Fine Arts Column: In defense of recycled music

I cannot remember distinctly the first time I heard the song “This Night” by Billy Joel, but I very well remember the first time I truly noticed it. Although I have for some time admired Joel’s songwriting and charisma, it is not a song I enjoy very deeply, and it did not make an impression on my memory at the time. Several years later, however, it resurfaced in my mind while listening to an entirely different piece of music: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor.

There are moments in life which quite literally stop us in our tracks, and there are those which at least entirely arrest our mental attention. This particular moment, as I remember it, fell somewhere in between. “Wait a minute,” I thought as I swiveled to face the stereo. “Where have I heard this before?”

It was then that the thought of Long Island’s celebrated bard occurred to me. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions: the chorus of “This Night” and the Beethoven sonata shared the very same melody, and Joel even credited Beethoven as one of the number’s songwriters.

This phenomenon of what could be called “borrowing” the work of another composer is hardly a new one in Western music, although the genre gap is not always so pronounced. Take, for example, the German hymn “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ Lay in Death’s Dark Prison), a piece J. S. Bach arranged numerous times throughout his career.

Though many of its better-known settings stem from Bach’s pen, the hymn itself was originally written by Martin Luther, who conceived of it as simply an updated version of an earlier hymn, “Christ ist erstanden.” Moreover, “Christ ist erstanden” is itself based on the “Victimae paschali laudes” sequence for Easter. The whole series of events spans several centuries and plays out like some highly liturgical game of musical telephone.

A more humorous example of this practice might be found in Claude Debussy’s “Children’s Corner”. The last and most whimsical piece in this collection, “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” at one point lifts a melody from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” before peppering the following measures with bright, sing-song burst of staccato, as if to mock Wagner’s intended gravity. Contemporary church-goers may also be familiar with a famous theme from Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” later reworked into the hymn “Be Still My Soul.”

As college students, reminded of the danger of copying others in every syllabus we receive, we might validly ask the question of why reusing the insights of another composer is a good thing at all. Does it not, we might ask, enrich the world of music even more for composers to keep pushing themselves to envision brand new melodies and ideas rather than re-purposing those of the past, even if their original authors are properly credited?

To ask this question, however, is to miss the point that God’s inspiration (for indeed, He inspires all good things in us) is much like His grace in that it is fundamentally boundless. For a composer to build upon the work of another is not for them to limit inspiration but to let it take a familiar shape in their own unique manner of composition.

The sound of ages past may find expression in Bach and thus be revealed in a previously un-imagined light. Some melody of Beethoven may reappear in Billy Joel and draw our attention to the intensely lyrical nature of the original or the importance of melody whether one is writing in the 18th century or in 1984.

The intention here is not to make a carbon copy or a pale imitation, but to portray a different and perhaps surprising aspect of something we thought we already knew, like shifting the lens of a kaleidoscope so that the same shards of color create a different picture. Called as we are to live rooted in our tradition yet open to new expressions of the same mystery of salvation, one might even call the idea a rather Catholic one.