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Sunday, February 22, 2015

No, John Williams did NOT rip off Dvorak.

This is one of the trustiest of annoying old chestnuts. What happens is someone hears Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (titled "From the New World") for the first time, encounters the opening bars of the fourth movement, and immediately races to the computer to post the revelation for the ages that "OMG! John Williams totally ripped off Dvorak's "New World Symphony" for the theme from JAWS!" This is the most common example of a thing that John Williams has ripped off, but there are a lot of them. A partial list of composers from whom Williams is obviously a plagiarist includes Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner, Korngold, Steiner, Prokofiev, and Penderecki -- in addition to the afore-mentioned Dvorak.

By comparison, here's the Dvorak, and here's the Williams. The similarities between the two are, to put it kindly, extremely superficial. Both start with low strings intoning a note, and then the note a half-step above it, and then the motif is repeated a few times. But Dvorak repeats it loudly and uses all the lower strings and goes at a quick tempo, building quickly and bringing in the rest of the orchestra before getting to his main theme. He also stays quite clearly in the same time signature.

Williams, however, starts off with similar notes...but slower, and much softer, and lower -- I'm not even sure if he uses the cellos at all. It might be just the double basses at first. And then his insistent rhythm starts with those punching chords at off moments, so you're not even sure what the time signature of the piece is. Williams's sound is insistent and mysterious and somehow both mechanical and not -- pretty much the opposite of what Dvorak does. And yet, "Williams ripped off Dvorak!" is one of those zombie nonsense notions that always comes back, despite being complete nonsense to anyone who bothers to pay attention.

In cases like this, for years I've been recommending a wonderful essay by Leonard Bernstein called "The Infinite Variety of Music", which appears in the book of the same title. The essay is actually the script of one of the wonderful episodes he used to do for the educational teevee program Omnibus. In this particular episode, Bernstein described how composers are able to create an astonishing variety of musical works from just thirteen notes of the Western tuning system, by reducing things even further and showing how a number of great composers wrote amazing pieces, many of which are very familiar, by using as their main motif the exact same four-note melody. It's a worthy reminder that there's a lot more to music than just what the notes are, and I've always found that essay to be a good remedy against the over-used canard that this composer or that composer ripped someone else off.

Of course, the problem with recommending an essay like that is that it's in a book that isn't always readily available...but I've recently discovered that the audio of that very program is on YouTube, with the musical examples helpfully included so you can see what's going on as Bernstein speaks. I can't recommend this highly enough. It's certainly worth the 48 minutes to listen through. No, Bernstein doesn't specifically address Dvorak or Williams (in fact, this program was likely recorded while Williams was still a studio musician and Steven Spielberg was a kid), but it does suggest a good way of listening to music to evaluate such silly claims.

Here's the video:

Really, give it a listen. It'll make you better at listening to music!


Call me Paul said...

Interesting that you list all those composers, but left off what I consider the most obvious: Holst. While he clearly didn't "rip off" Holst, almost the entire score of Star Wars is very obviously drawn from The Planets as strong inspiration.

Kelly Sedinger said...

That comparison, too, is deeply overblown. The "entire score"? Really? Which parts of the score sound like which parts of The Planets? Which part sounds like Neptune? Which part sounds like Jupiter or Saturn? About the only major area of any kind of similarity of sound is from one movement only, Mars, and even that is as superficial as the JAWS example. When I listen to The Planets, I hear very, very little that reminds me in any way of STAR WARS.

Call me Paul said...

It's been a long time since I listened to The Planets. I'll have to drag it out again. But Darth Vader's theme, Luke's Theme and Leia's theme are pretty much all in there.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I'm listening to it right now. No, they're not. You're really reaching here. This is like saying your mom ripped off McDonald's for her meatloaf recipe because the meatloaf and the burgers use ground beef.

About the only thing I've heard yet that can be heard possibly reference in STAR WARS is a couple of spots in MARS when Holst uses these big, smashing, repeated chords. (As if Williams is the only film composer to ever use big, smashing, repeated chords in a score.) One such passage comes very early in the film as the Star Destroyer is overtaking the blockade runner, and another comes later when the Millennium Falcon is being tractor-beamed onto the Death Star. Pretty weak tea, comparison-wise.

Roger Owen Green said...

I have a Dvorak story in the next two weeks.

Anonymous said...

OK, this will land me in hot water, but just came off Roger Green's post and must tell you, I absolutely believe John Williams was inspired, with the Jaws theme, by Dvorak. If you listen to the first moments and how those insistent notes quicken in pace, I can only say, that's all John Williams needed to convey the shark's swelling and hunt for prey. Sorry, guys, but little jazz singer knows that the best composers all have to borrow from someone because it's all been done already! Ha ha, thanks for letting me put my two cents in, and thanks to Roger for hipping me to this roiling debate. Amy

Kelly Sedinger said...

On what basis do you believe that? One sounds a tiny bit like the other, so therefore the later one must be inspired by the earlier? You can believe that if you want, but your argument is tea that's so weak it might as well be a cup of water.

Watch the video in my post. Will you therefore argue that every single composer who used that same four-note figure Bernstein traces through HUNDREDS of years of musical history was somehow "inspired" by composers coming before?

Kafkask said...

I would probably agree that it might be coincidental... but you listen to the whole thing and you can hear parts of Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones... all of his work. He seems to use a lot of other works as jumping off points. Holst's Planets is an obvious inspiration for the tone of the Star Wars score.

Hell, the old Universal Studios lead-in theme sounds just like the beginning of the Superman march.

Marc said...

Your argument is unconvincing I'm afraid. Merely changing the instrument (and Williams hardly did even that) or the register or the dynamics does not constitute 'proof' that one is not the inspiration for the other. Is it, for example, untrue to say that Saint-Saens L'éléphant is Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs and another tune from Mendelssohn transposed and played on double-bass and piano?

It's true that thematic material can be similar (just ask Hans Zimmer!) simply as a result of chance, but I think we can tell when someone has received direct inspiration. You can always tell when someone has been listening to Erik Satie, usually minimalist film composers (that means you Yann Tierson) and end up writing the 6th Gymnopédie.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with being inspired in this way. It's not like it hasn't happened before all over the arts.

Kelly Sedinger said...

It's a two-note motif, with the dynamics, orchestration, time signature, dynamics, and likely the pitch all changed, in addition to literally EVERYTHING that comes after. The connection between the two is SO tenuous that the claims of inspiration do not seem to me to hold much water at all, and for those who like to make stronger claims than "inspiration" (there's a reason I use the phrase "rip off" in the title of this post), well, for me the burden of proof lies upon them, not me. Note the other responses on this very post, in which people are rushing to claim that Williams was "inspired" by, well, virtually everything FOR everything he ever wrote.

I remain unconvinced. There's INCREDIBLY little to go on here. As for your other examples, well, I'm afraid they're simply not relevant.

Marc said...

They are indeed relevant, especially the Satie 'vamp' which is often an inspiration - though even he is not the originator of it.

Clearly you have a bee in your bonnet about this, have made up your mind and nothing will convince you otherwise.

Page Ken said...

This is the nerdiest "hater" comment thread I have ever followed. :-)