The Music of the Night

October 30, 2018

blog - La Fanciulla

Enrico Caruso, with his head in a noose, and Emmy Destinn, about to save him from hanging, in the original production of La Fanciulla del West.

We seized the rare opportunity to see a performance of Giocomo Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West when it was presented last week in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s HD broadcast series.

This is one of Puccini’s least popular operas, although some authorities, including Puccini himself, have said that it is one of his best. The discrepancy is probably due to the fact that this opera—inspired by David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West—is almost devoid of the arias that for many folks are the real if not the only attraction of grand opera.

blog - Puccini

GIOCOMO PUCCINI

The tenor does have a well known aria, “Ch’ella mi creda,” in the third act; according to the commentary between the acts on the HD broadcast, Puccini had not included that song in the original version but inserted it at the request of Enrico Caruso, who was to sing the premiere performance of the opera in 1910 at the Met, which had commissioned it.

Anyway, during the first act, I was momentarily aware that I was listening to music from the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. Then it was gone. Then I heard it again—a melody from “Music of the Night.” And then I recalled that in the patter setting up the performance someone had made a remark that I didn’t understand to the effect that Andrew Lloyd Webber loves this opera.

blog - Webber - The Independent

ANDREW LLOYD WEBER/The Independent photo

Later, I did what any music scholar would do—a Google search—and learned that when The Phantom of the Opera appeared, Puccini’s opera was still protected by copyright, and his estate sued Lloyd Webber, alleging plagiarism. The suit was settled out of court, and the details were never made public.

I was not surprised to read about that, because I was aware that Puccini’s publishers  had sued another musical personality—Al Jolson—under similar circumstances. That case involved the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca and “Avalon,” a song attributed to Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. “Avalon” doesn’t get much play time these days, but Casablanca aficionados will recognize it as the tune Sam is fooling around on the keyboard just before he plays “As Time Goes By.”

The Puccini bunch maintained that the opening melody of “Avalon” is identical to that of the aria, except that the opening of the aria is written in a minor key. Puccini’s publishers sued the composers in 1921 and were awarded $25,000 plus all royalties earned by “Avalon” thereafter.

I wrote about the latter case a few years ago in a post that was prompted by a dust-up over the similarity between Sam Smith’s hit “Stay With Me” and the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down.”

Borrowing from other composers is a time-honored phenomenon, but so is the concept of intellectual property. As I mentioned in the earlier post, those who play it safe can have the best of both worlds. The case in point was Pete Seeger’s song “Sailing Down My Golden River.” We heard Pete explain during a concert in 2015 that after he had written the lyrics to that song, he found the opening melody in the first seven notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” which was published in 1862 and, in turn, was based on a sixteenth-century Welsh carol. Of course, from Pete’s point of view, that wasn’t stealing anyway——it was just the folk process at work.

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “The Music of the Night”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Interesting post. It brought to mind the kerfluffle between the Robert Frost estate and choral arranger Eric Whitacre. His original version of “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” came to an end when the lawyers showed up; he honestly thought the poem was in the public domain. You can read a bit about it here. An interesting side note: one of my blog friends knows the woman who commissioned the piece.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I think that’s what happened to Lloyd Webber; he thought the copyright on the opera had run. Nothing beats checking.

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