Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Plagiarism or Appropriation?

Today's BBC News Web site includes an article from the Magazine division entitled "How many national anthems are plagiarized?" The author is Alex Marshall, who has apparently written a book on the history of national anthems. Sadly, this is a case where specialization may have induced misleading myopia. Many of the acts of making music, whether it involves composing or performing, are informed by influence from the past. Sometimes the source of influence can be identified; but that does not necessarily translate into plagiarism, which carries connotations of theft. Paul Ricœur, who counts as both a literary theorist and a philosopher in my book, used to write at length on the nature and significance of appropriation; and, where making music is concerned, the idea that any evidence of appropriation should be expunged was basically a twentieth-century idea that emerged after the Second World War with a crop of composers who, in the wake of the meticulous detail in the music of Anton Webern, became what I like to call "composers of 'principles.'"

One of Marshall's case studies was a national anthem that could be traced back to the theme music from Animal House. The composer claimed not to have known the music. He then listened to it and immediately recognized the similarity. Nevertheless, he was vilified for his work. For my part, he reminds me of one of the most delightful episodes in Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. It concerns not Bach but the making of Martin Luther's first hymnal. Luther himself would play tunes for the words on a recorder, and they would be transcribed by an assistant. When someone observed that one of the tunes resembled a popular song heard out on the streets, Luther supposedly replied that the Devil could not have all the good tunes to himself! This tells us more about music for national anthems than the whole of Marshall's article.

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