Was it Brahms who referred to the critical and nascent musicological tendency to search for a composer’s source-tunes “childish”? (No, I don’t have to run and hunt it down. This is a blog, not my dissertation.) The comment always irked me a little, not least because I enjoy recognizing if something had been used previously, especially if the source is obscure. The “Eureka!” moment, I don’t mind saying, is something every musicologist cherishes. The composer’s defensiveness, though, is the real issue: why is it childish to hunt for sources, and to be interested enough in music to want to know its antecedents? Perhaps critics of the time were too triumphant when they found familiar tunes, trumpeted their finds excessively, and ended the discussion with an implication of borrowing or theft. Or, perhaps certain composers were hypersensitive about the vaunted Romantic “originality.” If one does not mind borrowing or transforming a preexistent tune, why should one mind if others are aware of it?
The issue of borrowing struck me again recently when I was listening to (buckle up; sharp turn here) Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera about the final episodes in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve just been invited to introduce the film version for the Rock in Film class here, which charmed me; the piece was big when I was in high school, and I have fond memories of it. I hear it differently, historically, now—look, the singer’s doing Robert Plant and Zeppelin! Oh, wow, a riff on Leon Russell and the Shelter People! And since it’s the early 1970s; the 5/4 and 7/4 meters mean it’s DEEP . . . ! Think Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.
But here’s “Pilate’s Dream,” a number of pop-song length and structure—two verses, contrasting break, final verse—that is ringing familiar. The sound is pop-folk, acoustic guitar with minor chords (though the break slips into major), and Pontius Pilate is singing of his dream about Jesus, people screaming for the carpenter’s death, then multitudes wailing his name, etc. Suddenly “Mad John,” my favorite song from the Small Faces’ 1968 album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, springs to mind. The musical description above fits perfectly: minor-key folkie, minor verses with major break, etc. The subject is a kind of enlightened hermit, but the first lines of the final verse stick out: “So here was a wise one who loved all the haters; he loved them so much that their hate turned to fear…” Well, that’s not a bad pop-culture Jesus, is it? I have no idea if Lloyd Webber knew the Small Faces song or not—I suspect he did—and if their song was a model for him it could well have been unconscious. What the correspondence demonstrates beyond a doubt is what I think of as the “in the air” principle: if something was played at a particular time, someone heard it, and people other people played it and music like it, and it may have been an influence on someone. Put simply: it existed, it was there, it was part of the communal language and musical consciousness, and something else like it–famous or not–did not happen in a musical vacuum.
This is far closer to how music actually works than the ubiquitous image of composers getting bolts from the blue, which cause them to write things unlike anything ever heard before (pace music appreciation classes). Music is a heard and shared activity; when the ether is animated, usually more than one person hears it. If someone hears it an takes something from it, we have a pattern a-borning.
For me, all of this means that celebrating and investigating music’s crazy carroming influences is hardly childish; it’s an acknowledgment of how music really works. What is childish is trying to avoid the discussion, or to claim more originality than is really yours. I have never understood Brahms’s prickly reaction–if it was his–because he is one of my favorite composers, and I really cannot imagine how someone of his stature would show such hypersensitivity.