Bob Meadows 18th November 2015
STOLEN OR BORROWED?
How popular composers have raided the classics
This is an abridged report of what was a thoroughly entertaining evening presented by Felixstowe Radio regular Bob Meadows.
Stolen or borrowed, said Bob, that is the question. So let us begin, and with that we heard his first selection. He asked whether anyone could supply a title or artist, or both. And what would we hear as its classical counterpart?
It was Nut Rocker by B Bumble and the Stingers. The classical piece – which we also identified – was the March of the Toy Soldiers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.
Well, Bob continued, clearly a blatant case of highway robbery there. But when it comes to musical poaching, he wished to draw a distinction between outright theft and what he called “borrowing” to render it a little less blameworthy. There is of course the question of permission. But does anybody who uses somebody else’s chord sequence or melody then sets them to a different tempo and writes – or gets a lyricist to write – new words, do they ask permission? And how many hope to get away with it? Is the original composer still alive? So often the answer is no. Do they have litigious descendants who would be likely to pursue a legal case? Maybe. Maybe not. For a written work, 70 years appears to be the duration of “intellectual property” and for a recorded work 50 years appears to be the time limit within which a copyist – or plagiarist – has to tread carefully. After that it appears to be open season. Steal what you like and see what happens.
But is there another side to this coin? Are the copyists simply too lazy or lacking in talent to come up with something of their own, or is there sometimes a question of what we nowadays call “homage”? Do they merely borrow in order to show admiration and pay tribute to the original?
And could copying be sometimes accidental? George Harrison firmly believed that his My Sweet Lord was completely original. But Bright Tunes Corporation was sure it was purloined from He’s So Fine by The Chiffons and in prolonged and complex litigation the Court agreed he was guilty of subconscious plagiarism. It cost Harrison $587,000. The pop music world prefers to just call it rip off, or more correctly copyright infringement.
Perhaps we could consider these points as we listen to some of the items he had chosen for this evening. One further point – have the imitators a valuable purpose in that they may introduce a new generation of listeners to the original works? Or have they gone so far in sacrificing the subtlety of the original that we feel as if we have been clobbered over the head?
In order to gauge roughly how we felt, Bob now introduced an interactive element. He had previously handed out brown envelopes with the written instruction on them not to open yet. Now we could open them and found they contained a green card and a red card. He was going to play his selections in pairs – the original and the borrowed or stolen version and we would be invited to vote for each pair of works. Holding up the green card for any thoughts which might range from enjoyable, or moderately enjoyable, or even yes, borrowed or stolen but still reasonably acceptable. Red for no, not really and ranging through to unreasonable and outrageous theft, not to be tolerated and never again while I live and breathe!
So we now voted for the original pair: Nut Rocker and March of the Toy Soldiers. Nut Rocker – 8 reds; March of the Toy Soldiers – 1 red
(For simplicity only the red votes are shown, so it can be assumed that generally the balance of about 18 votes in total were green. So no votes is a favourable endorsement not a criticism.)
Nut Rocker was from 1962, but from now on he would proceed chronologically. Starting in 1918 with a song credited to the writers Joseph McCarthy and Harry Carroll and sung in 1918 by Harry Fox. This was I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. And what did that derive from? Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu in C# minor, opus 66. Votes: I’m Always Chasing Rainbows – 4; Fantaisie Impromptu – none.
We moved on to 1922. Goin’ Home, sung by Paul Robeson. This came from the Largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony No. 9, which we also then heard. (And also of course purloined for a Hovis advert with a small boy pushing his delivery bike up Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, transposed to the north of England.) Votes: Goin’ Home – 3; Dvorak – none.
From 1922 to 1945 and Perry Como and Till the End of Time. This was attributed to Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman. It comes from the Polonaise in A flat major opus 53 by Chopin. After hearing both the audience voted: Perry – 3 reds; Chopin – 2 reds.
And now we’re in 1950. Jo Stafford singing No Other Love, (attributed to Bob Russell and Paul Weston), which derives from Chopin’s Etude No. 3 in E opus 10. Votes: Jo Stafford – 8 reds; Chopin – no reds.
Bob introduced a personal reminiscence at this point. It was interesting, he said, to consider how different types of music find their way into our lives. He was both surprised and grateful that classical music eventually came into his. Hearing the voice of Jo Stafford reminded him of her song from 1952 – You Belong to Me. That was the first by a female artiste to reach number one in the following year in the new UK singles chart.
He arrived in Felixstowe in 1951 when he was six and lived in St Edmunds Road. His brother John was 12 years older and he brought back a wind up gramophone and a huge pile of 78s from his travels in the Merchant Navy. Bob worked his way through the pile whenever his brother was away. This was his introduction to music. The pop stars of the day were Frankie Lane, Johnny Ray and Guy Mitchell, along with Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and Jo Stafford. But the record pile ranged far deeper and wider and it became clear to Bob that some items were more serious than others.
We heard the opening of the Moonlight Sonata. The words Classical Music had not yet come his way, but this was clearly something different and he began to connect the dots two years later when another piece of music came into his home. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, of which we heard a little.
In 1953 Felixstowe and District Gramophone Society was inaugurated. Felixstowe was flooded and a Broadway show called Kismet was making its presence widely felt via request programmes on the wireless. It did not arrive in the West End until 1955 but in that year it was also made into a film. The credits are at least quite honest and say: “Music by Borodin adapted by Robert Wright and George Forrest”, who are credited with having written the lyrics, and Charles Lederer and Luther Davis are credited with the book, based on a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock.
The story of Kismet tells of a wily poet who talks his way out of trouble several times while meanwhile his beautiful daughter meets and falls in love with a young Caliph. The film was a huge success, the stage play won several awards and has enjoyed several revivals. Bob invited us to hear three of the songs alongside the Borodin originals. The first two were not from the stage play or film but by singers of the day who had hits with them.
First was Stranger in Paradise, the best known, sung by Tony Bennett. This came from the Polovstian Dances from Prince Igor. Votes: Stranger in Paradise was given 3 reds but the original none.
Then Baubles, Bangles and Beads. Sung by Peggy Lee. And the Borodin work was the String Quartet No. 2, the second movement, scherzo in F, tempo allegro. Voting: Votes: Peggy Lee – 2 reds; and Borodin also 2 reds.
The third number came from the film with Howard Keel, Ann Blyth and Vic Damone: And This is my Beloved. This also comes from the same Borodin quartet, the third movement, a nocturne in A major, marked andante. Voting: And This is my Beloved – 7 reds; Borodin – no reds.
It was only later in life that Bob discovered that these melodies were not original but borrowed from Borodin, or if you prefer, stolen.
Bob did not see the film of Kismet but one film above all others that he saw at the age of six or seven – sister Christine was a cinema usherette and he could sit anywhere for a shilling – was The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza. It was packed with thrilling songs which he later discovered to be arias from longer works. This was the film which inspired Placido Domingo and later Alfie Boe to become tenors like Lanza. For Bob these songs and the songs from Kismet had some of the greatest melodies he had ever heard. But he had no sense of them as being superior to the pop music that he was habitually listening to. Bob refuses to subscribe to elitist views about music, whilst accepting that a lot of classical music is more subtle than pop music, has more variety of tempo and more complicated chord patterns and subtle changes of mood. Does this make it more worthy or indeed more worthwhile? No, to his mind it makes it make it more demanding – you need often to bring some knowledge and appreciative skills to the party and of course it can help to know something of the composer’s life and intentions in writing the piece. So, like all study and acquisition of knowledge, this is a good and worthwhile thing in itself, but please let us not put the lover of classical music on a lofty or elevated plateau.
While rock and roll and 12 bar blues may only utilise three chords as a rule maybe, they have their place in music history. They were and are always performed with passion and people who love them are deeply moved by them and attain enormous pleasure from them.
Now off to Spain and yes you’ve guessed already – although while Spain is the setting and the male hero is a Spanish toreador the work was written in French by a Frenchman and Bob saw it performed in Italy before a largely Italian audience. The Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen: the heroine herself warns that love is a rebellious bird and if she loves you, watch out!
In the parallel universe of Carmen Jones with the first ever all black cast in a Hollywood musical, the great toreador becomes a boxer and the girl from the tobacco factory – Carmen – becomes a parachute maker who makes a play for a flyboy Air Force man. Even though Dorothy Dandridge and the rest of the cast were competent singers, Hollywood of course just had to dub their voices. So here apparently is Dorothy Dandridge and Dat’s Love. Votes: for the Habanera – 1 red; That’s Love – 6 reds.
After the break, Bob continued with a further two pairings from Carmen followed by Carmen Jones: Gypsy Song from Carmen and then Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum. Voting: Carmen Gypsy Song – 2 reds; Carmen Jones – 8 reds.
Now the famous toreador is carried on at shoulder height with adoration heaped on him from all quarters. The Toreador Song from Carmen followed by the entrance of the famous boxer from Carmen Jones who sings Stand Up and Fight. (Some of us might also think: Esso sign means happy motoring…!) Voting: Carmen Toreador Song – 1 red; Carmen Jones – 9 reds.
Poor old Bizet, it should be added, died thinking his opera was a failure.
Bob went on to explain where he stood on the three songs we had heard from the 1950s. As a youngster he had loved those songs even though he had not seen the film of Carmen Jones and had no idea of their context. But he was convinced that the Carmen Jones’ songs eventually led him to what you might call the real thing. Had he not known these songs he would probably not have gone on to enjoy a wonderful evening in the beautiful amphitheatre in Verona seated on marble steps for what should have been a four hour performance of Carmen, relying entirely on the natural acoustics of the building with no microphones or amplification of the music. It was a wonderful experience apart from the massive rainstorm which brought about a cancellation at the end of the third hour!
Bob’s argument was that while he could see that some perpetrators are guilty of plundering and pillaging – musical Vikings you might call them – others have used some sensitivity in their treatment of the classics and other people might well have moved on like him to discover the original source material.
From now for a change on we were going to hear the classical version first. Espana by Emanuel Chabrier, Rhapsody for orchestra. Any idea what that was turned into?
Hot Diggity sung by Perry Como in 1956. After some audience participation in the latter, we voted 1 red for Chabrier and 4 reds for Perry Como.
Now moving from the 1950s to the early 1960s, and the man once known as the King of Rock. By now he had served two years in the army and on coming out he had kicked rock and roll into touch and was now keen to fulfil his two big ambitions: to act like James Dean or Marlon Brando; and to sing like Mario Lanza.
We heard Elvis singing It’s Now or Never followed by O Sole Mio. (O Sole Mio dates from 1898 and the composer was Eduardo di Capua.) No red votes for either.
The next Elvis song came from Plaisir d’Amour by JPE Martini (a classic French love song written in 1784), and Can’t Help Falling in Love. Votes: Plaisir – 1 red; Elvis – no reds.
And the final Elvis pairing was Return to Sorrento from the Italian song Torna a Surriento, a Neapolitan song from 1902 composed by Ernesto de Curtis, English lyrics by Claude Aveling, sung here by Dean Martin; and Surrender sung by Elvis. Votes: Return to Sorrento – 3 reds; Surrender – 4 reds.
Regarding Elvis, from the start his gyrations were controversial, but for Bob at the age of 11 or 12 rock and roll was exciting beyond words and Elvis was king. After several years of rather pathetic movies his comeback was in 1968, but here we are now, 38 years after his death and the legend goes on, with the release of a batch of his old songs re-released two weeks ago with backings by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the album went straight to No. 1 in the album charts in the very week of its release. It is interesting to speculate who is the audience for this record. But whoever is buying or downloading it surely this provides evidence of what has come to be known as crossover – the phenomenon which has been at the root of the success of Nigel Kennedy, the Three Tenors, Russell Watson, Lesley Garrett, Il Divo and even Andrea Bocelli. All of these have sold their products to a wider popular audience way beyond the niche audience of pure classical music lovers.
Returning to the theme of Stolen or Borrowed, we heard Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from La Giocanda. Most (all?) of us knew that Allan Sherman’s comic hit Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, was based on that, but how many knew that there was a third derivative: Maureen Evans and Like I Do? Voting on all three: Ponchielli – no reds; Allan Sherman – no reds; Maureen Evans – 3 reds.
Wrapping up his presentation Bob said that he was very happy that classical music found its way into his life, if only by the back door, i.e. via pop music. It had been a wonderful journey of discovery for someone who was not brought up on it and did not study it formally or learn to play an instrument in a serious and dedicated way except for strumming a few chords on a guitar.
We had voted on 33 items altogether (in part rather than complete). Of course, the sample size was too small to draw any definite conclusions but it may have been a pleasant surprise that the “popular” items received a good proportion of green votes so perhaps the FRMS is more versatile in its tastes than some might assume!
PS: somebody said Bob has dyed his hair white – that is unconfirmed. The editor of this site failed to attend this great talk, he was in Norwich at the Northern Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ – so there was a connection