Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Orosz, Jeremy W. “John Williams: Paraphraser or Plagiarist?” Journal of Musicological Research 34 (October 2015): 299-319.

Film composer John Williams is often accused of plagiarism in public discourse, but when analyzing his musical borrowing as stylistic allusion, modeling, and paraphrased quotation, it becomes clear that he is not a plagiarist even in the more conservative Romantic sense. Uncovering musical borrowing in Williams’s film scores poses a challenge as Williams is reticent to admit any influence from other composers, yet the sources for borrowed passages are well known pieces. One example of modeling is the main theme from Jaws (1974), modeled after The Augers of Spring from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Passages in many other Williams scores—appearing when the hero is in danger—also appear to be modeled on the same section of Rite. Williams also modeled music for at least three films on Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, which was used as a temp track in the production of E.T. (1982). Throughout Williams’s scores there are examples of passages resembling other music, but not enough to make a case for borrowing. One clear example of paraphrase is the love theme from Superman, which shares rhythm, contour, and tempo (but not exact pitches) with a motive from Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Two examples of paraphrased themes in E.T. demonstrate Williams’s default procedure: altering the rhythm and meter of a source while only slightly altering the pitches. Williams’s score for Star Wars (1977) contains numerous examples of paraphrase, with passages drawn from Erich Korngold’s score to Kings Row (1942), Rite of Spring, and Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Compared to other film composers working under similar time and creative constraints inherent to the medium, Williams makes a clear effort to distance his paraphrased passages from their source material. William is therefore not guilty of plagiarism or theft. Instead, his creative process places him in the company of countless composers who use pre-existing material as a starting point for a new piece of music.

Works: John Williams: score to Jaws (303-4), score to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (304-5, 309-11), score to Superman (308-9), score to Star Wars (311-16), score to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (316-17), score to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (317); Bill Conti: score to The Right Stuff (318-19)

Sources: Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (303-4, 314, 315); Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, Romantic (304-5, 310-11); Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung (308-9); Antonín Dvořák: Piano Trio No. 4, Op. 90, Dumky (309-10), Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, From the New World (316-17); Erich Wolfgang Korngold: score to Kings Row (313-14); Gustav Holst: The Planets (314-16); Aram Khatchaturian: Gayane (317); Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 (318-19)

Index Classifications: 1900s, 2000s, Film

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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