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.)

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).

Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)