This morning’s Times ran an article [here, but registration is required] across the top of its Arts section, “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines from Henry Timrod?”
The thrust of it is, sleuths have discovered a number of lines in Dylan’s new “Modern Times” CD that have been closely patterned after lines of Timrod (1826-1867), a southern poet who wrote about the Civil War.
Timrod’s biographer Brian Cisco thinks it’s just fine. “I’m glad Timrod is getting some recognition.” Others are being less charitable, and at the same time totally obtuse. One poster somewhere mocked the idea of a “folk process.”
I think talk of plagiarism in such cases is total nonsense. The history of the creative arts is the story of one artist building on the works of another. Allusions, quotations, and borrowings are what makes literature, and especially, music so rewarding. What would these people do faced with a book of Ezra Pound, or heaven forbid, “Finnegan’s Wake”? Would their heads explode?
I’m not knowledgeable about poetry, but I am knowledgeable about music. Borrowings are absolutely foundational. Once upon a time I entertained the idea of writing a thesis about everything that Gustav Mahler borrowed from Beethoven. There are dozens of instances, small and large. Here’s an especially obvious one. First, Beethoven from the transition in the first movement of the piano sonata op. 111:
Then, a passage from the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s louder and it’s bigger, but it’s the same idea: drum roll please, followed by a three-note arpeggio figure tonic – up to the third – down to the dominant:
Trust me, there are no footnoted attributions in Mahler’s score for this symphony, or for the beginning of the last movement of his Third Symphony, or for the fanfare that opens the Fifth.
Frederick W. Sternfeld quotes Eduard Strauss in “Some Russian Folk Songs in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka*” on the compositions of Joseph Lanner, who wrote popular waltzes based on tunes he heard in the street or in the countryside. “Strauss does not attempt an answer other than to defend…Lanner’s originality [as well as his own] against those critics who accused them of appropriating Viennese street tunes, as though thematic originality were of value in itself. One could pursue this line of thought back to the beginnings of musical history, and it is to be hoped that at least one critic may, in turn, have asked Strauss why a waltz deserved a loftier origin than many a Lutheran chorale of humble secular birth.” [emphasis added]
Stravinsky in turn recycles some of Lanner’s waltz tunes, as well as Austrian dances, a French music hall ditty, and several Russian folk tunes that had previously been arranged by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakoff.
Sternfeld goes on to explain, “A scrutiny of the ballet’s native musical ingredients brings the realization that to Stravinsky’s compatriots attending the brilliant Diaghilev opening in Paris in 1911, Petrouchka offered musical and literary overtones that were lost to the Western listener, presumably ignorant of the folk origin of many of the themes.”
And that’s the point: this is precisely what makes serious art so interesting. You can read, listen or view it over and over and always gain new perspectives. It’s not the raw material; it’s what you build with it.