Patterico's Pontifications


John Williams, Thief Borrower: The Proof

Filed under: General,Music — Patterico @ 6:21 pm

A while back, I wrote a post titled John Williams: Thief which accused Williams of stealing the E.T. theme from Dvorak’s “Dumky” Piano Trio.

But I didn’t have any audio clips to post for you, so it didn’t mean a lot to most of you.

Now that I have learned to use Windows Moviemaker to manipulate video and audio clips, I thought I’d let you compare the two with your own ears.

To remind you, here is Williams’s E.T. theme (click here):

And here are the final few bars of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, which I have clipped and uploaded to YouTube:

P.S. I should add that a friend of mine who is a music expert says that borrowing themes is common in classical music, and that I should go easy on John Williams. Fair enough.

P.P.S. I have altered the title to reflect this view.

UPDATE: Everyone knows the love theme from Superman:

Here is a 9-second passage from Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. See if it reminds you of anything:

61 Responses to “John Williams, Thief Borrower: The Proof”

  1. to quote leonard bernstein (who stole the quote from somewhere else)

    “talent borrows, genius steals”

    your music friend is correct — there is a long history of using musical theft as a way to find one’s own musical voice. bach ‘ripped off’ vivaldi. mozart copied j. c. bach. brahms was accuse of rewriting beethoven in his first symphony– his response: ‘any ass could see that.’


    ps…er…not that i think anyone on this site is an ass….

    marc (6111c4)

  2. Well, ok,

    Bizet stole from Yradier. And “Mama Yo Quiero” sure sounds a lot like Rossini’s overture from “The Barber of Seville” to me.

    (I just got this horrible feeling of deja vu. Have you posted and have I coomented about this before or is my latent epilepsy catching up to after so much staring at a computer screen?)

    nk (18f999)

  3. I don’t think you commented in my earlier post.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  4. Yeah, he’s borrowed also from Solti’s “The Planets,” especially the Jupiter theme.

    steve miller (37a105)

  5. Right. I was considering adding that as an example.

    Right now, though, I’m uploading a short passage from Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung — lifted (and slightly altered) to form the love theme from Superman. Update coming shortly.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  6. That update is completed. It’s quite striking.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  7. Actually, I feel as though “Mars” was emulated more than “Jupiter,” Steve.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  8. There are only so many notes available to composers–G above middle C is musically the same as G below middle C–and therefore, although the number of possible combinations is incredibly large, the number of possible combinations is not infinite. So it should not surprise that one composer has written something that sounds like something someone else wrote. Beethoven, in writing the Diabelli Variations, used Leperello’s catalog aria as one variation. Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony quotes the William Tell overture–the same theme most of us associate with the Lone Ranger–and then, after quoting his own works, quotes, and then repeats the quote five more times, one of the motivs from Wagner’s Ring (and there are some other musical allusions to Wagner that follow on from that).
    And, speaking of Czech music, the Israeli national anthem seems to quote Smetana’s Moldau (actually, they made use of the same folk music).

    The wonder is not that composers repeat each other. The wonder is that they don’t repeat each other more often.

    kishnevi (202292)

  9. Well everyone who was a child in the 1950s knows that Rossini stole the Lone Ranger theme. 😉

    Pal2Pal (73f60a)

  10. That reminds me of a funny story from fourth grade. I may do a separate post on it. I can’t believe I haven’t told it before . . . but I’ve searched the archives and can’t find it. So maybe I haven’t.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  11. huh. Well, I’ll have to check the Mars theme as well.

    steve miller (37a105)

  12. The problem is in the musical scale itself: eight whole notes, who came up with that?, some sodden British Imperialist drinking his pints and quarts, no doubt.

    Now a metric scale of ten notes to an octave, that would make sense. And don’t even get me started about time signatures.

    ras who should keep his day job (adf382)

  13. On the subject of Williams “borrowing” from Holst, check out the movie Superman where he’s flying around with Lois Lane. He uses Venus for that one.

    Jcurtis (ecc9cc)

  14. I remember reading that the original Star Wars music (used in the early cuts) was The Planets. However, since not every scene fit perfectly with the music, Williams was given the task of composing music which had the same sonic effect but was written according to the timing of the Star Wars shots. When I learned this, I cut him some slack.

    My issue with Williams is not so much that he borrows and steals (which he does, prolifically) but rather that everything that he writes sounds like a parody of himself. He’s become his own genre–like Strauss, Chopin, Holst, Ives–but unlike those guys, Williams hasn’t carved any new paths. He merely fashions similar melodies in the style of other greats before him, in order to facilitate making movie music that lines up perfectly with the filming. To that end, he’s superbly talented.

    I would compare him to Mozart, another phenomenal improviser who didn’t change the face of music but merely composed lots of beautiful pieces within already-existing styles and forms. (I regard Mozart as a great improviser, as opposed to a great composer like Haydn or Beethoven, who actually played with form and stepped outside of the constraints of the music they inherited.) There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe–but on the other hand, no pain, no gain.

    Tom (3b17af)

  15. Also, the first 5 notes of the ET flying theme and the main Star Wars theme are identical.

    Jim C. (a6819b)

  16. Tom,

    I think Mozart was more daring than you give him credit for. Take the Dissonance Quartet as one example of his harmonic adventurousness.

    And Beethoven was of course wildly famous for his piano improvisations. (The lack of video cameras to record them is one of history’s great losses.)

    But I get where you’re coming from.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  17. If only, if only…I’d give my teeth if I could hear either of them live. Who wouldn’t, right?

    Tom (3b17af)

  18. Lotta people, actually.

    But me, I could gum my food.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  19. Ever consider the possiblity that the Dumky Trio and Tod und Verklaerung were on the temp tracks and that the directors of the films insisted on music closely matching them? (Aha, I see Tom above has already mooted this possibility. Listen to him.) Check out the history of the score to Kubrick’s 2001 sometime.

    Furthermore, movie music functions as accompaniment to a film, not primarily as an aesthetic object in its own right. Some films have pop, rock or jazz soundtracks, where a music editor chooses just the right track to put against a particular sequence. No one’s enjoyment of the film is impaired by the fact that the music editor didn’t write the song himself. The most important criterion for music accompanying film sequences is “is it effective?” not “is it original?”.

    And sure, Williams, like many film composers (see point #1) made film music that cribs off of the public domain – but it’s not as though Strauss or Dvorak get any more royalties when Rattle records a CD of their music.

    m.croche (92c761)

  20. My Mother introduced me to classical music as a child with Hayden’s Surprise Symphony. Like most children, my interest was tweaked at the idea of finding the surprise. But only a very few years later, Elvis came along and I became the quintessential rock’n’roller and lost all interest in classical. Until — I saw the movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour and fell in love with the theme music, which I soon learned was Beethoven’s “Pathatique.” I bought a CD of Beethoven music recorded by some of the world’s great orchestras and fell in love. My Mother was a musician and her mother was a concert pianist who both favored Chopin. When my Mother died 3 years ago, I inherited her massive record and CD collection and continued my classical education. I learned in high school from our choral director that I have what is called a “perfect ear.” Not perfect pitch, but I hear all the mistakes, slide notes and anything even slightly off key and I find that listening to good classical music and great opera sopranos who hit the notes dead on is restful after a day of rock on the radio. I have found, however, that I tend to gravitate to either really lusty pieces, a la Handel/Beethoven or the emotional such as Pathatique. Even with rock, I tend to like it very raw with a hard driving back beat where the drum and the base guitar are primary and this translates to orchestra pieces with lots of timpani, horns and crescendoing excitement. Since other than school chorus and the church choir, I have no formal musical training, I tend to feel the music rather than appreciate the composition.

    Now if someone would just tell me where I can find the music they play in the background for the depression medicine Cimbalta ad?

    Pal2Pal (73f60a)

  21. People have been finding these “stolen”/”borrowed” quotes from Williams’ scores for years.

    It doesn’t diminish his genius on iota.

    He is a master of the genre and pretty much single-handedly rescued the long tradition of orchestral film music from being demolished by electronic synthesis.

    I think he will eventually rank among great American composers like Gershwin & Copland. I don’t think he will be acknowledged for his thematic originality necessarily, but more for his thorough craftsmanship, prolificness, influence, and mastery of so many different styles.

    Besides, if you want to explore JW’s true originality, you need to listen to his concert music (violin, tuba, clarinet, trumpet concertos, etc.). I don’t think you’ll find much lifted from Dvorak in those works.

    Purple Fury (f82359)

  22. Oops, *one iota.

    Purple Fury (f82359)

  23. Williams at least borrows from the best. However, famous film composers like James Horner or Hans Zimmer shamelessly copy their own work all the time and often sound exactly the same from one movie to the next.

    wf (3c6a98)

  24. #22 Yes, and if you listen to an epic Williams score back to back with nearly anyone else’s score, what becomes painfully obvious is the amount of repetition *within* the (non-Williams) score.

    Purple Fury (f82359)

  25. There are only 7 notes in music.

    xdiesp (679722)

  26. There are only 7 notes in music.

    A lighthearted correction: there are 7 notes in the diatonic scale. There are twelve tones (A, A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#) total.

    Equality72521 (1c6241)

  27. Everybody knows that classical music is incestuous and thievish as the white house speechwriters office 🙂

    BJ* (0d78f4)

  28. Sir Arthur Sullivan supposedly replied, when told his music sounded like someone else’s, that “we have only 8 notes between us.”

    And yes, I know about the chromatic scale, as did Sullivan.

    Attila (Pillage Idiot) (68fd1f)

  29. ?? Why has no one mentioned the classic case of Horner’s “Willow” Theme being a rip-off of the opening of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony?

    Steve Haller (5f3790)

  30. If you check enough pieces of music, you can find snippets that resemble almost anything. As others have observed, there are only so many notes (and pleasing intervals!) to work with.

    Ever read Spider Robinson’s story, “Melancholy Elephants”?

    Bill Roper (7a3469)

  31. Hmmm… Pretty interesting stuff here. It really doesn’t change my opinion of Williams at all. I must say, I love his work, and as a child/teenager it got me very interested in classical music, which I feel is a healthy thing. He does do glorious soundtracks for movies, if he borrows/steals a theme I would prefer he points it out, perhaps he has before. I honestly feel that he’s breathed a lot of life into keeping classical music around. Not that it would have gone away without him, just that he’s generated new interest in younger generations…

    G (722480)

  32. Jaws = Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition – Baba Yaga, Ravels orchestration.

    lreg (e38ba2)

  33. “Stealing” or “quoting”?
    Jazz improv has done it since its beginning. Although they use it as more of a way of paying tribute.

    MOG (f57a20)

  34. By the way, the Planets are by Holst, not Solti. I have a version where Solti is the conductor, which is quite good.

    And yes, the empire march seems to sound a lot like Mars. My son laughed out loud when he heard Mars the first time.

    coyote (22a512)

  35. There’s also a striking similarity between the “Star Wars” theme and a theme that’s heard twice in the opera “Manon Lescaut.”

    Bilwick (5bd096)

  36. “The problem is in the musical scale itself: eight whole notes,”

    There are 12 notes in an octave in standard music. Most European music selects any seven out of the 12 (a “key”) to use in a theme and its harmonies.

    But you can write music with only five notes out of the 12 (a pentatonic scale), or use all 12 (12-tone music). And I bet somebody has written a piece that uses ten notes out of the 12.

    It is also possible to use smaller steps so that there are more than 12 notes in an octave, the steps being known as “microtones”. This can give finer control over harmony, but makes tuning excessively difficult.

    Don Cox (eac10e)

  37. Ok, ok, there are seven notes per se, but eight tones in a standard do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, and that’s what counts, isn’t it?

    /white flag

    ras who will definitely keep his day job (adf382)

  38. You’d be amazed at how blatantly Mozart lifts from Handel at some points. There are entire bars of Messiah in the Messa Brevis, or the Mass in C Minor. I can’t remember which one at the moment

    Teche (c003f1)

  39. Another “inspiration” for some of the Star Wars music was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (esp. the Tatooine music early in Ep. 4).

    Jaws always reminds me of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, beginning of the 4th movement.

    kenB (1ad56f)

  40. You’re all girls.

    jpm100 (d5518b)

  41. The basic first five notes Star Wars theme seems to come originall from Beethoven, and I have no idea where old Luddy ‘borrowed’ it from. And the Ozzies stole “Waltzing Matilda” from some classical work I am blanking on.

    John Costello (7a271a)

  42. “He merely fashions similar melodies in the style of other greats before him, in order to facilitate making movie music that lines up perfectly with the filming. To that end, he’s superbly talented.”

    And as a movie composer, that is his job description.

    A lot of Classical music is some form of theatrical accompaniment. Same focus, match the action on stage and enhance the audience’s experience. It doesn’t have to be original, nor even necessarily novel.

    LarryD (feb78b)

  43. Someone took William’s Star Wars work and made something even better than the original:

    alphie (015011)

  44. You’ve got to allow for some borrowing, but there’s no denying that Williams was pushing the limit with “Parade of the Ewoks”. If Prokofiev were still around he would have thrown not 3 but 33 oranges at him.

    Paul Zrimsek (65a110)

  45. The first 6 notes of the song “The house began to twitch” in “The Wizard of Oz” are identical to the chorus’s last 6 notes in Beethoven’s oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

    Jim C. (a6819b)

  46. Sir Paul McCartney just bought the copyright to F#.

    Paul Zrimsek (65a110)

  47. Compare Bernstein’s “There’s A Place For Us” from West Side Story to the first theme of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5, 2nd Movement. It’s almost a cut-and-paste.

    great unknown (d671ab)

  48. Vanilla Ice borrowed from David Bowie.


    the wolf (54094c)

  49. The Bernstein tune has two parents, both piano concertos: the first phrase comes from the Emperor, the second from Richard Strauss’ Burleske.

    Paul Zrimsek (dd6fa3)

  50. Well, for out and out “borrowing” you can’t beat the old musical “Kismet”. I don’t think there’s anote in there that isn’t from Prince Igor, written by that old Russian chemist, Alexander Borodin.

    bud (46e4bf)

  51. One of my music professors told me that some atonal composer — I think Schönberg, but maybe not — offered a large cash prize to anyone who could come up with an original melody in the early 20th century. No one was able to claim it.

    Jim (0a583c)

  52. […] a nice bit of comparative research from someone who clearly doesn’t like John Williams, then click here. Did I mention this book was pretty good though? I think I’ll hunt around for the television […]

    Yardsales Feed The Wagstaff Library « Professor Wagstaff (0a802d)

  53. John Williams is just a good film score composer
    But not a great composer like Stravinsky ,Shostakovich etc.
    no one will spell his name in the future.

    Emre (c79c0c)

  54. >John Williams is just a good film score composer
    >But not a great composer like >Stravinsky ,Shostakovich etc.
    >no one will spell his name in the future.

    That’s a load of old crap!

    Janice (5a0d0c)

  55. I can’t belive no one here is mentioning Williams’ pilfering of Wagner- the granddaddy of all film composers. At the end of the Ring, after Brunnhilde’s immolation scene, we hear the SAME music as we hear when Luke realizes his aunt and uncle are dead in Star Wars. That’s not a parody(in the musical sense), it is thievery- and the list goes on.

    joe (d6b860)

  56. Oh, and the Star Wars Throne Room scene at the end of that venerable (and laudable) movie is simply Williams mixing the wedding march from Lohengrin with the music refrenced above (Siegfried’s horn call – (A-D-D-F-E-D-Bb). I can understand the whole 12-notes-cause similar-melodies argument, but when a composer takes a melody, scores it for the same instrument , in the same meter, with the same exact rhythm, that composer might as well have “sampled” the bit and saved himself the trouble.

    joe (cb1fdf)

  57. Okay, before anyone flames me (I just listened to both again)- I should have stated that it is a variation on “Siegfriedsignalen,” and not a pure parody, but still…

    (However, I really do think Williams is good at what he does – he sure does listen (and study) a lot of music. I bet he would be fun to talk with over a glass of wine or two.)

    joe (cb1fdf)

  58. I’ll have to check out these examples.

    I don’t have anything against Williams. I think he’s great. I probably should have made that clearer in the post.

    Patterico (4bda0b)

  59. OOPS! I knew I shouldn’t comment while drinking! I should have said (above) that it was a parody of Mendelssohn’s wedding music (Midsummer Night’s Dream) mixed with Siegfried’s horn call – but that only serves to prove the point here.


    joe (cb1fdf)

  60. I have been thinking about this for years – I use many of these “thefts” in classes I teach, and, as others have said, some only come to art music after hearing great orchestral music scores for popular movies. If so, it’s all good! Thanks for the Blog.

    joe (cb1fdf)

  61. Search “love of three oranges” and parade of the ewoks and you can find clips of both.

    The problem with some of Williams best known music is not that he borrows it and then plays with it evolving into something new and splendid but that he rips it off blatantly and does nothing new.

    If you want a movie composer whose work can stand up on its own, try the late Jerry Goldmsith.

    Ed Hollett (4d2e30)

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