Sounds Familiar

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 1:9

At June's reading party, we played through Robert Schumann's beautiful Piano Quintet. I always geek out especially hard over the last movement. I couldn't resist sharing aloud a musicological anecdote that was, in retrospect, likely cool only to me: that the theme from the first movement reappears in the last movement -- not only in diminution, but also as a DOUBLE FUGUE... with the theme from the last movement now serving as a psuedo-countersubject!!!!

(Ah, my throat tightens in a spasm of nerdy glee just from typing that.)

Leave it to Brian to share something of far greater interest to the remaining 99.9% of the population. It's always made me smile, too. A theme near the very end of the piece is, note-for-note, identical to NPR's "All Things Considered" theme.

You know the one:

Now, listen to what Schumann does at 30:00. (If you care, my favorite part is at 28:43 -- though it's worth listening to the ramp-up beforehand.)

Coincidence? Probably. 

The "All Things Considered" composer, Don Voegeli, was an accomplished (albeit unknown) composer and professor. While it's unlikely he'd never heard the Schumann, outright plagiarism strikes me as all the more unlikely. He talks about the origin of the theme here -- with no mention of Schumann.

Then, while listening to potential repertoire selections, I came across Louise Farrenc's piano quintet. Imagine my surprise upon hearing that its opening theme is, note-for-note, identical to both Schumann's and Voegeli's theme. 

Listen to what happens at 0:45:

Coincidence? I think not. 

Louise Farrenc is a name you'd only know having made an effort to know it. She's one of many on the list of "little-known great female composers of the 19th century."

That being said, Schumann himself was a big fan of Louise Farrenc's chamber music in particular. And guess whose piano quintet was composed first? (Hint: it wasn't Schumann's.) 

Neither Brian nor I credited Farrenc with being the true originator of this theme. Brian is an evangelist for female composers of the past and present. I am a female musician and music history nerd. (Don Voegeli certainly had never heard it; Farrenc's quintet had been out of print since 1895, and wasn't recorded until 1990.)

 Who wrote it better, all things considered?

Who wrote it better, all things considered?

Yet both Brian and I pointed to Schumann. Clearly, more concerts like our Second Class Composers series need to be had. 

I am hardly accusing Schumann of plagiarism, either. I am simply pointing out two facts that explain this melodic twinship. Firstly, Schumann made it his business to keep up with his contemporaries. And secondly, musical snippets have a way of lodging themselves into composers' subconscious minds. 

Jeremy has a story about inadvertently composing the Walton Violin Concerto in the '90s. More recently, my husband Philip had his own comically frustrating experience with this phenomenon. 

A few weeks back, he was days away from finishing up the score to a campy horror movie. It was late at night; I was on the laptop nearby, and he was taking a break with some mint chip ice cream. (It really is our favorite.) Out of nowhere, I heard him stammer: "Oh... my... god." 

"What?!" I asked, alarmed.

His lower lip was quivering. My mind assumed the worst. Contrary to my expectations, his computer screen didn't show Trumpian hell breaking loose. Instead, I saw a youTube video with a vintage-looking landing page. 

Philip was wide-eyed with disbelief. "The theme I wrote for this movie is identical to Bernard Hermann's theme from Cape Fear."

My first thought was that, in a haze of being too close to this project and it being late, he was being hypervigilant. But when he played both for me, I heard for myself that they were, indeed, identical. What were the odds that he'd have composed the same main four note motive as one found in an older movie he'd never seen? 

We proceeded to calculate them -- specifically, the odds of this happening to a four-note motive in a two-octave range. Assuming you don't use the same pitch in the same octave more than once, you would multiply 24 x 23 x 22 x 21.

That equals 255,024. According to the Internet, you have a greater likelihood of:

  •  getting into Harvard
  •  having conjoined twins
  • being born with polydactyly
  • living to be 100 years old

Obviously, these odds don't take a few other key factors into account -- namely, that the horror genre is especially fond of the tritone, making thematic coincidences more likely.

I am not shy about my rejection of the idea that tonality has run its course. The coincidences and subconscious quotations described above do not suggest a lack of originality. Nor do they point to the ultimate finiteness of tonality's possible permutations.  

Just because a few notes are, as if by magic, identical doesn't mean the harmonic, rhythmic, orchestrational, textural, and dynamic context will be as well. The different emotive effects of the Farrenc, Schumann, and Voegeli examples prove the point. (That being said, Philip did change his theme around to avoid getting sued.)

At the very least, for the Louise Farrencs of the world:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. - Andre Gide

** UPDATE: Turns out no one was listening to Weber, either. He beat Louise Farrenc to the "All Things Considered" theme in 1801. As 19th-century composer-pianists, both Schumann and Farrenc were likely familiar with this work. And theme it is: it's the basis for an entire Theme and Variations movement (at 5:55, below). Brian and I are now wondering how far back this little ditty truly goes. Next stop: Gregorian Chant?

Thanks, Jamie Paisley, for calling the Weber to our attention.