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


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.




The first known publication of the Welsh carol "Nos Galan"

The first known publication of the Welsh carol “Nos Galan”

Pete Seeger said during a concert at Carnegie Hall that when he was thrashing around for a melody for “Sailing Down My Golden River” he got started by using the first eight notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” He wasn’t taking too much of a chance. The melody belongs to a sixteenth-century Welsh carol, “Nos Galan,” and has long since passed into the public domain. The popular Christmas song that uses the same music first appeared in 1862.
I recalled Pete’s remark the other day when some folks were getting on Sam Smith’s case for not acknowledging Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne while accepting a Grammy for “Stay With Me,” the “song of the year.” When that song was released last April, many people noticed a similarity to “I Won’t Back Down,” which was huge for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1989. Petty’s people saw Smith’s people and the parties settled out of court last October. Petty and Lynne are both to get writing credit, along with Smith and Jimmy Napes.



It seems that no one thinks Smith deliberately plagiarized Petty’s song; with so many people listening to so much music, some subliminal appropriation is almost bound to happen. Even the court thought that was the case when George Harrison’s 1971 hit “My Sweet Lord” drew immediate comparisons to Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963.The similarity resulted in complicated litigation that lasted from 1971 to 1998. Harrison was eventually directed to pay damages of $587,000—half of an earlier award—and he received rights to the song. As for the notion of unconscious plagiarism, there were some skeptics, including John Lennon, who told a Playboy interviewer: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that … He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”



My favorite incident of this kind—because of the strange juxtaposition of genres—involved the operatic composer Giacomo Puccini and the American entertainer Al Jolson. The trouble started with the 1920 publication of the popular song “(I Found My Love in) Avalon,” which was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. The lyric referred to the city of Avalon, which is located on Catalina Island in California. The following year, Puccini’s publishers sued Jolson and his collaborators on the grounds that the first few chords of “Avalon” were virtually identical to the first few chords of “E lucevan le stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. I’m very familiar with both compositions, and I never noticed the similarity until I read about the lawsuit. But a judge with a more sensitive ear awarded Puccini $25,000 in damages and all subsequent royalties from “Avalon,” which has been recorded dozens of times.


Photo by Jim Dirden

Photo by Jim Dirden

I just finished reading a new biography of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker. It’s a short, well-written work that gives a good look at Pete’s personality. It is based on a series of interviews Wilkinson conducted at Pete’s home in Beacon, N.Y.

This isn’t a fawning portrait. Pete’s doubts and insecurities come through, in his own words.

It is also interesting to learn in this work about Pete’s parents, and particularly his father, Charles, who was also an idealist.

There is a lack of balance in the way many people react to Pete. There are many who think of him only as a folksy singer of campfire songs – sort of a Tennessee Ernie Ford. There are those who cast him in a messianic role that he himself would reject. And there are those who think he is the antichrist because, like many thoughtful people of his and his father’s generation, he associated for a time with people who felt Communism held the answers to chronic economic, social, and political problems. Pete acknowledges – including in this book – that that was a mistake, but more than a half century later, some folks still pillory him for it.


Pete is well known not only for singing but for encouraging his audiences to sing with him. Wilkinson’s book examines this practice, which for Pete isn’t just a cutsey stage trick. Calling on people to sing goes to the heart of Pete’s notion of what music is for, and gets to discuss that in his own words in this book.

Pete Seeger has been an important figure in the history of the past seven decades – not always clearly understood, even by himself. Wilkinson’s book at least helps formulate the questions.