Elegant Borrowing

Artists borrow material from earlier artists in order to adapt it for use in new works.  Allow me to focus on music to illustrate.  If a melody has depth and flexibility it can be reworked and reused in other ways such as marrying it to different sets of lyrics, or rearranging the instrumentation.

Here’s an early one that keeps coming back to us, courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In the St. Matthew Passion (1727), a truly great work, he returns again and again to a chorale.  This sweet little melody was originally a popular love song (“Mein G’müt ist mir Verwirret”) written by Hans Leo Hassler over 100 years earlier.  Bach added harmonies that made the pretty tune into a 4-part jewel box, a kind of perfect cube that could safely contain lyrics of intense emotion.  The beauty and symmetry of the music contrasts with the aching sensitivity of the new words, which included:

Du edles Angesichte,                        You noble countenance,
Davor sonst schrickt und scheut   before which once shrinks and cowers
Das große Weltgewichte,                the great might of the world,
Wie bist du so bespeit!                    how you are spat upon!
Wie bist du so erbleichet!               How you are turned pallid!
Wer hat dein Augenlicht,               Who has treated those eyes
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet,  to which no light is comparable
So schändlich zugericht’t?              so shamefully?

These words had also gone through a process of being borrowed and adapted.  They originated in a 13th Century poem by an abbot who wrote in Latin, addressing each of the physical areas of Jesus’ wounds in individual sections of his poem.  This was the section addressing the head, which is why in English it eventually became the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”.  But before that happened, Bach himself used the chorale in a cantata (159) and set the tune to different words for a Christmas Oratorio.

That tune was a resilient little container.  Tom Glazer, a multi-instrumentalist and writer, worked at the Library of Congress during the Great Depression, where he met Alan Lomax, the great song collector and field recordist.  Lomax influenced him to immerse himself in the borrowing traditions of folk music.  From 1945-1947, Tom had a national radio show introducing America to folk music, including his own compositions.  He took the jewel box from the Renaissance and added a set of words advocating equality and solidarity with the union causes of the time.  This new version was recorded by the Weavers, and later by Peter, Paul and Mary during the early 60s folk revival.  Most of us who remember this reboot are getting on in years:

Because all men are brothers, wherever men may be,
The world shall be one union forever proud and free.
No tyrant shall defeat us, no nation strike us down,
All men who toil shall greet us, the whole wide world around.

The last version I know of was created by Paul Simon in 1973.  He wrote yet another set of lyrics, altered the melody slightly and called it American Tune.  This time the song was speaking about our sense of longing for an earlier, more idyllic America of the past, while Viet Nam and Watergate were causing us to lose faith in our institutions :

I wouldn’t be too surprised if the little jewel box comes around again in some other form.  As long as it speaks elegantly to the listeners of the time it’s played in, I think it’s all right.

19 Comments

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19 responses to “Elegant Borrowing

  1. Very interesting stuff. Why do you know all this?

    I “borrow”, I like to think rather elegantly, ideas for my writing from other blogs and books. I think that is one purpose of writing and art – to spark the minds and emotions of others.

    • I would agree that we all inevitably borrow and are inspired by each other’s ideas, Debbie. That’s true not only among people in a community, such as WordPress, but between writers and readers from different times and places. There’s this persistent illusion that we are all separate beings, but the older I get the more it seems all things are inter-related parts of a whole. It’s just easier to follow the tracks back when you take a well-known piece of music. I’ve read that in India and China, there are tunes that go back thousands of years. I just don’t know them – yet.

      I have thought about what you and I have in common, since I have also had to do mental work-arounds to recover from my own injuries, though mine have been mostly psychological where yours have a physical basis. Our processes are different, and yet damage is damage. I certainly agree you write with elegance. I think it comes partly from seeking grace and balance in the rest of your life.

      I’ll be writing next about some inelegant borrowing, again using music, by way of comparison.

  2. Mikey, You walk with a familiar foot in a musical place I can barely grasp of its existence. I wish I could sit at your proverbial feet and learn to ‘see’ music with that long view you understand. I recognise it some of the time, like with Pachelbel. But only because it is my favorite song so, easy to hear. I kinda grasp that music forms shapes. But its the kind of thing I sense only when I write songs. (and then I’m just winging it)

    • Oh, you can learn it if you want to, mm. It just takes time and experience, so you come in contact with enough teachers. That Pachelbel (Canon in D Major) slept, forgotten for over two hundred years before it re-emerged in scholarly research after its 1919 publication. But the tune structure runs from five hundred years before to other canons (rounds) in the 13th Century through Pachelbel (right around 1700) to later works by Haydn, Handel and Mozart that quoted from it. It’s a really good example of a piece that’s been subject to both elegant and inelegant borrowing. Now it’s been rearranged in rock and hip-hop versions. I think it’s inelegant to use it in commercials, but it’s also been played behind ads for everything from shampoo to salad dressing.

  3. At least once a month I will hear a song on my son’s favorite radio station that is a remake or sample of something I listened to growing up. I usually think these songs are awful, but that’s not fair. My son is getting to enjoy a song he would otherwise never hear. I play the original for him and tell him what was going on in my life the first time I heard a particular song. He’s usually interested in hearing those stories.
    Borrowing in writing is inevitable. How many times do I have read a book about a pair of star-crossed lovers with the deck stacked against them that may or may not live happily everafter? The answer is about 900. It’s my favorite story.

    • It’s one of my favorites too! Of course there’s elegant borrowing, and inelegant borrowing. There’s Romeo and Juliet, and there’s Twilight 😉 There’s even “Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies”. You can mash-up wildly unrelated sources for comedic effect.

  4. I learned a little about creative borrowing at a backyard music class for pre-schoolers in L.A. I went to with my granddaughter. The sweet-faced folky singer informed the toddlers that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Bah Bah Black Sheep,” and “The Alphabet Song” all have the same melody. Then he told them the original creator was Mozart, who didn’t mind being the re-use because, “Hey, when he wrote that song he was 4 – the same age as you.”

    • Yes, that was the singer’s way of borrowing aspects of the story for self-esteem building, and I like that version better than the historical one. The original is a French folk song “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.” which appeared in 1761, when Mozart was 5. Since he was a prodigy, he surely could have heard and/or played it. His own keyboard composition of variations was written when he was 25.

  5. I first became aware of musical borrowing when I was 10 and was playing Muzio Clementi’s Sonatina in G Major Op. 36 No. 5 on the piano. The Rondo is “Groovy Kind of Love” by Phil Collins (1988), which was really “Groovy Kind of Love” by Diane & Annita (1965). I was fascinated. I still sing the lyrics when I revisit my yellowed, falling apart Clementi Songbook (which cost 85 cents when I bought it.)

    Darn it. There you go again, bringing back fond memories. I love this blog.

  6. I love Rachmaninoff and I remember listening to his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 for the first time, and for a split second thinking, hey, Rachmaninoff stole this from the pop song All by Myself.

    • You, Paul, are the epitome of an elegant borrower! I’m so glad MAD Magazine won in the Supreme Court case (regarding the use of copyright material adapted for satire) so you can go on borrowing and making brilliant new work.

  7. I remember the moment in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the cinema for the first time and being blown away when the music from one of the songs I loved by Renaissance (“Cold is Being” from the album Turn of the Cards) came on as a classical piece. I hadn’t realized it was Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. Over the years as I became more exposed to classical music this happened many times with Renaissance, since their keyboardist was classically trained and particularly fond of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. Little riffs from the greats would appear in many of their songs. I love that moment of discovery. Thanks for this post, Mikey. I knew the hymn (LOVE hymns) but did not know the other versions from before and after.

    • I made a hash of my first sentence there, but I’m too tired to sort it out. You get the idea. Also forgot to mention, I don’t know what a “jewel box” is in this context. Care to append an addendum?

      • A jewel box is a slang term classical musicians use for a symmetrical melodic/harmonic structure into which you can put any kind of lyric – ones that compliment or that contrast with the mood. Because of the beauty of the “box”, it will elevate the quality and effectiveness of the piece. Bach chorales use four-line hymn melodies that would have been well-known to his listeners, like this one or “A Mighty Fortress”, which he also used in the same way. His harmonizations improved their symmetry and strength, hence, “jewel box”.

        Half the classical pieces I know I first heard in Warner Bros. cartoons. I ought to write about Carl Stalling, the JS Bach of animation!

  8. A Young Person

    In the example you give, at the end, Paul Simon made a really good song out of it. It use something that was already good, to make an other good thing.
    Nowadays, so much music has been made that I think it’s became really difficult to do a song that nobody has ever done, even if this person didn’t release it. But what’s really annoy me is ‘singer’ like J-Lo who decided to re-use “the lambada”. I mean it was already an OK song at the time, but the J-Lo version is just not really good.

    • I agree with you, young one. It’s not easy to do something no one has done before, but just as you say, you can take something done before and give it new paint. Sometimes you can even make it speak more clearly to people of your own times.

      (I expect you had your reasons for deleting it, but “stopfollowingmeimarabbit” was an amusing name for a blog.)

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