Table of Contents

Musical Borrowing and Appropriation

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun, and even a great innovator like Shakespeare was emulating his predecessors and contemporaries. The same can be said of music. Composers and performers are constantly emulating one another, trying to forge something new from the best elements of pieces that have already been created and performed.

Every genre of music engages in borrowing to some degree. The jazz repertoire includes standards that are performed over and over by many different kinds of jazz ensembles. Improvised jazz solos often find their way towards familiar melodies, too. Some genres, such as musique concrète, collage art, and even some types of hip-hop, are based almost entirely on borrowing preexisting material and combining it in a new way (for more on musique concrète and sampling, see Extended Techniques and Experimental Music). In this section, we will discuss the ways that these genres and others engage in musical borrowing and sometimes cross the line into hostile appropriation.

Borrowing in Renaissance Masses

In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, music for religious services was controlled and limited to a specific repertoire. In order to skirt these restrictions, composers used existing plainchant as the basis for new compositions. In the absence of copyright laws, composers also sometimes borrowed directly from each other. Far from being an offense, this type of borrowing was often meant as an homage to the original and a compliment to its composer.

The Ordinary of the Mass became a favorite genre for musical borrowing. Composers would write new polyphonic masses based on preexisting monophonic plainchant, on a melody from a secular source, or they would borrow straight from other polyphonic pieces. The practice was so prevalent that historians have developed specific terminology to describe these different types of masses:

  • Plainchant Mass – each movement based on different preexisting plainchant for that text (ex. Kyrie on a Kyrie chant)
  • Cantus Firmus (meaning 'fixed song') or Tenor Mass – same melody used in tenor part for all movements
  • Paraphrase Mass – all movements based on one melody, which is elaborated (or paraphrased) in most or all voices
  • Motto Mass – same beginning motive in one or all voices for all movements
  • Imitation Mass – borrowing more than one voice from a secular source; mass named after secular source (ex. Missa l'homme armé)

Although the texts are fixed in settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, there are many examples of poetry being reset and themes being borrowed and reused by Renaissance composers as well. For a combination of poetic, melodic, and thematic borrowing, investigate the use of Susanne un jour in Renaissance compositions.

L'homme armé

One particularly striking example of borrowing in the Renaissance Mass is L'homme armé ('the armed man'). This melody, whose origins are uncertain, became the cantus firmus for more than 40 masses by more than 20 composers in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. It appears that these composers took on the melody as a kind of puzzle or compositional challenge, competing with each other to write the best mass using L'homme armé as the tenor line for each movement. Some settings of L'homme armé have appeared in the 20th and 21st centuries, but the piece has not captured the imagination of modern composers as it did in earlier centuries.

Listen to the melody of L'homme armé a few times to become familiar with it. Then, follow the links below to listen to a few of the masses based on the melody. All three mass examples are from the same section of the mass, the Kyrie, therefore they all share the same brief text that is repeated three times: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison ('Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy'). It may be very difficult to hear the L'homme armé melody in these examples, but notice how each setting is unique despite having the same text and the same melody in the tenor part.

Anonymous, L'homme armé (melody only)

L'homme armé melody

Jean de (Johannes) Ockeghem (ca. 1410-1497), Missa l'homme armé: Kyrie

Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450/55-1521), Missa l'homme armé: Kyrie

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6-1594), Missa l'homme armé: Kyrie

Victoria's O magnum mysterium

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) is another Renaissance composer with a penchant for borrowing music. Victoria originally borrowed the Medieval chant O magnum mysterium for a motet. The term 'motet' is used for a variety of styles, but during this period motets had Latin texts and a polyphonic textures, making them like sacred madrigals. Victoria's motet on O magnum mysterium has become a staple of choral literature for its beauty and clarity.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Motet: O magnum mysterium

We have already established that it was a common practice to borrow chant melodies for other compositions, but Victoria also borrowed his own motets as the basis for masses. This is an example of self-borrowing. See if you can hear the similarities between the original motet and the Kyrie of the mass below.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Missa O magnum mysterium: Kyrie

Dies irae: Expressive and Symbolic Borrowing

We have already encountered the Dies irae chant in our discussion on Music and Words. Dies irae has captured the imagination of many composers and has been borrowed many times. Unlike L'homme armé, which was treated as a compositional challenge, Dies irae has been borrowed for its connotations with the Requiem Mass and its ability to evoke the ideas of death and damnation. Here is a short list of pieces that use Dies irae in this way:

  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  • Franz Liszt, Totentanz (1859)
  • Modest Mussorgsky, St. John's Night on Bald Mountain (1867)
  • Camille Saint-Saëns, Danse Macabre, op. 40 (1874)
  • Modest Mussorgsky, Trepak from Songs and Dances of Death (1875)
  • Richard Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel (1894)
  • and many more... (for a fun article from the Georgia Symphony Orchestra on film composer Danny Elfman's use of Dies irae, click here)

Let's begin by listening to Dies irae again so it is fresh in your mind. Then we will discuss and listen to a couple of the pieces that borrow the Dies irae melody.

Requiem Mass, Sequence: Dies irae

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is one of the few famous composers who never became fluent at the keyboard. Instead, Berlioz became fascinated with all the other instruments of the orchestra and devoted his efforts towards coaxing new sounds out of the standard instruments by using them in different combinations, asking performers to play in extremely high or low ranges, or having them play their instruments in non-standard ways. Berlioz is widely considered a master of orchestration, the art and practice of turning a musical idea into a full score for an orchestra and selecting which instruments should play which parts. The words 'scoring' and 'instrumentation' also refer to this practice.

Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is a programmatic (or program) symphony, meaning that it has a form similar to a traditional symphony, but that it also tells a clear story. The main character in the narrative is suffering from unrequited love, which parallels Berlioz own infatuation for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson at the time that this piece was composed. In the fourth movement, "March to the Scaffold," the rejected and depressed young man sees a vision of his own execution, and the fifth and final movement is his vision of a tormented afterlife, "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath." It is in this dark movement that we hear Dies irae.

Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, V. Songe d'une nuit de sabbat ('Dream of a Witches' Sabbath')

Listen for Dies irae beginning at 3:23. It can be heard in fragments again at 7:02, and at 8:08 it appears strongly under the melody known as the witches' dance. Promptly following this section (at 8:37) is a scratching or crackling sound used to imitate the witches' voices and laughter. This sound is produced when the violins use the wooden back of their bow to bounce and scratch against the strings, a technique called col legno ('with the wood'). This is an example of a non-standard technique that Berlioz used to produce expressive and innovative orchestrations. Dies irae returns the final time at 9:17.

Liszt's Totentanz

By the time he was twelve, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was considered a piano prodigy. He was one of the greatest virtuosos of his time and was also an innovator both in terms of piano technique and in developing the piano idiom, composing for the instrument in a way that captures its strengths and avoids its weaknesses. Liszt also coined the term "recital" for his solo concerts, and established the tradition of playing the entire program from memory. He is also credited with establishing the genre of the symphonic poem, a one-movement piece for orchestra that is based on a story or poem.

Totentanz ('Dance of Death'), written in 1839, is a one-movement concerto for piano, which means that it is for a piano soloist accompanied by an orchestra. It takes the form of theme and variations on Dies irae, and consists of an introduction and coda framing six variations and two cadenzas. A cadenza is an unaccompanied section of a concerto that is designed to show off the technical abilities of the soloist. Liszt heard Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique a few years prior to his composition of this piece, so it is possible that it sparked his interest in Dies irae and influenced the manner in which he did so.

Franz Liszt, Totentanz

As you listen, follow the Dies irae melody as it passes through the orchestra and transforms into new variations. In the video below you will hear an arrangement of Totentanz for piano without orchestra accompaniment. When a piece is reworked and reorchestrated for a different ensemble or different style of playing, this is called an arrangement. As you watch the pianist's hands, think about the difficulty of this piece and the years of practice it takes to master it.

Valentina Lisitsa performing Liszt's Totentanz


Paganini's Caprice No. 24: Borrowing a Theme for Variations

Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) is the most famous violin virtuoso in the history of music. Paganini's unprecedented technical fluency and mesmerizing stage presence raised rumors that he had sold his soul to the devil to gain such skill. He was tall and thin, and bouts with illness had left him with pale skin and hollow cheeks, which did little to discourage these rumors. But Paganini did not seem to mind the legend that built up around him, and, in fact, may have benefited from the publicity it created.

Like Liszt, Paganini pushed the boundaries of his instrument to new heights both as a performer and a composer. Paganini published little in his lifetime, mostly because he presumed that only he was capable of performing most of his compositions, but also to protect his financial interests in the absence of individual copyright laws. He also omitted the solo violin part from his concerto scores for the same reason, much to the disappointment of musicologists attempting to study these manuscripts. Despite this, Paganini became extremely wealthy on his performance income.

His first published work was Ventiquattro Capricci per violino solo, a collection of 24 caprices for solo violin. The expression marking a capriccio means 'according to the fancy (caprice) of the player', thus a caprice is a composition designed to showcase innovative effects of the kind that made Paganini famous. The final caprice, No. 24, is in theme and variations form and functions as the culmination of all the advanced techniques explored in the previous 23 caprices. As you listen, first try to follow the theme as it returns in varied forms. Once you are familiar with the sounds of the piece, we will explore the work in greater detail with notated examples and detailed discussion of the special techniques Paganini utilizes.

Nicolò Paganini, 24 Caprices, op. 1, no. 24

Below is the theme that begins Caprice No 24. Aside from the fast tempo (quasi presto, meaning almost presto or quite fast) and the short rhythmic durations (the fastest is a sixteenth note), the theme does not present any particular challenges to the performer. It is, however, important as the basis for all the following variations and is the element that later composers chose to borrow for their own variations. Play the video below to hear the theme played by violinist Hilary Hahn.

Paganini's Caprice No. 24, theme

Hilary Hahn performing Paganini's Caprice No. 24

Variations 1-7 offer greater challenges to the performer in the form of a wider range (especially the high range), varied articulation, wide leaps (going from a very high note to a very low note or vice versa), and double stops (playing two notes simultaneously). Variation 8 introduces an even more challenging technique: triple stops. This technique requires the performer to finger three pitches on three different strings with the left hand, and to bow all three strings simultaneously with the right hand. Paganini himself had the bridge of his violin (the part that holds the strings away from the body of the instrument) flattened somewhat to facilitate this type of effect.

Paganini's Caprice No. 24, variation 8

Another particularly challenging technique is used in Variation 9: left hand pizzicato. Usually, when a performer is asked to use pizzicato, he continues to use his left hand to finger the notes and the right hand is used to pluck the strings instead of bowing to create sound. Variation 9 cannot be played this way because bowed notes are interspersed with plucked notes and they go by too quickly to change from bowing to plucking. The º symbol indicates which notes are played with left-hand pizzicato. Play the video below to watch Hilary Hahn perform Variations 8 and 9 (it will automatically start at the proper place).

Paganini's Caprice No. 24, variation 9

Hilary Hahn performing Paganini's Caprice No. 24 - Variations 8 and 9

Liszt's Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini, No. 6

Both the beauty and the virtuosity of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 captured the interest of Liszt. In fact, it was Paganini, who was nearly 30 years older than Liszt, who first inspired the pianist to pursue virtuosic and innovative playing techniques on his own instrument. Liszt saw virtuosity as a means of expressivity that had not yet been fully realized, and he devoted his efforts towards embracing the precedent set by Paganini. It is no surprise, then, that Liszt would borrow extensively from the man who influenced him so profoundly. His Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini is exactly that, a collection of six studies (known by the French term, études) of Paganini melodies. All but one of these pieces is based on a Caprice, and Etude No. 6 is based on Paganini's Caprice No. 24.

Franz Liszt, Six Grandes Études de Paganini, No. 6

Liszt's piano version follows the caprice closely, but capitalizes on the potential of the piano by adding harmonic or otherwise accompanying material, or by including more of the original theme than was possible in the violin version. The latter technique is used clearly in Variation 2 (beginning at 0:28), where the left hand is given the theme and the right plays the arpeggios from the caprice. In Variation 4 (beginning at 1:36), Liszt keeps the extremely high, descending chromatic figures from the caprice, but also adds hints of the harmonized melody in the left hand. Variation 10 (3:43) and 11 (4:21) represent the largest departure from the caprice. Variation 10 retains the original melodic line, but adds a trill in the left hand that is nowhere in the caprice. Liszt's use of high speed scales and arpeggios in Variation 11 is even more extravagant than Paganini's.

Click here for a video of Valentina Lisitsa playing Etude No. 3, commonly known as La Campanella, from this same collection.

Brahms's Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) called Paganini's caprices, "a great contribution to musical composition in general and to violin in particular." Brahms was particularly drawn to No. 24, so much that he composed two books of variations on the theme, which he published as Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books 1 and 2. Each book contains 14 variations, making a total of 28, so sometimes they are collectively called 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

More than any of his other compositions for piano, Variations on a Theme by Paganini emphasizes virtuosity. Even Clara Schumann (a close friend of Brahms and an acclaimed concert pianist) called them 'witch variations' and claimed that they were beyond her ability. Like Liszt's études, these variations are teaching pieces (for very advanced players) that each focus on a single technical challenge. As you listen, first try to pick out the theme in each variation. Once you are confident that you have heard the theme, see if you can guess which technique is being emphasized in that particular variation.

Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1 and Book 2

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43

Despite deep devotion to his Russian heritage, Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) admired music by composers of all nationalities, and borrowed from Mendelssohn, Corelli, Chopin, and Paganini in his compositions. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini was written in 1934 and, like Liszt and Brahms before him, he based the composition on Caprice No. 24. With some small adjustments, the piece later became a ballet about the Paganini legend at the suggestion of Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine.

Paganini's caprice consists of a theme, 11 variations, and a finale, and the entire piece takes about 5 minutes to perform. Rachmaninoff's composition was conceived on a much grander scale, including 24 variations and spanning 20-25 minutes in performance. Like Liszt and Brahms, Rachmaninoff chose the piano for his variations, but unlike them he added a full orchestral accompaniment. Most compositions in theme and variation form begin with the theme itself (as in the original caprice), but this piece does not state the theme until after the first variation is heard. Rachmaninoff also chose to call the piece a 'rhapsody', which indicates that it approximates an improvisatory or extemporaneous style. This is the musical equivalent of stream-of-consciousness writing.

Serge Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43

Variation 7 (beginning of track 2) features a slightly altered version of another familiar tune: Dies irae. Rachmaninoff used Dies irae in many compositions, sometimes only hinting at the well-known melody, an other times using it prominently as in this variation. Dies irae appears in an even more familiar form in Variation 10 (2:06 of track 2), and erupts from the orchestra again in the latter part of Variation 24 at (4:53 of track 6). Rachmaninoff deliberately chose to include Dies irae as a reference to the legend that Paganini made a Faustian pact with the devil, saying, "All the variations on Dies irae represent the evil spirit," but perhaps he also couldn't resist combining two of the most often borrowed melodies of all time.

Variation 18, marked andante cantabile (walking pace, song-like), is the most famous of all the variations (track 5). In fact, it often appears in concerts and on recordings independently, leaving audiences to wonder about the rest of the work. The Paganini theme is difficult to hear in this variation because it appears only in inversion. An inversion is created by reversing the direction of each interval in a melody, so a minor 3rd up becomes a minor 3rd down and so on. Examine the notation below and listen to the two versions of the melody.

pitches from Paganini's original theme and in inversion

No. 24 in Popular Music

It is clear from the examples above that Paganini's Caprice No. 24 was revisited many times by art music composers. What may be surprising is the appearance of this same melody in popular music. Below are two very different examples of popular uses of the caprice: one in jazz in the 1940s and the other in musical theater in the 1970s.

Benny Goodman's Caprice XXIV

Benny Goodman (1909-1986) was an important band leader and clarinetist during the swing era of jazz. As a popular idol, Goodman was known as the 'King of Swing' and enjoyed the peak of his success just prior to 1940 with a variety of radio, film, and live engagements. Goodman also participated in the art music scene, recording Mozart's clarinet quintet with the Budapest String Quartet in 1938, and commissioning Contrasts from Béla Bartók, which Goodman and Bartók played together at its premier in 1939.

Lloyd "Skip" (or "Skippy") Martin was a jazz arranger who worked with Count Basie, Glen Miller, and Benny Goodman in the years surrounding 1940. Caprice XXIV is his 1941 arrangement for the Benny Goodman Orchestra based on Paganini's Caprice No. 24.

Benny Goodman's Caprice XXIV

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations

Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948-) is a highly honored and successful musical theater composer best known for Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Evita. In 1982 he created a show entitled Song and Dance by combining the one-act musical Tell Me on a Sunday (1979) with a one-act dance sequence performed to Variations (1978), which is based on Paganini's Caprice No. 24. Variations features solo cello and was purportedly written for Lloyd Webber's cellist brother, Julian, when the composer lost a bet to him (Julian is the cellist featured in the video). The piece was originally composed for cello and rock band (as in the video), but was also arranged for solo cello and orchestra when it was adapted for Song and Dance.

Julian Lloyd Webber performing Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations

Rhythm and Blues into Rock 'n' Roll

The origins of rock 'n' roll lie in the rhythm and blues of the African American community of the 1950s. Rhythm and blues was considered too subversive and rebellious to be mainstream and was released only by the ungraciously named "race record" industry. However, the appeal of this music was undeniable and recording companies began to believe that its commercial potential had yet to be reached. In order to market rhythm and blues to a wider audience, these companies hired white artists to adapt these songs by cleaning up the lyrics and reworking the instrumental parts. The result was a blend of rhythm and blues from the black community and country music from the white community. The new style came to be known as rock 'n' roll, a term coined by radio jockey Alan Freed.

"Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is one song that began as a rhythm and blues tune and was borrowed and transformed into mainstream rock 'n' roll. The song was written in 1954 by Jesse Stone under the alias Charles E. Calhoun, and was first recorded by "Big" Joe Turner that same year. Turner's recording hit the top of the rhythm and blues charts in June 1954. In July, Bill Haley and the Comets recorded their version, and in August they released it to the public. The Bill Haley version stayed in the top 40 of the pop charts for a total of twenty-seven weeks, making it the most popular version of the tune including Elvis's 1956 cover.

"Big" Joe Turner performing "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"

Bill Haley and the Comets performing "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"

In some ways the mainlining of rock 'n' roll was a positive thing for the black community, indicating that resistance to black culture was waning. However, this shift can just as easily be identified as a white appropriation and distortion of black music. The commercialization of rhythm and blues into mainstream white music required that the music be altered and adapted according to consumer tastes, even at the expense of the integrity of the musical or poetic message, despite what may have been good intentions from performers, producers, and record companies.

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