Golijov can be defended on the grounds that there is a long history of borrowing and outright theft in classical music. In the Baroque era, Bach, Handel, and other masters routinely recycled their own music and reworked the music of others; the idea of the composer as a singular genius blazing an original path was essentially alien before the advent of Beethoven.The 'borrowing' that he mentions was not something that began in the Baroque era, of course. In my post yesterday I cited a number of composers who wrote versions of "J'ay pris amours" that used all or some of the original. Using music composed by others was not just an occasional practice, but a typical one from the birth of polyphony on to the present day. There is a notorious example I talk about in this post. Mozart took an entire symphony by Michael Haydn, added a short introduction, touched up the wind parts and passed it off as his own Symphony No. 37. As soon as music printing was invented, and there was money to be made, publishers started passing off music by all sorts of composers as being written by great ones like Josquin des Prez. Scholars have spent a great deal of time sorting out these "misattributions". Incidentally, one of the first composers who was regarded as a 'singular genius' like Beethoven was this same Josquin. Beethoven too is known to have re-cycled some of his earlier tunes from his Bonn period in later works while living in Vienna. And to close the circle, Stravinsky was a frequent user of Russian folk themes in his music, even in the Rite, despite his denials. Beethoven, too used Russian themes in the quartets op. 59. And Golijov, in the notes to an album of string quartets recorded by the St. Lawrence String Quartet says, in reference to his Lullaby and Doina that "The piece ends in a fast gallop, boasting a theme that I stole from my friends of the wild gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks."
I suspect that the whole concept of borrowing vs stealing is really not an aesthetic one at all, but purely an economic or legal one. Where there was no actual marketplace for the sale of music as some sort of commodity, before the invention of music printing, for example, there was no stigma whatsoever attached to using material from someone else. Even after the invention of printing composers hand-copied music by other composers and used it for their own purposes. As Ross says, Bach's re-working of Vivaldi is a famous example. As legislation was developed giving creators legal possession of the rights to their music, however, the stigma has grown. And so now poor Golijov finds himself chided for some behind-the-scenes collaboration. As Ross notes, "...the many orchestras involved in the “Sidereus” project may be miffed to discover that the work they commissioned is not exactly brand new."
"Not exactly brand new..." Does anyone else see the ideology lurking behind this? For the last hundred years the 'brand new' has been touted as an absolute good in itself. I've talked about this before, but let me say it again. 'New' is not equal to 'good' and 'good' is what is important. It was pursuit of mere novelty that led to much of the worst music of the last century.
Let's listen to that piece by Golijov, but first the Taraf de Haidouks version of the theme:
I think it is safe to say that if a composer steals a melody like this, it becomes a different thing, with new harmonies in a new context.
UPDATE: As this article seems to be attracting a lot of attention, I want to make a couple of things clear that I did not in the post itself. I do NOT condone passing someone else's work off as your own. I thought this would go without saying. What I was focusing on in the post was the interesting phenomenon that music theft only became an issue once ways were found, through printed music and later through recorded music, to commodify music. Before then, all through the long, long Middle Ages and early Renaissance before printing, composers would take chant melodies and use them everywhere. They would take entire polyphonic compositions and do what was known as a 'parody' of all the voices. In other words, before music could be commodified, it was not deemed to have a monetary value, hence the notion of copyright was simply inappropriate. Oh yes, and composers did this, typically, with no credit given to the original composer--supposing they could even be identified...