrowed. They range from genuine transmutations of dross into gold to examples where Handel merely transcribes music by other composers with virtually no change. His principal sources were a wedding cantata by Stradella, two works by obscure Milanese composers (a Magnificat by Dionigi Erba and a Te Deum by Francesco Urio), an organ piece by Johann Caspar Kerll (Handel probably remembered it from his student days), and four of his own earlier pieces.

Not theft, just borrowing – with interest
Israel in Egypt is the most notorious example of this practice, but it is by no means unique. After he reached the age of 50, very few of Handel’s major works are without borrowings, often numerous ones. In a few cases neither the originals nor what Handel does with them are especially distinguished, and we wonder why he bothered (from Israel in Egypt the duet ‘The Lord is a man of war’ is perhaps an example of this: it is basically by Erba, with some fragments of Urio as punctuation). But we also owe some of Handel’s greatest music to this curious process. Perhaps his most famous single melody, the so-called ‘Largo’ (the aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ from the opera Serse) is based on a setting of the same words by Handel’s great rival Bononcini: some of the raw material is Bononcini’s, but the capacity to see what could be made of it, a capacity amounting to genius, is Handel’s.

Johann Mattheson, another rival but also a friend from Handel’s youth, and another victim of his inveterate borrowing, wasn’t in the least offended by it: ‘It does no damage to the original inventor’, he said, ‘but is rather a special honour when a famous man discovers his ideas and uses them as a basis for his own music. The original idea must be regarded as the capital; another composer’s elaboration on that idea is the interest paid on it.’

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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