More on Borrowing

Compare (just the first half a minute or so will suffice):

The first clip comes from Handel’s “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” an erotic “chamber duet”; the second comes from the Messiah (No.12). Clearly, Handel borrowed from himself here, and there’s no disguise to indicate he’s trying to protect himself from charges of wrong-doing. Rather, this is an uncomplicated case of self-borrowing: he simply took a texture and a melody from an earlier work, reorchestrated it, changed the lyrics from Italian love poetry to English Biblical fare, and voila!

This sort of compositional cannibalism was not at all uncommon in Handel’s day. Indeed, as mentioned before, it would have been close to impossible to produce as much music as was required of the typical 18th century composer for the church, the crown, or the theater without digging into the back catalog a bit. This mode of musical production is consonant with the “craftsman” role musicians and composers played in society at that time. Autonomous compositional originality (inventio) was not as important as the ability to produce appropriate music for specific occasions, events, and social contexts; if a melody from an earlier piece ends up regurgitated in a new context, then so be it. It’s doubtful whether many listeners (if any) would have even noticed – this was the day, after all, when music was only available through performance, and thus individual pieces would only have been heard a limited number of times. (Messiah, however, was a standard repertory piece from the very beginning.)

The notion of the composer as a talented craftsman changed profoundly during the 19th century. Genius, which previously had been an adjective only, came to apply to individuals through a gradual change of usage (and a few dictionary definition wars with such notables as Voltaire and Diderot chipping in). A Genius, in the Romantic view of things, was an extremely gifted individual with a sui generis creative mind. In this paradigm, there was little room for unimaginative self-borrowing; to be sure, this seemed to impugn the very idea of Genius. As a result, you don’t tend to see the same level of blatant borrowing in canonic 19th and 20th century music as you in the 18th and before. (There are some very notable exceptions, of course, which I’m dying to write about when we get there.)

Another effect of this ideological shift in the nature of originality can be clearly evinced by the change in sheer creative output. Handel, as we know, wrote dozens of oratorios and operas; if we think back to Vol. I, we’ll remember that Renaissance composers like Lasso wrote hundreds of (extant) pieces. Of course, not all of these works are purely “original” in the 19th century paradigm. Indeed, self-borrowing (and borrowing from others, within limits) was an accepted compositional method; how else would one get through that much music? Once the paradigm shifted, however, composers concentrated their creative energies into fewer and fewer works. Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies compared to his teacher Haydn’s 104; Brahms published 4. And into the 20th century this pattern continued – few symphonists broke the magic number 9 (though for superstitious reasons as well), and opus numbers were applied only when a work was deemed satisfactorily original by the composer (we don’t get Schoenberg’s op. 1, for instance, until the composer was in his mid-twenties). [Interestingly, the same process happened with literature: compare Balzac’s 100+ published novels to James Joyce’s 4.]

When composers were aesthetically required to be 100% original 100% of the time, naturally the bubbling creative effervescence that pushed composers like Handel and Bach to produce (and borrow) music on strict deadlines slowed down, and a more focused, methodical, and calculating approach became common practice. This shift also corresponded with a heightened degree of historical awareness and a recognition that one’s own compositional career fits into a larger historical narrative. One wouldn’t want something musically trifling and un-serious (or cannibalized or plagiarized) to dog one’s historical reputation as a Great Composer, would one?

This will be an issue that pops up again as we progress through the book. It might seem obvious to state it, but the concept of originality is not a universal; rather, it is conditioned by cultural and historical contingencies, like anything else. Before calling Handel a hack, therefore (not that anyone is rushing to do so!), we should remember that borrowing meant something different in his day than it does in ours. (For the younger generation who grew up on hip-hop, mixes, mash-ups, and DJing, however, it might seem a stupidly obvious point that creativity lies in what you do with musical material, not only in what you invent out of the ether.)


  1. Haydn is not a very good example of the distinction you are making, since he was staggeringly productive without much recycling. Those 104 symphonies are all different from each other (although a few contain music recycled from theater projects), as are the 70-something string quartets. He fits both the earlier conception of the craftsman-composer and the later one of the genius.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Rob. I’m no authority on Haydn, so your amendment is much appreciated!

  3. For that matter, I always learned that what made Beethoven great was what he did with the musical material, not what he invented out of the ether. (That “Eroica” theme that he stole from Mozart) OTOH, what I admire about this music by Handel is his invention. As you say, he didn’t really do that much other than rescore it.

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