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  • Matteo Gemolo

The Art of borrowing

Intellectual property or so-called ‘copyright’ is quite a recent invention. After the creation of the printing press (1), the possibility of copying and printing books or other kinds of writing became extremely easy. Both governments and church (2) established the first kinds of licenses in order to control the dissemination of official governments acts or the Bible and to prevent the spread of non-official anti-government criticism or heretical booklets.

In England, early copyright privileges called ‘monopolies’ were initially granted by Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533 – 1603) for articles of common use such as leather, salt, soap etc. The extension of copyright for books came later with the so- called Statute of Anne in 1709. This act guaranteed a long-term legal protection to individual artists and established a pragmatic bargain involving not only the authors but also booksellers and public. Few decades later in the United States the Copyright Clause gave to American authors and inventors as well the exclusive rights to their respective writings or discoveries.

Controversially, the invention of copyright came along with another “invention”: the plagiarism. A written law that preserves the individual authenticity was a novelty in the history of art. Moreover, a brand new philosophy of art was hidden behind concepts such as “originality” and “uniqueness” that the copyright was meant to defend. The romantic genius of the late XVIII century was replacing the master craftsman of the past, while his middle-class Sturm und Drang became the new fashion after the aristocratic Affektenlehre came to an end.

Due to the capacity of reaching a broader audience, artists from all over the world started worrying for the first time in history about the destiny of their art works. The possibility of a defrauder to take over their authorships became an actual risk.

In spite of what seems to have become an important issue for artists in the end of the XVIII century, the laying the hands on someone else’s ideas or operas was done since the dawn of civilization, yet it never had such a bad connation: quotation, borrowing, transposition, collage and recycling were all very commonly practiced by the artists of any kind without any sense of plagiarism or immorality.

In the Baroque era, composers such as G. F. Handel, J. S. Bach and many others were constantly borrowing musical material from their own operas or from their colleagues works. This common practice could have been the result of a mere coincidence, a very pragmatic need or a form of tribute.

The composer and music theorist Johann Mattheson (1681 – 1764) spent many words about the Handel technique of borrowings in his Handel biography, (3) which should not at all be read like an accusation of plagiarism but rather the opposite. In claiming that Handel borrowed some music material from his own compositions, Mattheson wanted to show he was honoured and pleased by the attention received from his friend and famous artist. John H. Roberts summed up what Mattheson meant:

1. Sometimes a composer will use another composer’s ideas by accident, simply because he cannot remember where he had heard the music originally. 2. However, some composers have an almost perfect, much more gifted ability to remember music, which must be most convenient (he says) for them. 3. That when a composer’s borrowed idea receives a good working-out, it must please the music’s inventor and true owner. 4. That this practice is of no disadvantage to the composer of the original idea, but rather a special honour when a famous person comes upon his ideas and makes from them a true basis of his own music. (4)

Handel was a champion in the art of borrowing and the knowledge of Handel’s habits were widespread not only in England, but in Germany and France as well. Many authors such as Abbé Prevost (1697 – 1763), Sir John Hawkins (1719 – 1789) and Charles Burney (1726 – 1814) wrote about this subject. Here what the latter claimed:

I know it has been said that Handel was not the original and immediate inventor of several species of Music, for which his name has been celebrated; but, with respect to originality, it is a term to which proper limits should be set, before it is applied to the productions of any artist. Every invention is clumsy in its beginning, and Shakespeare was not the first writer of Plays, or Corelli the first composer of violin Solos, Sonatas and Concertos, though those which he produced are the best of his time; nor was Milton the inventor of Epic Poetry. The scale, harmony, and cadence of composition that is whole and rigorously new, any more than for a poet to form a language, idiom, and phraseology, for himself. All that the greatest and boldest musical inventor can do, is to avail himself of the best effusions, combinations, and effects, of his predecessors; to arrange and apply them in a new manner; and to add his own source, whatever he can draw, that is grand, graceful, gay, pathetic, or, in any other way pleasing. This Handel did, in a most ample and superior manner; being possessed, in his middle age and full vigour, of every refinement and perfection of his time.(5)

Johann Sebastian Bach was not the lesser of Handel in mastering the art of borrowing. His memorable-memory and improvisatory skills led him to rework many of his own compositions at an incredible speed. The lute Suites ended up being rewritten for cello within a few weeks. Meanwhile, Bach also turned pieces from his own contemporary famous colleagues such as Vivaldi Violin Concertos into Harpsichord Concertos (6). Furthermore, it should not surprise that most of the chorales in the St John Passion were using hymn tunes and texts familiar to a congregation of Bach’s contemporaries. (7)

Quoting or re-working his own or other composers’ music was a very common practice indeed in a society where artists were still creating more like craftsmen rather than solitary genius. Borrowing was seen as a form of economy in a time when music had more of a national identity than an egocentric one. ‘The style’ was more important than ‘the originality’, Invention had to develop fast as its result was being consumed hic et nunc. How there could be any issue of legacy in a time were Bach himself, if lucky, could have heard his own - now famous – masterpieces performed just once in his whole life?


In an article written in 1944 for the British scholarly music magazine The Music Quarterly, the eminent musicologist Curt Sachs discussed the fourth movement ‘Sarabande’ by Michel Blavet (1700 – 1768) of the second sonata La Vibray from Sonates Melées de Pièces Ouvre II, for traverso and continuo, published in Paris in 1732.

What caught his attention was that “almost the same” composition of Blavet was also attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach under the name of passacaglia. This work was presented in the fourty-second (8) volume of the Bach Gesamtausgabe, (9) dedicated to Bach’s dubious compositions for keyboard instruments. This passacaglia is presented in two different manuscript collections (Scheible- Gleichauf and A. Peters) as a short theme of eight measures with nineteen variations.

Extract of first bars of Passacaglia attributed to J. S. Bach

In comparison with the sarabanda by Blavet, the passacaglia keeps the same thematic motive for the right hand but it defers in the bass line. In the latter we see the typical descending bass line that typifies the style of passacaglia, which vanished in the sarabanda version by Blavet in favour of a more free and Curt Sachs described the differences between the two versions as follows:

There are differences to be sure. “Bach’s” bass descends diatonically from D to A in dotted half-notes – producing the well-known tetrachord-ostinato of so many chaconas and passacaglias; Blavet chromaticizes and dissolves it into eighth-notes. “Bach’s” melody is short and sober; Blavet adds another period of eight measures, modulates to the dominant , and returns to the tonic by a passionate sequence on a free bass. For the rest, the two pieces are decidedly similar – so similar that any thought of mere coincidence is out of the question. They are related, directly or indirectly. (10)

What Sachs claimed here, is that the similarities between the two pieces are so many that thinking of it as a mere coincidence is “out of the question”. For him this piece is an example of “borrowing”, even if he strongly questioned Bach’s fatherhood. It seemed for Sachs to be rather difficult to imagine Bach taking such a “colourful masterpiece” (11) from Blavet and converting it into a “pedantic and meager an étude as the passacaglia of the Gesamtausgabe. (12) This passacaglia, due to its bass simplicity and predictability, seems to offer the foundation to the more refined Blavet sarabanda, rather than the opposite.

Extract of first part of Sarabanda by Michel Blavet

Moreover, Sachs is convinced that the origin of this piece is French rather than German; he based this idea on two facts:

1) around 1730 more music from France was wandered to Germany than the other way around;

2) the style of the melody is typically French.

Sarabanda by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondoville

As a proof of the latter, Sachs mentioned the existence of another sarabanda (13) by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondoville (1711 – 1772) which shares the same characteristic first four notes with the Blavet one.

The sarabanda is French in style indeed, though it could be objected that this element is not sufficient to guess the nationality of the composer. With the same amount of probability we could bet on a very authentic and conservative French composer as much as we could bet on a German composer, well inspired by the French style. The puzzle remains unsolved.

Sachs didn’t go further with his investigation and concluded the article claiming once again that there are “no reasons based on internal evidence” that “supports Bach’s authorship”. (14)

The borrowing of music material of/from La Vibray doesn’t come to an end with just the sarabanda. In 1736 Jean Daniel Braun (after 1728 – 1740) published his seventh book of Sonatas for traverso and continuo in Paris. In the last movement of its second sonata, the whole theme of the last Allegro of La Vibray appears, transposed from d minor into e minor.

In the Braun version the melodic motive is used through the whole movement as a quite fixed and predictable pattern. Braun’s Allegro compared to Blavet’s, seems to be quite static in both flute and continuo lines. Moreover Braun gave Blavet’s virtuosity in both flute and continuo parts up, in favour of a safer and flatter music path. In addition Braun transposed the piece in e minor, which is a much easier tonality than Blavet’s d minor, in order to simplify even more the flute part.

From the right: extract of Allegro by Michel Blavet and Allegro by Jean Daniel Braun

The material borrowed from Blavet is used in Braun’s hands as a simple quotation. Braun’s piece stays in the style of Braun which appears much more predictable and pedantic than the unpredictable and inventive Blavet.


The Fantasier og Preludier. 8. Capricier og andre Stykker til Øvelse for Flöÿten af Quanz (15) by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697 – 1773) is a manuscript of 57 page in folio size. It is sure that few pages from the manuscript are missing (16) and Quantz’ authorship is only certain for some of them. The writing seems to be done by a quite traditional hand of an 18th century copyist. The book consists of a collection of different pieces like fantasia, prelude, caprice, allemande, menuet and gigue. Many of these require a certain level of virtuosity.

In the score of the Solfeggi pour la flute traversiere avec l’enseignement, par Monsieur Quantz (17) few of the pieces that appear in the Fantasier are quoted by the author himself with the name of the composer next to it; this book represents a wonderful pedagogic document of Frederick the Great’s flute lessons with the original commentaries by his teacher Quantz. (18)

The solo method was at that time central in training amateurs all over Europe. They consist usually of a series of studies, often collecting several compositions from many different composers. The first solos collection specifically written for transverse flute to be printed in German was Der brauchbare Virtuoso by Johann Mattheson (1681 – 1764); Johann Martin Blochwitz (1687 – 1742) wrote Sechtzig Arien for violin or oboe “but especially for flute traversiere” .(19)

Another important collection of a varied repertoire for traverso is the Manuscrit Allemand du XVIIIe Siècle, Thesaurus Musicus, Nova Series (20) (Brussels, c1724) which contains solos by Freytag, Blochwitz, Stricker, Weiss, Loeillet, Quantz, Telemann and Handel.

Among other compositions, the Allemande number 4521 in the Fantasier is also quoted in the Solfeggi and it is marked “Vide Blocwitz” in the latter (page 51).

Blochwitz was a flute player based at the Dresden Court and it was there that Quantz made his acquaintance; Quantz went to Dresden in 1716 where he studied first composition with Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 – 1745) in 1717 and few years later in 1719 he studied traverse flute with Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690 – 1768), first flutist at the Dresden Court; during these years from 1718 until he left Dresden in 1724 he worked as a oboist and violinist in the Polnische Kapelle; after his journey through different European countries, he went back to Dresden in 1728, displacing Blochwitz from the second flute chair, next to Buffardin. (22)

It is possible that during this time in Dresden Quantz had the chance to listen and read the manuscript of Blochwitz solos for traverso, from where he transcribed many of these, among which the Allemande.

From left to right: Allemande in Fantasier og Preludie; Allemande in Solfeggi

The same Allemande – next to other solos - appears in Pièces sans Basse pour la flûte traversiere (Paris, 1740) by Jean Daniel Braun (before 1728 – c1740) as well. The biography of Braun is largely unknown. He spent sometime in the first half of the XVIII century at Louis Antoine de Pardaillan de Gondrin’s (1707-1743) Ducal Chapel in Éperon. Seeing as most of his works are written for both transverse flute and bassoon as an alternative, Brown played probably both instruments. Between 1728 and 1740 several of his works were published in Paris, including 4 books of Sonatas for flute and basso continuo (op. 1, 5, 7 and one without opus number). Furthermore, among other Sonates en trio for flutes, violins, oboes and continuo (Op. 3) and Sonatas for Two Flutes without Bass (Op. 4), Brown composed 8 Caprices for Flute without Bass. The authorship of the latter, together with a Flute Concerto in D Major is uncertain.

Unluckily due to the lack of information around Braun’s life, it is impossible to demonstrate how he could have been in touch with Quantz and to explain how the Allemande found place in his Pièces.

1 The printing press was invented during the Holy Roman Empire by Johannes Gutenberg, around 1440.

2 The Republic of Venice, for example, granted its first privilege for the ‘Rerum venetarum ab urbe condita opus’ of Marcus Antonius Coccius Sabellicus (1436 – 1506), which consists in a glorious Latin history of Venice.

3 That appears in his Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (1740) 4 John H. Roberts, Why did Haendel borrow? in Haendel: Tercentenary Collection (Hong Kong: The Royal Music Association, 1987), 63.

5 Charles Burney, Character of Handel as a composer, in An Account of the Musical Performances in Westminister-Abbey and the Pantheon (London: T. Payne and Son, 1784), 39-40. 6 Suzi Klein, “Bach in Business: why Johann Sebastian Bach is ripe for remixing” in The Guardian, (July 29, 2010).

7 Stephen Daw, The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Choral Works, 107. (Canada: Associated University Presses, Inc. 1981).

8 The curator of the fourty-second volume was Ernst Naumann (1832 – 1910). The complete collection was pubblished in Leipzig in 1926 by Breitkopf & Härtel. 9 The Bach-Gesellshaft was a society formed in 1850 that aimed to publish the complete work of

Johann Sebastian Bach, without editorial additions. The collected works are known as Bach- Geselleshaft-Ausgabe.

modulating continuo.

10 Curt Sachs, “Bach and Blavet” in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 30 n. 1, (January, 1944), 85. 11 Sachs, “Bach and Blavet”, 86.

11 Sachs, “Bach and Blavet”, 86. 12 Sachs, “Bach and Blavet”, 86.

13 From the fourth sonata for violin, Livre Premier by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondoville, Parigi, 1733. 14 Sachs, “Bach and Blavet”, 87.

As a proof of the latter, Sachs mentioned the existence of another sarabanda13 by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondoville (1711 – 1772) which shares the same characteristic first four notes with the Blavet one.

15 The manuscript is preserved in the Giedde Music Collection in the Royal Library in Copenhagen

(mu 6310.0860, Gieddes Sammlung I,45, I,17).

16 One solid proof is the exsistence of two variations enumerated as 9th and 10th (page 56 of the

manuscript) without the preceding 8 variations and the theme (most likely between pages 54 and 55).

17 The manuscript is dated in perid between 1775 and 1782. 18 Winfried Michel and Hermien Teske, The Authorship in Quantz Capricen (Amadeus, 1980), 2. 19 Ardal Powell, The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002), 77. 20 Brussels Conservatoire MS LItt. XY 15.115.

21 The same Allemande appears also in a collection of German music which is now lost; a considerable part of this collection has been re-published by Franz Julius Giesbert: in his Schule für die Altblockflöte (1936) the Allemande is transposed by minor third higher.

22 Powell, The Flute

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