Andrew Lloyd Webber = Plagiarist. Seriously?

It was a fine enough morning. I was cleaning up my iTunes library by organizing my composers’ section, heartily wishing that iTunes could have included a section on Lyricist and Original Lyricist like the unstable but fairly thorough Windows Media Player instead (but that’s another story). I was merging all the Andrew Lloyd Webber compostions – namely The Phantom of the OperaJesus Christ Superstar, etc., and I have forgotten the names of some of his corroborations with lyricists, like Charles Hart. I went to the ever reliable Wikipedia page and re-found the entry on plagiarism claims Lloyd Webber has had throughout the years, mostly dealing with Puccini. I have also heard accusations of ALW being a plagiarist from theater fanatics, most of whom hate him to a passion. Even to usually reasonable theater critics he is a venerable thorn on their side. Though extremely dubious, I decided that I was in no hurry to organize my iTunes library and instead look up some of these plagiarism claims. After all, I wanted to see whether they were true – if so, then my view of Webber as a significant composer would be greatly compromised. At the very least I would know for certain. In truth, I was expecting at least some rhyme or reason for the allegations, but alas. My faith in humanity was effectively shattered (again) as I discovered they were nothing more than petty BS. I really should learn.

But a note on my experiences with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Generally they have all been very positive. I was first introduced to his works via Jesus Christ Superstar, which – while melodically very weak – yielded two golden melodies: “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Gethsemane”. Overall, however, it had clever lyrics and at least catchy rock riffs. Next was The Phantom of the Opera, which I was obsessed with for some time. Now that my obsession has dwindled off, I still rather like it. I haven’t seen the play or heard the entire score of Cats, but “Memory” is another great, beautiful melody that, while grossly overplayed, nevertheless deserves it. Other songs include “Love Changes Everything” from Aspects of Love, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita, the main theme from The Phantom of the Opera…there are a couple of good compositions that came from Webber. Because of his extraordinary success, however, many people (which include the theater geeks) have hated and criticized Webber, mostly out of pure and palpable jealousy. At least the theater geeks dislike Webber mostly because of his musicals than his music. Fair enough – his musicals may or may not be worth anything, argue about it as it fits your fancy. But when you talk about music…that is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Let’s start with some of the plagiarism allegations. The Puccini estate sued Webber for lifting a phrase from “Quello che tachete” from La Fanciulla del West for “Music of the Night”. Let us listen to the aria in question, shall we?

Now let’s compare it to “Music of the Night”.

Note that the two songs are completely different in both tempo and melody. Note also that if one listens very closely, there is melodic similarity between “Silently the senses abandon their defenses” and its sister line in Puccini’s aria. Now answer me this: Is that enough to cry plagiarism? My guess is hell to the no. Even if one humors the possibility that Lloyd Webber lifted the phrase on purpose (most likely it was unconscious, as I have heard he was a classical music afficionado in his youth and had probably absorbed a lot of Puccini), it’s not enough to justify outright plagiarism. There are loads of songs with neat little phases that remind one of another song. I know that happens to me frequently. Oh, you can’t imagine how many times that has happened to me.

But let’s move on the more obvious case: the bass line in Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and the beginning riff of the Overture to Phantom of the Opera.

“Echoes” (skip to 2:33):

The main theme from Phantom:

Note again that both songs have completely different melodies, but that the introductory riff in Phantom is very similar to the bass line in “Echoes”. Is that enough of a basis to call it plagiarism? I sincerely hope not. Rhythmic bass lines are a penny-a-piece –  there are hundreds of thousands of millions of rhythmic bass lines that sound similar to one another. Most likely Lloyd Webber vaguely heard the rift and it was catchy enough to linger in his mind. Or perhaps he did do it on purpose and decided to pay a little homage (I sincerely hope that is not the case since “Echoes” is a bland and mediocre composition). Either way, this allegation makes even less sense than Puccini’s – at least the latter it was because of melodic similarity. But thousands of songs have rhythmic similarity. I can’t believe Roger Waters would spend so much time whining about how Lloyd Webber stole his precious little rock riff. Get a grip and be thankful that he didn’t steal your melody, which should be your primary concern (not that he would have been able to anyway…does “Echoes” even have a melody? If so, then it’s a very limpid one). In any case, he didn’t bother pressing charges. Probably knew that there would be little to no case, no matter how similar the riffs are. A word to the wise: Riffs belong to nobody. Only a composer can own a melody.

Another absurdity is the so-called resemblance of “Memory” from Cats to Ravel’s Bolero. For those of you familiar with both – I kid you not.

Ravel’s Bolero:

“Memory”:

The resemblance is pretty much limited to the first few notes. Otherwise, it’s two totally different pieces with even dissimilar rhythmic structures. I’ve heard that ALW admitted to basing the melody off Ravel’s Bolero. Good for him for that humble homage. But I don’t hear Ravel turning over in his grave.

Moreover: There is another song, a Latvian song from a cult film which is said to have the same melody as “Memory”. Let’s hear it.

Vini Dejoja Vienu Vasaru:

It takes a little more than a minute for the melodic resemblance to come in, but this at least has more of a case for plagiarism. The things is, though, the notes are not exactly the same and the third melodic line differs almost completely from Webber. But perhaps I am being too naïve. He might be a closet Latvian cult film fanatic for all I know.

There is also the supposed similarity between Ray Repp’s “Till You” and the main melody to the main theme from Phantom (as opposed to the riff) but I couldn’t find Repp’s song on YouTube except as an excerpt in one video practically damning Webber as a plagiarist. But since it has taken the above songs and placed them out of context, I don’t buy it.

The point is, musical similarity to other songs is prevalent everywhere, even accidentally. Whenever I try to learn a song that sounds similar to another song, my mind tends to wander to that other song. It happens all the time. But one needs to look at the whole picture. Bits and pieces of similar musical phrases does not constitute a full-scale rip-off. I could make the case that Caccini’s “Ave Maria” (composed by Vavilov) and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are” sound similar. In fact, here they are:

Caccini’s “Ave Maria” (Vavilov):

“All the Things You Are”, int. Ella Fitzgerald:

About half of you will scoff and say there is no resemblance between them. I hear it because I “All the Things You Are” is one of my favorite songs ever and I know it intimately. So when I discovered Vavilov’s “Ave Maria” and sang along with it, I tended to slip into “All the Things You Are”, which to me sounded like a jazzier version of Vavilov’s composition. Does it mean that Jerome Kern blatantly plagiarized from Vavilov? At the most the song could have been inspired by it; most of you would probably say it is a coincidence, or that it was an unconscious projection. Even if Kern did purposely steal the main melody, it has too many flourishes, is (probably) in a different key, has a “B” melody that sounds completely different, etc. But still, the resemblance is much closer here than it is with any of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions and its supposed sister songs. Most likely those familiar with Lloyd Webber’s compositions see them everywhere, even in little musical phrases with little to no relevance or connection to his works.

There are so many BS-ers in the Internet that it is really a waste of time and energy to rant and blow up with every single little thing out there. But in this case I made an exception because it irked me. Again, many other composers have borrowed or quoted things from other works on purpose for comic purposes or simply as a bit of a introduction to segue into an entirely different melody (like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” containing the first few notes of Bach’s gorgeous “Air On the G String” to serve as the introduction). Does it mean plagiarism? Not necessarily, no. Even when other people have used the quoting for ill (Gwen Stefani’s awful “Rich Girl” has a first part that is completely lifted from “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler On the Roof), they have managed to get away with it.

Of course, I’m being facetious. Precious few composers would actually get plagiarism allegations just for a bit of quoting. Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, is the audacious composer of successful, bloated musicals about singing alley cats, a neurotic phantom, and a screaming Jesus. So he’s fair game.

People tend to get bent out of shape when something becomes too popular and they don’t understand the appeal. I know I do, many times. But at least I don’t stop liking a work just because it enters the mainstream and, lo and behold, it’s not cool anymore. Amazing how immediate and radically the public taste changes. One minute Twilight is the innocent and entertaining love story between a girl and her vampire and the next is a sexist piece of waste of trees and the worst book evah omg. Every time I hear that I almost want to apologize in general for the evolutionary forces that govern this world. They aren’t doing a very good job as of late. The underlying assumption is that no one likes anyone who makes a boatload of money for no good reason – and yes, pardon the logical fallacy. That people can believe these allegations reveals this ugly if completely natural tendency. What young people have almost always wanted (since this last century, anyway) is to be avant garde about everything – to claim something as wholly their own. When too many people love it their thing, the reaction is to discard it as the stuff for children. To be the epitome of cool. I have a little bit of that, too – you will see me mention Presgurvic’s underrated Roméo et Juliette more than, say, The Phantom of the Opera. I freely say that both are valid and are equally worthy of being loved. The former just needs a little bit more love than the latter, is all. I will be equally content if Presgurvic’s musical breaks into the North American mainstream and will even be content to weather the backlash that will surely follow. Only time can wipe away that nonsense.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works, however, have passed the test of time. It’s a plain – and to some, unfortunate – fact. As for me, I cannot deny the quality of his compositions. Call me crazy – but I just happen to appreciate good music. I do hope most of you understand that, at least.

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