Friday, March 8, 2024

way up high

So here's a musical conundrum that I learned of courtesy of File 770, not normally a source for musical stories, but it's a science fiction fanzine and this story relates to a fantasy movie, so the story's presence there is no more dragged in from the dirt than is the content of the story itself.

The question is, is the melody of "Over the Rainbow" - the song famously sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, composed by Harold Arlen with words by E.Y. Harburg - plagiarized?

This article goes into the matter in detail.

The putative source is a Concert Etude, Op. 38, for piano, by the Norwegian composer and pianist Signe Lund (1868-1950), who was living in the U.S. when she published the work in 1910, and apparently played it widely. Could Arlen have heard it? Maybe. He was five years old when the piece was published, and he studied piano as a boy. His testimony (quoted in the song's Wikipedia article) is that the melody just suddenly occurred to him one day while he was thinking of other things.

But even if Arlen's subconscious dredged Lund's piece up, is his just copied or is his song a substantially original composition? I'd say the latter.

Here is Lund's Concert Etude, played by the pianist who noticed the resemblance. The section with the resembling melody begins at 1:24. You can follow along with the score of that section which is reproduced in the Hollywood Reporter article.

And the first thing I notice is that Lund's melody completely lacks the most distinctive characteristic of Arlen's: the octave leap at the beginning. It does have the subsequent smaller leaps, in which its resemblance to "Over the Rainbow" principally lies, but their effectiveness comes from the way they follow the initial leap. See Rob Kapilow on why "Over the Rainbow" is such a haunting and memorable song. It doesn't make such an effect in Lund. Also there's the bridge section of "Over the Rainbow" and its echo at the end, also mentioned by Kapilow and absent from Lund's version.

If I'd been presented with the two with no indication of priority, I'd have been far more likely to guess that Lund's more elaborate melody was a variation and elaboration on Arlen's rather than that Arlen had boiled Lund's down to get his own. And I'd think that based on my experience of listening to how classical composers work when writing variants of melodies. Though Arlen wasn't a classical composer, so who knows.

Furthermore - see the Wikipedia article again - it's already been noticed that "Over the Rainbow" also resembles a melody from an intermezzo from an opera by Pietro Mascagni - and the opera, Guglielmo Ratcliff, predates Lund's publication by 15 years. So who's copying from whom?

So it's possible, but by no means certain, that parts of the melody to "Over the Rainbow" came from Lund. And in today's fiercely puritan environment, that may be enough to find guilt in copying. But it's clear enough to me that the genius in the melody - what keeps the song alive today - was put there by Harold Arlen and by him alone.

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