On Musical Theft

A question of musical ethics came up in my Mahler class when someone asked, “How did Mahler get away with 'stealing' from other composers? Weren't there repercussions?”

We were discussing Mahler’s first symphony and I pointed out direct references to other well-known music. Parts of the introductions to both Beethoven’s 4th and 9thsymphonies sound eerily similar to the introduction of Mahler’s 1st..So too are Mahler’s cuckoo birds, clearly a quote of Beethoven’s cuckoo birds from his Pastoral symphony. Then there’s Haydn. While the main theme in Mahler’s 1stmovement actually quotes one his own earlier own songs, it is very similar in shape and mood to the finale of Haydn’s London Symphony. Then in the funereal 3rd movement, Mahler uses the folk tune Frère Jacques for its structure, along with tunes that quote klezmer music. In the last movement, Mahler specifically quotes themes from Liszt’s Faust symphony and from Wagner’s operas. 

So here we have a symphony by one composer that “steals from” and at some level expects listeners to be familiar with, Beethoven, Haydn, Liszt, Wagner, and Bohemian and Klezmer folk music. It’s worth considering the negative repercussions this audacious and prolific musical ‘theft’ had for Mahler’s contemporaries. His own wife Alma Mahler dismissed his fourth symphony as simply restating Haydn! Perhaps his many musical references had some people thinking he was more a conductor assembling together all the other music he knew, rather than a composer creating original works.  

Mahler continually complained that people misunderstood the emotional thrust of his music. He was shocked when one critic found the klezmer street music in his funeral march “boisterous.” He wrote at length about the pathos he intended by juxtaposing an amateur street band with a funeral procession. Irony is certainly the key concept in Mahler’s musical references. Just as counterpoint is the layering and combining of multiple melodies to create a new music, Mahler combined all these different musical references to create new musical meanings. His reference is never the thing itself, but its relationship to the music around it. The quotations of Beethoven’s 4thand 9thsymphonies in the introduction of Mahler’s 1stsymphony are not there to remind us of Beethoven, but to conjure the way Beethoven conceived the genesis of a complete sonic universe. The quotations of Wagner’s fanfares are not to borrow the greatness of Wagner’s music, but to instantly identify the idea of struggle and heroism. In hearing the reference, we are not magically placed in the worlds of Siegfried or Parsifal, but instead into the world of Mahler’s own hero engaged in his own titanic struggle. Similarly, Mahler often quotes the opening of Beethoven’s 5thsymphony not to conjure Beethoven’s music, but to evoke the universal connotation we have for Beethoven’s signature work as a personal battle against fate. 

For us in the postmodern age, this use of reference is practically the bread and butter of art. We have grown accustomed to art and entertainment that derives much of its meaning juxtaposing and assembling elements from other artworks. Assemblage in visual art and sampling in music are widely accepted techniques and understood. But in Mahler’s time, many listeners probably considered excessive use of outside reference derivative or indulgent. To be sure, musical quotation was hardly an innovation. Beethoven “ripped off” both Mozart and Haydn in many of his pieces. The themes in the opening of his first piano sonata are clearly modeled after Mozart’s late C minor sonata.  Schubert also “ripped off” Mozart, using a nearly identical theme in his own violin sonata to one of Mozart’s. But these borrowings were a point of departure, coming from positions of stylistic strength. Beethoven is showing a new path, developing Mozart’s idea in a dramatically different way. It is a tribute, not a theft. 

The issue of musical theft is murkier with Handel. Handel not only frequently quoted other music, but occasionally even pasted portions of other composer’s music into his own pieces! Handel’s defenders sometimes fall back paraphrasing Stravinsky’s dictum that talented composers “borrow” whereas great composers steal. (This statement itself is a theft. It is often attributed to Picasso, not Stravinsky, but this theft probably goes all the way back to Ancient Greece!) One argument I’ve heard in favor of Handel’s thefts is that his genius was knowing just what other music would artistically fit between sections of his own music. Sometimes they also add that Handel’s theft immortalized music that otherwise would have been forgotten. I find those justifications embarrassing , and so did many of Handel’s critics during his own time (though these thefts hardly detract of from the genius of his innumerable masterworks). 

But Stravinsky’s famous line is not about literal theft. He was drawing a powerful distinction between appropriating other music merely for its sound and effect, and addressing its deeper essence and structure—a far greater theft in scope, but one that requires the greatest imagination and impeccable artistic integrity. To quote Beethoven’s 5th in order to recall the excitement and grandiosity of that piece is merely to borrow as a feeble attempt to add some excitement and grandiosity to one’s own music. But to use it as Mahler does, to have the listener recall the total experience and history hearing Beethoven’s 5th, and then relate its larger themes of heroism, struggle, accumulation, and disintegration to Mahler’s own world all in one instant—that is true stealing! 

When considering Mahler’s musical references, I can’t help but be reminded of his American contemporary Charles Ives. Ives was also “notorious” for his musical borrowings, but we now hear those borrowings as an essential stylistic component of his music, whether it be the collision of two marching bands playing separate tunes or an evocation of someone practicing a Beethoven piano sonata in the parlor.  The juxtaposition by musical reference to different worlds, sentiments, and ideas is at the root of our modern world. It is a primary tool for injecting meaning into aesthetic articulation. The problem by far is not whether it is ethical to borrow from other art, but actually whether it will be apprehended. Is it a reasonable expectation that audiences come to concerts with a thorough familiarity in the classical and popular repertoires, even as both continue expanding? When I teach high school students, I’m painfully aware of having to explain any musical references, say, to the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, let alone Bach.  So the real trick for the composer employing musical reference is to make it completely convincing as an integrated part of an entire musical structure as well as a handle for external meaning.

To return to the original question, a precocious musical “stealer” like Mahler depends on listeners who will relate and connect musical ideas to each other. If we are not obsessed making those connections, then Mahler’s symphonies may seem like a silly or even random collection of famous and obscure tunes from other music, an indulgent romp down memory lane by a really smart conductor talented at orchestration. In other words, those of us without a craving for irony need not apply. 


Do you have your own take on musical theft? We would love to read it. Please comment!