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June 22, 2008

Swiped Hymns

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

About every other Sunday my wife puts on my collar, attaches the leash, and then we go off to church. (Mind you, I have a good degree of sympathy for Judeo-Christian religion, but tend to drag my heels when it comes to actually attending services.)

Hymns are sung in Presbyterian and Lutheran services -- the ones I'm most familiar with. And occasionally some of those hymns have melodies that seem curiously familiar. No, I'm not talking about familiar hymn-melodies such as that of "A Might Fortress is My God."

In one instance, I grabbed my wife's hymnal before she closed it after the singing was done and scanned the page for information about the composer. Turned out that the music was by Brahms and I recalled that the theme was from his First Symphony. Now, it's just possible that Brahms might have used the same melody for a hymn as well as the symphony, though I'm inclined to doubt that.

Another time, a hymn used Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" melody from the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, but the words definitely weren't Schiller's.

Conclusion? Technically, copyrights no longer apply to Brahms and Beethoven. But still ... "Thou shalt not steal." Commandment says so.



posted by Donald at June 22, 2008


Since copyright has expired, they're's public domain; it's not theft. I'm a Christian, and I don't see the issue here.

(BTW, there are a good many hymns written in later centuries, e.g. the 19th, set to earlier classical tunes. If you were a more regular attender, you'd notice far more than just two examples.)

Now, I suppose one could potentially quibble about the fact that, for example (and I assume this was the Beethoven example you noticed), Henry J. Van Dyke's "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee", composed in 1907, ended up being set to music in 1911, when any copyrights from 1824 when Beethoven wrote the music may still have been in effect. Or was it? Was the tune copyrighted? Did copyright cover the same things as today? Did it last as long? Did the Presbyterian Hymnal obtain permission? Was copyright in one country recognized in another?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, and I see no point worrying about it today; we should just try to not break copyright from 1923 onwards, and not worry about the past, and what's now public domain, IMO. :)

Posted by: Will S. on June 23, 2008 1:10 AM


You got half of the equation.

The other half: we should be thoroughly pissed off that, on behalf of one powerful corporation, copyright and trademark protection look to be in no danger of expiring, ever. That's right, no unauthorized "Hannah Montana" covers in 2208, as much as the content may rival Goethe and Schubert in timeless appeal.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 23, 2008 3:12 AM

The music at Mass has been almost completely dreadful since Vatican II, but occassionally we get pleasantly surprised by some piece set to a traditional Celtic tune. Nice break!

Posted by: Bradamante on June 23, 2008 9:08 AM

There's a jaunty Scottish tune, Craigielee, to which someone should write a hymn. It would bring smiles to lips - it's aka Waltzing Matilda.

Posted by: dearieme on June 23, 2008 9:17 AM

As Stravinsky once said, composers don't borrow, they steal. And he for one used a lot of Russian folk tunes in the Rite and lied about it. If there is no legal issue, is there an aesthetic one? Well, basically, if you just take people's melodies and put your words to them, that's pretty dreary compositionally. I'm with Bradamante, Catholic liturgical music was once the glory of civilization--right up until Beethoven (maybe Berlioz). But since then?

Posted by: Bryan on June 23, 2008 11:13 AM

It is worse when the Ninth Symphony or other classical music is used to hawk products in TV commercials. Beethoven, I assume, gets no royalties for this.

Posted by: Robert on June 23, 2008 1:58 PM

Hi folks,

Well, to make some of your lives even more miserable when it comes to using the Ninth melody for this, that, and the other, here is my documentary on Beethoven's final symphony. a two-year project of tracking the Ninth's influence across the globe. I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts about the project, with me, perhaps, taking up the cudgels in defense of appropriation (and renewal?) of familiar musical tropes such as the Ode theme in the Ninth.

kerry candaele
venice, ca

Posted by: kerry Candaele on June 23, 2008 2:29 PM

But creating a good, memorable melody is so flippin' hard. Lord knows, I've tried. And apparently the people who enter the American Idol song contest try also, to little effect.
I was wondering if with the handful of notes we have the well of new melodies will ever run dry. According to this guy the number of good melodies left is umpteen many. So what are we doing wrong?

Posted by: Alan w on June 23, 2008 7:03 PM

Brian: indeed; Haydn got "Austria" from a Croatian folk melody, and that happened lots. And dearieme's mentioning Scotland reminds me of how Robbie Burns both created his own songs and preserved the previously unwritten tradition of, ah, "public domain" material, setting them down. This has of course been done in recent times with all the folkies in the 20th century, who both preserved old songs and tunes, and created their own works. How much of music creation is original, and how much is either theft or being influenced, however unwittingly, by others? I suspect more is 'theft' than we'd care to admit today, since with the advent of recorded music, we tend to think of music as the intellectual property of the creator, and not something that belongs to the society at large. Modern technology + capitalism = the tyranny J. Goard describes - but, frankly, J. Goard, I think that may be a blessing in disguise - if civilization survives, Goethe and Schubert will be remembered long after Hannah Montana / Miley Cyrus; the ones we can perform without paying royalties, esp. the ones which are the gems of our civilization, will live on, while the frivolous dies - and is replaced by other frivolous content, alas. :)

Posted by: Will S. on June 24, 2008 12:03 AM

if you are pointing fingers, just remember that the Star Spangled Banner is sung to an old drinking song.

And Wesley put a lot of his hymns to the tune of popular music...

Posted by: Boinkie on June 24, 2008 4:03 AM

Boinkie: indeed:

And "My Country, Tis of Thee" is to the tune of "God Save the King / Queen".

Quite a good many hymns and psalms are set to what was the popular music of the day, both folk music and classical compositions. And I'll bet when they were set, nobody was concerned with copyright in most cases; that's really a modern obsession. Music was seen as something belonging collectively to the greater community. I mean, when all the various folk songs of the English-speaking world were written, nobody was looking for compensation; they were just singing for the joy of singing, whether praising God, or whilst hoisting a pint at the tavern. It is my hope that eventually, all artists will put up all their music for free on their websites, and make their money instead solely from touring and T-shirts, merchandise, etc. Let's give music back to the people, as in days of yore! And out of the hands of money-grubbing record company execs.

Posted by: Will S. on June 24, 2008 11:27 AM

Hardly a new phenomenon...J.S. Bach himself frequently used melodies and motifs by Vivaldi, Corelli, and other composers in his works. It was considered a compliment, rather than plagiarism, in those days.

Another thing -- a hundred or more years ago, you didn't have a hymnal in the modern sense of the word (i.e., music and words). You had a hymnbook with the words, and a tunebook of music. The idea was that you could sing the hymn to whatever tune you liked, provided the music was written in the same meter. So, while you might frequently sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune known as "New Britain," (that's the one we are familiar with) you could just as easily sing it to, say "Fiducia," "," or any one of several other choices.

By the late 19th century, hymnals were being published with both words and music, and the practice of interchangeable tunes and ly

Posted by: Salamander on June 26, 2008 4:46 PM

And even today, churches will sometimes switch it up, and sing a hymn to a tune different from the one in the hymnal; some churches will do this regularly (if they simply prefer an alternate tune); others will do it occasionally, just for fun.

Posted by: Will S. on June 26, 2008 8:38 PM

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