What do Handel and hip-hop have in common?

Not the hoodie, as you might suspect.

Handel was a prolific “borrower” (RT’s scare quotes), regularly swiping from both his own compositions and the music of others. Recycling the same material in multiple compositions was common practice back then; indeed, it would have been impossible to meet tight deadlines without it. (Handel wrote Messiah in just 24 days.) But when we see Handel’s whole-scale appropriations of other composers’ music (including Stradella, Scarlatti, Muffat, Jennens, and others), we have to ask ourselves: when does “borrowing” become outright plagiarism?

This question is quite a raging debate in Musicology Land. Defenders argue that borrowing was common at this time, and intellectual property ideas were virtually nonexistent. They also point out that Handel suffered a stroke at the beginning of his period of heaviest borrowing, perhaps incapacitating his writing hand (and maybe his imagination). Most defenses, however, are aesthetic. Donald Grout writes: “If he borrowed, he more often than not repaid with interest, clothing the borrowed material with new beauty and preserving it for generations that otherwise would scarcely have known its existence.” (II, 329) In other words, who cares if Handel ripped other composers off: he made the music better, and they’re all dead anyways.

The prosecution has a pretty tight case, though. Excessive borrowing was looked down upon in Handel’s day (although you couldn’t get sued for it); to be sure, his contemporaries often criticized him for it. Further, with much of the music he borrowed, Handel tweaked and “updated” the original so as to disguise it. (Many of these disguises are fairly thin, however.) If he didn’t think there was any problem with what he was doing, why did he try to conceal it?

This whole debate seems mighty familiar. Indeed, the question of Handel’s borrowing is like the question of sampling in hip-hop. When does creative “borrowing” become straight-up, unimaginative, lazy plagiarism? What if the sample preserves music of the past that otherwise would be forgotten (Grout’s argument)? The legal landscape has changed substantially since the mid 1700s – Handel presumably disguised his samples for reasons of reputation, whereas hip-hop producers disguise them for fear of legal repercussions – but the central issues remain unchanged.

At the core of it is the question of originality. Both Handel and sample-based hip-hop prod at the imaginary wall separating originality from copying, forcing a fundamental question: is there anything truly new under the sun? RT writes: “Comparing Handel’s dazzling reworkings with their often rather undistinguished originals can even cast some doubt on the importance of inventio (as Handel’s contemporaries called facility in the sheer dreaming up of themes) in the scheme of musical values, and cause us to wonder whether that is where true ‘originality’ resides.” (II, 329)

Handel would have appreciated the creative play going on in good hip-hop beats. To close, here’s a particularly baroque example (“Eggman,” from the Beastie Boy’s 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, which combines “Superfly,” “Psycho,” “Jaws,” Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, and dozens of other samples).

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