Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Today we’re talking about musical imitation and modeling. Also ripoffs, quotations, homages, sampling. Apologies to those who’ve read my previous rants on these topics; I realize I’m going back to a favorite well. Maybe something in here will offer new clarity.

A while ago I ran across a provocative book, Beg, Steal, and Borrow: Artists Against Originality, by art critic Robert Shore, who begins with frontispieces like this, Jose Davila’s blatant ripoff of a famous Roy Lichtenstein. Then, words from someone at the Daily Telegraph aghast at the 2014 shortlist for the Turner Prize:

Looking at their work you get a sense that the old idea of making things that didn’t exist before from scratch has been pretty much abandoned.

[Looking at that sentence, I sense an ineffectual editor at the Telegraph. Just sayin’. —Ed.]

Clearly Shore thinks the whole notion of “from scratch” deserves further scrutiny. He begins by recalling for us William Shakespeare’s status as “the most original of artists” (see the OED and vast numbers of critics and commentators). Then he mentions the many imitators and quoters Shakespeare spawned, and then—crucially—he brings up The Bard’s own well-documented practice of stealing or adapting most of his plots and much of his language from earlier sources.

Maybe there is nothing truly original under the sun.

We know the Romans were so fond of Greek sculpture they used surviving Greek statuary as preeminent models for their work. We know that Renaissance artists trained by copying both Greek and Roman artifacts, which their teachers possessed in huge quantities; the very term “Renaissance” refers in part to a rebirth of the artistic values of those civilizations, which became known as “classical.” You might well ask whether any of this applies to classical music in the Western tradition. Of course it does.

Start with modeling: the earliest preserved European music is Gregorian chant, which began as a body of Middle-Eastern monophonic song used in Christian worship and handed down via the oral tradition. Around 850 CE, clerical musicians began to notate these songs, i.e., they devised dots and squiggles to represent the tunes. But notational custom itself developed in fits and starts, with many regional variants and intervening “improvements.” The chant books still in use today were compiled by 19th-century Benedictine monks at Solesmes, France, and approved for liturgical use in 1903. So various kinds of copying and modeling were obviously central to the development, dissemination, and preservation of chant.

If we skip ahead to J. S. Bach, we can behold him learning how to imitate Vivaldi by copying out large portions of Vivaldi’s music and adapting it for his own use. Likewise the eight-year-old Mozart, who took his first steps as a composer by re-scoring J. C. Bach’s piano sonatas as concertos. (“His procedure was extraordinarily primitive,” writes Alfred Einstein.) He performed the resulting works as his own for years afterward, repeating the trick with music by Raupach, Honnauer, Eckard, and C.P.E. Bach.

A generation later, the young Beethoven was packed off to Vienna by his patron Count Waldstein, who told him, “you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”—in other words, Haydn would teach him how to imitate Mozart. And this is where our little narrative gets interesting, because the coming of Beethoven allowed a new Romantic myth—the cult of Genius—to tighten its grip on European culture. Essential to this myth (today we’d call it a Cultural Value!) was the notion of the singular innovator who points the way forward by producing utterly original works of art. These artworks were idealized not as products of craftsmanship (proper training in established methods), nor of effort (hard work), but rather of inspiration, which somehow flowed intuitively into the artist and from him straight into the artistic product.

The truth is that Beethoven worked slowly and painstakingly. Each piece he produced was distinctive. If it came off as spontaneous, a product of divine inspiration, that’s only because he poured unceasing effort into shaping it (so much for the myth!). There was no classic procedure he didn’t exhaust or transform as part of his creative process. Every composer who followed him was forced to deal not only with his innovations, but also (and more importantly) with the new tradition of constant innovation that he inaugurated. The weight of this fell most heavily upon relatively conservative artists like Johannes Brahms, who believed wholeheartedly in the great traditions. As he wrote, “You have no idea how it is . . . to feel the tread of a giant like him behind us!”

Clearly Brahms couldn’t get away with simply rearranging the music of Beethoven, as Bach had done with Vivaldi. For starters, the distinctive materials of each Beethoven work made them much more difficult to incorporate into new compositions. Also, audiences remained quite familiar with Beethoven’s music; they were way more likely to spot a patch on the “Moonlight” Sonata or whatever.

Nevertheless, Brahms persisted. Here’s how he used Beethoven as a model in the classic tradition. Consider the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

Now the scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor:

How could the first ever serve as a model for the second? Easily, yet not so much: Brahms analyzed Beethoven’s scherzo using parameters like tempo, tonality, melodic style, and more. Then he applied similar qualities to his own scherzo. Tempo: allegro. Tonality: minor, switching abruptly to major and back. Melodic style: an ascending figure, played smoothly. Dynamics: violent contrasts between extremes of soft and loud. Rhythms: repeated three-shorts-and-a-long patterns (right, the very patterns Beethoven sounded in every movement of the Fifth).

Brahms did not limit himself to Beethoven’s usages. In other works he prowled far and wide in the historical past, using techniques that Palestrina, Fux, Bach, and other predecessors had cherished. Somehow it all emerged as pure Brahms anyway.

When we move to the next century, we see increasingly flexible attitudes toward the past. For Stravinsky and other neo-classicists, the conventional forms of the late Baroque proved a more welcoming geography. And if Baroque music beckoned, so did folk practices and non-Western musics. Recordings—one of the first faint symptoms of globalization—made all those musics more available. Here is Stravinsky, who had obtained some sheet music and maybe heard a café band or two, trying out “ragtime” for size.


Stravinsky wasn’t trying to master the masterly techniques of Scott Joplin or Joseph Lamb. Instead his ambition was to latch onto a distinctive sound and then mess around with its qualities: irregular and syncopated rhythms, jangly melodies, loose counterpoint, odd stops and starts.

Other modernists messed with Beethoven, but in different ways. When Charles Ives incorporated some LvB into his work, he did so with a passing quotation or allusion; it’s part of the patchwork of American life he painted for us, as with this movement from the “Concord” Sonata:


Here Ives offered a sketch of the Alcott family home, warmed by music from the parlor piano, music that called forth the high-minded Transcendentalist reflections of those years. Much later, John Adams would fashion the crazy quilts in his Absolute Jest from scherzos in Beethoven’s Quartets op. 131 and 135, tossing in other material to suit. A longish first movement is built up with rhythms characteristic of the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies:


At not quite five minutes in, Adams quotes a weirdly chromatic transitional theme from the scherzo of op. 131. It shouldn’t fit, but somehow it does. This is the noble art of collage, practiced by great painters from Kurt Schwitters to Romare Bearden. The point is not whether you spot all the Easter Eggs. It’s Adams emulating Beethoven’s “inspired sense of movement and happiness,” his combination of “wit and ecstatic energy.” Absolute Jest goes beyond modeling: it’s homage.

Okay, there’s maybe a little flat-out modeling. Consider (1) the scherzo from op. 135 and (2) the climactic fifth movement of AJ:

A musical homage is often more and less than you anticipate. The point is not necessarily to characterize a hero or friend through a plethora of direct quotations. Also, more than one person or entity can be the object of the same homage. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, for instance, memorializes a great French Baroque composer by adopting the form of the dance suite, including individual dance movements (Prelude, Rigaudon, Menuet, et al.). Through an exquisite combination of grace and barely disguised melancholy, it also honors friends who died in the Great War; each movement is dedicated to one of them.


An even more complex, interlocking series of homages lies at the heart of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968). One movement’s text consists entirely of phonemes from the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated that year. Another seems to have been shaped as a tribute to the New York Philharmonic and its soon-to-depart music director Leonard Bernstein. Throughout his tenure Bernstein had championed the music of Gustav Mahler, himself once a conductor of the NYPO. By choosing the scherzo of Mahler’s Second as an audible model for Sinfonia’s central movement,  Berio offered a portrait of his own desperate times and an affectionate post-modern farewell to an entire era and its illusions. Mahler’s scherzo, brimming with folksy alienation and despair (see here), provided a perfect frame for Berio’s epic tale of cultural implosion.


If you go to the YouTube site for this video, you’ll find a user comment by “Robert Schumann” (haha) that purports to list all the quotations in this movement. You may also want to have Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnamable” at hand, which provides much of the English text recited by the singers.

So: modeling, quotation, collage, homage, ripoff. In some form these have all kept the creative spirit of Western music alive. Yet, as Mahler may have said, “Tradition ist Schlamperei.” We don’t remember the unthinking, rote invocators of tradition, do we? We remember the innovators and iconoclasts, the ones who gave tradition a fresh twist.

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