Outraged over composer’s ‘stealing’ or just feeling duped?

‘Good composers borrow,” Stravinsky allegedly said. “Great ones steal.” The quote is so popular it has been bowdlerized into a dozen forms: attributed to Picasso (about artists), T.S. Eliot (about poets) and, no doubt, others. We all throw it around and laugh and cite instances of such “theft” in various compositions. We attend “The Enchanted Island,” a pastiche opera made up of arias by Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in December, and knowingly say this kind of thing was perfectly common in the baroque era.

Then a new piece by the composer Osvaldo Golijov, “Sidereus,” which happened to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in December, turns out to have incorporated a considerable chunk of another composer’s work — with the other composer’s permission. And we all draw up in shock.

(Sara Evans) - Composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Last month, “Sidereus” was played by the Eugene Symphony in Eugene, Ore., and two men in the audience — Tom Manoff, a critic for NPR, and Brian McWhorter, a trumpet player — were startled to recognize large parts of Michael Ward-Bergeman’s “Barbeich.”

Manoff, shocked, wrote a long blog post claiming plagiarism. He could not reach Golijov for comment, but Ward-Bergeman did respond by e-mail and Manoff quoted him: “I wanted to confirm that Osvaldo and I came to an agreement regarding the use of Barbeich for Sidereus. The terms were clearly understood, and we were both happy to agree. Osvaldo and I have been friends and collaborators for years.”

Golijov has actually been incorporating the work of composer friends for years, with their blessing, at first out of what appeared to be a fascination with juxtaposing styles in one piece (“La Pasion segun San Marcos”) and, more recently, because he acknowledges having a hard time meeting his deadlines.

Sections of “Ayre,” a folk-tune-based song cycle written for Dawn Upshaw, were the work of another composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, who was fully credited; a movement of “Kohelet,” a quartet for the St. Lawrence Quartet, did not credit its source and was withdrawn after one performance.

But if “stealing” is a hallmark of great composers, why is everyone upset? The real reason people get outraged, it seems to me, is a sense that they have been duped: A piece they enjoyed while thinking it was by one person is, in fact, the work of another. Plagiarism is, of course, a pernicious problem in the Internet age, but what Golijov is doing seems to me more a sign of his own creative blockage than A Bad Example for Young Artists. Young artists, after all, have been hearing those quotes about stealing for years.

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