great composers steal

There is a controversy in the classical music world.

Yes, you read that right. Those words haven’t appeared much in the past 100 years, but there they are.

In a nutshell: The composer Osvaldo Golijov, who has been quite popular amongst people who commission works over the past decade, submitted a work called Sidereus for orchestra to fulfill a commission from 35(!) orchestras. In the notes for the piece, he noted that he used a melody from a piece by a friend, Michael Wald-Bergeron’s work Barbeich. This is nothing unusual, as composers have appropriated small themes (sometimes with due credit, sometimes without) throughout the history of music. Bach used to rewrite Vivaldi’s works.

A music critic and a trumpet player who were at the concert (and who were collaborating on a recording of Barbeich) noticed that Golijov used more than just “a melody.” By their reckoning, Golijov used a significant amount of the piece – “at least half,” according to the critic (Tom Manoff). Golijov is the composer of record. We do not know the interpersonal relationship between Ward-Bergeron and Golijov in terms of how much permission was given and if any money changed hands, and neither one has been willing to comment on the matter.

I did my dissertation on the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for 8 voices and orchestra. That movement uses the third movement of Mahler’s second symphony as a starting point, and by starting point I mean that the work pretty much quotes the entire Mahler movement. On top of that, Berio adds quotes from dozens of other pieces, including The Rite of Spring, La Valse, Der Rosenkavalier, Fünf Orchesterstücke and La Mer. On top of that, Berio adds a text adapted from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable.

In my opinion, here is the difference: Berio told you up front that is what he was doing. He described the movement as his summation of the history of music. Charles Ives did many of the same things, using quotes to evoke memory and musical response in his many collage-based and quotation-based works. Golijov is doing none of that. Perhaps he and Ward-Bergeron had an arrangement, financial or otherwise, but he is passing off the work as a Golijov work when a good chunk of it clearly is not.


1 Comment

  1. Not sure what to think about this. Quotation in music has many uses, but plagiarism doesn’t. Quotation is when you give credit where credit is due, plagiarism is when you don’t. Sometimes quotation makes a piece better (Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen) and sometimes it doesn’t (Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony).

    Apparently Golijov has been having trouble meeting commissioning deadlines–could it be that the muse has left him? If so, then it’s time to start looking for another gig. It’s a real bummer, because I’ve liked everything that I thought he wrote.

Comments are closed.