Thursday, April 19, 2007

Can You Read My Mind and Name That Tune?

Listening to Bernstein's The Infinite Variety of Music lecture brought to mind my first discovery of tune theft. One of the many permutations of the "How Dry I Am" idea that Bernstein features is the transfiguration theme from Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. (This tune pops up about 16 minutes into the talk.) Reading the transcript of this lecture many years ago was my first encounter with Strauss's tone poem, and my first reaction to the big theme was, "that's the love theme from Superman." Yes, John Williams is famous for his borrowings, but I've always felt this was the most obvious, even though it's far from being an outright copy. Whereas Bernstein's lecture is all about how the exact same four notes can sound so different, the point here is how just a few distinctively placed notes can create such a strong identity that two tunes can seem to be the same, even when there are several differences.



[Click on the examples to hear them played.]

How melody functions is mysterious in many ways, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, then so are these examples. (Of course, that won't stop me from multiplying a few words here.) Note that the Superman theme doesn't start with Strauss's upbeat, but a sol-do upbeat-downbeat combo is so common that I don't really hear it as an essential part of the melodic fingerprint. Even more more interesting is that on beats 1, 2, and 3, Strauss uses do-re-mi (1-2-3) while Williams uses do-mi-so (1-3-5). That would seem to be a big difference, but our ears hear them as similar because they each ascend at an even pace and they're each so stable tonally. A tonic chord (harmonic homeplate) is composed of scale degrees 1, 3, and 5 which is how Williams begins, but 1 and 3 are really enough to define the tonic chord since the 5th is such a strong overtone of the tonic. Because 2 falls in an unstressed place in Strauss, it does nothing to disturb the tonic stability of 1 to 3. (I realize this is both more and less than various readers will want to know.)

The truth is that until I looked online for the Superman theme, I had remembered it as beginning 1-2-3, no doubt because these two tunes had become conflated in my mind. Why? (Can you read my mind?) Of course, it's that distinctive leap up to mi (3) an octave higher that leads to a sustained re (2) on the downbeat of the next bar. Notice that although the size of these intervals is different (Strauss leaps an octave, Superman a sixth), the effect is similar because they leap to the same scale degree and then land on re (2) which is one of the most unstable scale degrees because it points so strongly down to do (1). After that leap, the tunes seem to be completely different, but note that each ends by outlining a 1-3 ascent. Furthermore, there's an interesting mirroring as Strauss makes another leap up from m.3 into m.4 while Superman has an important leap down in m.3.

It's also notable that each tune begins in a similarly foursquare rhythmic pattern, but the crucial connection is certainly that registral leap up to mi-re (3-2). I can't help but wonder if, at some point in the compositional process, Williams was consciously aware that he was transfiguring Strauss's transfiguration theme; thus, the change from 1-2-3 to 1-3-5 might've been an intentional alteration that set his tune apart while not really sacrificing what makes it so appealing. That's pure speculation on my part, and I don't mean to imply anything sinister. He certainly took the idea in a different direction with the second phrase, although I find that part of the melody much less satisfying. I also never thought it made such a good song; that second phrase works much better as an orchestral motif than as bearer of these trite lyrics: "Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is you do to me?" Perhaps it's not surprising that Williams hasn't had very many successful pop songs.

TOMORROW: More Fun With Tune Theft

NOTE: Though I am a faithful reader of Soho the Dog, this post was already in the works before he quoted Strauss's theme in this one-of-a-kind cartoon; just a blogosphere coincidence which gives me a good excuse to send you there. Even harder to believe is that I'd been working on a concept for my own little cartoon series featuring two fin de si├Ęcle composers (not Strauss and Mahler) before I saw Soho's work. I think I'll put that idea to bed for awhile, while sympathizing with poor John Williams and his recycling of others' ideas. I'd also better get my other four favorite tune thefts up quickly before someone steals them! At least I appear to have been the first to memorialize Hatto and Bell in sonnets.

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