Borrowed or Purloined?

Borrowed or Purloined?

By Dan Visconti
Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.

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This recent Beyoncé-at-the-Proms business prompted a variety of reactions in me, ranging from complete disgust to some amount of cautious delight. My gut reaction—that Turnage’s appropriation comes off more favorably as an accessory to a kind of wry prank than as an actual musical “quotation” within the confines of a work ostensibly under Turnage’s own authorship—made me first think of this oft-quoted maxim

attributed to Stravinsky: “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.”

Or rather: great composers attain greatness in part by absorbing—and

reacting to—their influences to such a profound degree that they become

part of those composers’ own selves (and something new!) in the process.


I’ve just been enjoying studying Daron Hagen’s first opera, Shining Brow, and many aspects of the work deal with a similar proprietary conflict. The opera revolves around a series of mid-life crises in the life of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright but is overshadowed most of all by a falling out between Wright and his former mentor and employer, Louis Sullivan. In one heated confrontation, Wright quotes Sullivan’s own ideas back to his old Lieber Meister as if they were his own; Sullivan protests that the words were purloined, whereas Wright steadfastly maintains that they were “borrowed”. (Hagen’s score itself is an imaginative example of how quotations from Blitzstein, Bernstein, and Strauss, as well as the interpolation of “stylistic” quotes of music composed to resemble 12-bar blues, barbershop quartets, and congregational hymn-singing, can function in the context of mainstream opera tradition. In some ways, it’s a manual of the tasteful handling of quotation within a larger work bearing the composers authorship).


I won’t opine further on the artistic question of whether Mark-Anthony Turnage stole the music (in the Stravinsky sense); what really interests me is the more human question of whether he purloined it (in the Hagen sense). That is, how would Beyoncé and company feel about Turnage’s usage? Would they think it was a clever reference to their work, or be clamoring for a slice of Turnage’s licensing fee?


So far discussion of this event has centered around the artistic merits of the Turnage venture, almost as if a mass-consensus that Turnage’s appropriation was artistically right might erase the fact that he’s taken an awful lot of music that doesn’t appear to be his and slapped his name on it, without the obvious trappings of quotation. Whatever his reasons for doing so and their ultimate artistic merits, I still flinch at the apparent decadence of a successful, connected composer of Turnage’s considerable gifts flaunting what, in a less visible composer’s hands, would undoubtedly be considered a mean and pointless bit of plagiarism.