By James McQuillen
The classical music world is all abuzz about Osvaldo Golijov, and not in a good way this time. Over the weekend he became the center of an authorship controversy, and this is how it went down: writer and composer Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter went to the Eugene Symphony’s concert last Thursday night, where they heard Golijov’s Sidereus, a work commissioned by a coalition of 35 orchestras; the ESO was giving the Northwest premiere during the second season of the work’s 35-orchestra tour.
As Manoff wrote in his blog, he and McWhorter listened with “utter disbelief” and a “a genuine sense of shock” to the supposedly original work, half of which they already knew intimately. Manoff had been reëngineering a recording of Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich made by WcWhorter and his ensemble Beta Collide, and they heard it again in orchestral dress in Sidereus.
In his own description of the piece, which I quoted in my Eugene Symphony program note, Golijov wrote that “For the ‘Moon’ theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman, came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia.” But Manoff countered that:
“This music, especially the scored version given to McWhorter, shows that not just Ward-Bergeman’s melody was used by Golijov, but all of Ward-Bergeman’s structural details: accompaniment figures, harmonies, counterpoint, textures and form. These appear as extended passages in Golijov’s work and constitute one of two contrasting ideas in Golijov’s overall form.”
Golijov’s use of Ward-Bergeman’s music raised questions about borrowing and attribution sufficiently to become news.
Alerted by Manoff and McWhorter, Bob Keefer broke the story in Saturday’s Eugene Register-Guard, and it was picked up by, among others, The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross and my Oregonian colleague David Stabler.
Noting that Ward-Bergeman gave Golijov his blessing to use Barbeich (which you can hear in the ensemble version used by Beta Collide here), Ross wrote:
“Golijov can be defended on the grounds that there is a long history of borrowing and outright theft in classical music. In the Baroque era, Bach, Handel, and other masters routinely recycled their own music and reworked the music of others; the idea of the composer as a singular genius blazing an original path was essentially alien before the advent of Beethoven.”
True, but not entirely relevant. It’s been two centuries since the advent of Beethoven; audiences since have come to expect originality, and contemporary notions of intellectual property imply obligations of attribution different from those of the Baroque period. Handel lifted material from Alessandro Stradella for Israel in Egypt; were that to happen today, Stradella might be cool with it, but more likely he’d lawyer up. Even if he’d given Handel sanction to use his music, information about the origins of the Handel—in a program note, say—would be obviously incomplete without mention of that.
It’s not plagiarism, but it’s… something. It’s difficult to see Golijov’s reduction of Ward-Bergeman’s contribution to “a melody…a magnified scale fragment” as anything but disingenuous; no composer would fail to make the distinction between melody and all the other components of the original work that Manoff identified.
But clearly the issue of attribution is unsettled. (I asked composer David Schiff what he thought about it, and he replied that he couldn’t comment because he didn’t know the pieces, but added that “In the score of the recently-premiered Class of 1915 I make the authorship of all borrowed material quite clear, but of course those composers have been dead a long time.”)
As the program annotator for the Eugene Symphony, I feel suckered, because the omission of that crucial detail essentially falsified what I had to say about the provenance of Sidereus. Incidentally, when I was writing the program note for Azul for the Bach Festival last summer, I left a message on Golijov’s office phone at Holy Cross asking if the opening cello motif (a central idea in the piece) was a deliberate quote, as it appears to be, from the beginning of Astor Piazzolla’s “Asleep” (one of the Five Tango Sensations). A wholly different order of borrowing, of course, but worth acknowledging. In any event, I never heard anything back.
Here’s Piazzolla’s “Asleep”:
And here’s Golijov’s Azul.