Melodic originality

David Perrins

David Perrins

PJ Taylor’s article, mentioning a Brian quote from Warlock, has caused me to have some thoughts on this subject. General views on this matter vary with the times (incidentally, it is always a question of borrowed tunes - nobody seems to worry about borrowed harmonic progressions or contrapuntal devices; I leave individuals to consider the reasons for this). Baroque composers used each other’s material freely; nobody bothered whether Bach knew Couperin’s La Misterieuse when he wrote his Italian concerto — the similar themes produced quite individual masterpieces.

More recently the general view seems to me to be inconsistent. I would suggest that the only really logical view is that expressed by Stravinsky — great composers do not borrow themes, they steal them. This provides the criterion — has composer B made composer A’s theme his own, or has he only borrowed it? I would not imagine anyone would accuse Beethoven of ‘borrowing’ Mozart’s Bastien et Bastienne for the Eroica — that is a true case of stealing.

I have always been puzzled by Newman’s remarks in Wagner nights, which many years ago acted as my guide to the operas, in reference to the theme accompanying Sieglinde’s dream-ridden sleep in act 2 of Die Walküre that ‘sufferers from ‘Wagnerphobia’ assure us Wagner borrowed from Liszt’. As the theme in question is an important, indeed the opening, theme in what is perhaps Liszt’s finest compositional achievement, the Faust Symphony, it is perfectly obvious where it came from. One only suffers from ‘Wagnerphobia’ if one reads too much into this use in a relatively unimportant motive of one of his father-in-law’s themes that seemed to him appropriate to the moment.

A classic case of inconsistency occurs in connection with Brahms’ first symphony. He is accused of being under the influence of Beethoven in the main theme of the finale, whereas the similarity of the earlier horn theme to the chime ‘Cambridge quarters’ is simply noted, as presumably Brahms was unacquainted with the original; but surely this is entirely irrelevant. In fact there are more similarities to Beethoven (not all of them melodic) in the first symphony — far more than in the others — but the only criterion should be ‘does the result sound like Brahms?’ and my answer would certainly be ‘yes’.

Another inconsistency concerns views on the use of well-known tunes; this is considered perfectly acceptable. Nobody is blamed for using Ein’ feste Burg whether it is Bach in a cantata, Mendelssohn in a symphony, Wagner in a march, or of course Brian in Das Siegeslied. Nor, in criticisms of The Tigers, is Brian blamed for using Kelly, Yankee Doodle, or any other popular tune. This brings me back to Mr Taylor’s Warlock example; I do not know the Warlock, nor am I at all knowledgeable on Folk Music, but is it not possible that the theme in the fifth English suite is related to some folk-tune both composers were familiar with?

If you want a case of a Brian ‘borrow’, rather than a ‘steal’, I feel the partsong The hag is a prime candidate, Its relationship to the Queen Mab scherzo may not be very obvious or relevant, but compare it with Berlioz’ original use of the theme in Ballet des ombres and it is a different matter. These two three minute works have such an identity of atmosphere that they seem to have originated from the same pen.

I do not see, however, that anyone can question Brian’s originality in the themes of his later works. In the third symphony, for example, to question the originality of some of the melodies in the scherzo is, to quote Tovey in reference to the first movement of Mahler’s fourth, to ‘expose oneself to the charge of not seeing a joke’, and in the other three movements the themes are completely characteristic and original. In his late symphonies, long themes may be rarer but, when they occur (in the closing section of No 24 and the slow movement of No 28, to mention two especially long examples), the originality is still there. Much of Brian’s later work makes use of short motifs, and the construction and originality of short motifs is an entirely different matter, as anyone who has attempted composition with this type of material, or even just made a study of, say, those in The ring, will realise.

NL81 / © 1989 by David Perrins

Newsletter, NL 81, 1989