T. S. Eliot, John Williams’ “E. T.” and “Artistic Plagiarism”

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” ~Pseudo-T. S. Eliot

“Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” ~Pseudo-Picasso

“Good composers borrow; great composers steal.” ~Var. attr. to Pseudo-Mahler and Pseudo-Stravinsky

If enough great men have said something, that makes it true, right?  One would think so with the amount of mileage racked up by the tired saw quoted above.  It is whipped out by enraged fanboys whenever their favorite writer/director/composer/etc. is accused of plagiarism and apparently justifies any otherwise reprehensible instance of uncited borrowing.  Unfortunately for the masses who construct their critique of art on this quote, it is almost entirely a fabrication.

As the blogger Nancy Prager first brought to my attention, T. S. Eliot is the only person (out of all the great artists to whom it is attributed) who said anything like this quote.  But his point was very different; in his essay on playwright Philip Massinger anthologized in the 1921 collection, The Sacred Wood, Eliot says (emphasis mine):

We turn first to the parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare collocated by Mr. Cruickshank to make manifest Massinger’s indebtedness. One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal. Let us profit by some of the quotations with which he has provided us—

I will leave it to you to explore the insightful parallels Eliot makes between the two writers.  The whole essay is well worth your reading time.  Basically, Eliot expounds on the thesis highlighted above: undeveloped poets merely take while developed poets intelligently re-purpose and transform their sources.  This can be extended to apply to other art forms, but unfortunately it is too often misapplied to defend the very thing Eliot was speaking out against.

Case in point would be the oft-critiqued oeuvre of film composer extraordinaire John Williams, who recently received his 49th Oscar nomination.  Though he has won four Oscars for original score (and one for his adaption of Fiddler on the Roof), it has been said that the only Oscar he will actually earn will be his inevitable posthumous one.  This is due to the recurring allegations of plagiarism in his music, often defended with that spurious quotation of Mahler or Stravinsky (or Picasso or Eliot).  The irony is that those two composers are among those whom Williams is frequently charged with ripping off.

To some extent every composer and every artist must leech from those who have gone before him or her, but the question raised by Eliot is: are you a mere parasite in the way you go about it or are you making something fresh, meaningful and cohesive?  Sometimes John Williams passes the test, sometimes he fails.  His Academy Award-winning score for E.T. is a great example of both.

In the opening of “The Magic of Halloween”, he takes his cue from Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, specifically beginning (starting at 0:12) of the second movement, “Giuoco delle coppie. Allegretto scherzando.”  Of course, he builds from it into a restatement of the movie’s main theme, but the basic quotation has already occurred.  Which category does this fall into?  Well, Williams significantly leaves out the snare drum, but condenses the basic textures of Bartok’s original.  It’s a lazy and haphazard borrowing, but sly and fun in its own way.  At 1:20 on this track, Williams executes another borrow, this one to craft the bridge from the Bartok-like material into the main theme.  This material has a lot in common with Dimitri Shostakovich’s music in general, but particularly the finale of his Second Piano Concerto in F, another masterpiece of twentieth century music, like the Bartok.  As with the Bartok, this borrowing is primarily textural and rather clever, placing the piano in a supporting role where in the concerto it had a soloistic one.  Then again, this also serves to make the source harder to find.  In John Williams’ favor is the fact that Shostakovich wrote the concerto for his son Maxim to premiere and included the scalar passages you hear in both the original piece and its imitator by way of a musical joke, intending them to sound a lot like the student piano exercises his son knew all too well.  So we can write that one off as “John Williams using basic piano textures in the context of suspiciously Shostakovich-like orchestral writing.”

Speaking of textures, which are the de rigeur of film scoring, earlier in the E. T. score, with the track “Meeting E. T.”, we get a favorite of Williams’, one that owes a lot to, well, Bartok.  In fact, Bartok’s very Concerto for Orchestra.  Listen at 0:32 to the third movement from this piece; it has the creepy arpeggios with haunting piccolo, though not quite on top of each other.  It is an example of Bartok’s very famous “night music”, a sound-world he explored throughout his career, most notably elsewhere in his Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celeste (somewhat in the first movement, but through out the third).  Celeste, of course, is a favorite of John Williams, as it was of Tchaikovsky, though his usage often very different than the Russian master’s.  Bartok was actually not the first to use it in this creepy fashion.  As near as I can tell, it was Gustav Holst, who did it most prominently in “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets.  The Planets, as most people know, was the music George Lucas wanted to use for Star Wars, but couldn’t quite make it fit, so he asked Williams to write similar music that fit the movie.  Hence the marked similarities between the two pieces (The Planets and the soundtrack to Star Wars: A New Hope) and the Oscar for Mr. Williams.

But I am not going to deal with the other dubious borrowings in John Williams’ first two Academy Award-winning scores (for Jaws and for Star Wars), as that would require more time and space than I can devote.  Those would get too much into his indebtedness to Stravinsky (as would any discussion of his “Bait for E. T.” cue from the film score at hand).  The borrowings I’ve discussed above, while not necessarily passing Eliot’s test for truly “artistic” borrowing, are at least not plagiarism.  However, in E. T., John Williams did plagiarize blatantly, and from a living composer at that.

Listen to the “End Credits” from E.T., roughly 0:45 to 1:30 and then to the first minute of the finale of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, “Romantic” and from 4:30 to 5:30.  The similarities are embarrassing, not just to this score of John Williams, but to his characteristic “sound”.  In both examples here, the repeated, high flourish with angular theme underneath is followed by the martial, quick “1-2-3 1-2-3 123” chord rhythm.  Williams merely condenses things, as is his wont.  Essentially, he presents in his film scores a “Cliff Notes version” of the great masterpieces of the Western musical tradition.  He takes the brilliant musical rhetoric of master composers and incorporates their discoveries into his scores, but usually without the same sense of logic or argument. 

When he does this as subtly as in “Toys”, he achieves not only effective film scoring, but also good music.  The cue is infused with twentieth century French post-Romanticism/neo-classicism of composers like Ravel and Poulenc, but doesn’t reveal the seams by which it is stitched together upon closer inspection.  It is lovely and good music, pure and simple.  However, such scoring is not William’s common denominator.  What typifies his music is the co-opting of other scores to flesh out a musical skeleton that hardly fits them and an original theme pasted in to denote that the music is now his own.  That is the norm in his E. T. score.

In the “End Credits” from E. T., Williams achieves an enjoyable pastiche that works as film scoring and isn’t bad as music, until you know how blatantly it steals from a then-living composer.  While suing Williams and stripping him of his Oscar is probably out-of-the-question, this case study does suggest that he belongs firmly in the ranks of “undeveloped” composers, the sort who Eliot is decrying in his essay, who take ideas from others but never develop their own beyond the most rudimentary point and who generally use whatever ideas they get their hands on in a very pedestrian and purely functional manner.  Why is John Williams uniquely reprehensible in this?  Didn’t all the composers who went before him do the same?  In short, the answer is no.

Many composers throughout time have self-plagiarized, something John Williams is also a master of, but that is not the issue here (and, as this piece suggests, it is rarely a bad thing).  Composers using the music of others common enough, but this is differently from simply learning a technique or texture from another composer.  In his score for E. T., Williams demonstrates both extremes of the spectrum, from excellent assimilation and cogent re-purposing, as in “Toys”, all the way to abject burglary, as in the “End Credits”, with the other cues falling somewhere along the spectrum.  What distinguishes him from other composers (even those working in film) who are considered “great” is the frequency with which his “great” music falls on the burglary end of the spectrum.

In the end, John Williams is nearly perfect as a movie-musical analogue for Philip Massinger, the unfortunate Jacobean playwright now remembered chiefly because of T. S. Eliot’s scathing critique.  Massinger, however, never stooped to the kinds of plagiarism employed by Williams, apparently because he still had some sense of artistic honor.  Indeed, John Williams represents something of a turning point in film music, after which big-name film composers routinely plagiarize from the temp tracks assigned to them by the directors with whom they work.  Hans Zimmer is another example, but he is a more defensible and intelligent artist (as I hope to to address in another post), not someone who achieved fame through pastiches infused with good theme-writing.  (That said, Zimmer’s score to Gladiator was justifiably the subject of a lawsuit by the Gustav Holst Foundation over plagiarism from… The Planets.)  In short, it seems like Williams’ acclaim comes from A) doing exactly what is asked of him by his collaborating directors, to the point of ripping off works they particularly like, and B) the ensuing approbation this receives from audiences (I mean, it’s like drinking a smoothie made from pieces of the greatest music of the last 200 years) and film professionals (it’s really easy to work with a guy who can deftly avoid copyright lawsuits with a few strokes of his pen).

This is why artists like Massinger and Williams exist: to give us the derivative drivel they know we love and profit considerably in the exchange.  Neither are bad artists, just sad people.  John Williams did very nice work adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the screen… perhaps he never should have tried to write original music.  It is apparent that he lacks the artistic integrity to do so, whatever other creative issues he has.

NOTE: The second movement of Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony was also used as the end credits of Alien, Ridley Scott’s sci fi-horror masterpiece, because the music Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the end credits just didn’t work as well as this piece, which Scott had on the temp track.  In this, both Scott and Goldsmith demonstrated artistic integrity.  Not so much their studio, which published the soundtrack as entirely Goldsmith’s work, leading many to believe that he plagiarized it.  This was not the case and it is unfair slander to one of the truly great film composers of the twentieth century.

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