Dear Freya,

This is likely the wrong place for the wrong topic, but I thought of you because I came across a discussion of "commonplaces" by composer Franklin Cox--


“Originality” was a central factor in assessing the value of artworks was back in the heyday of modernist critical discourse. For decades I've been interested in the issue of various composers drawing on the same stock of motives, which appears to contradict the imperative of originality.

Early on I started to be puzzled about this, as I noticed countless links between motives and themes by quite different composers. The older critical discourse tended to focus on themes as the nexus of originality; Charles Rosen's work drew attention elsewhere, and this was tremendously influential for a generation. But the older discourse lived on: the Ode to Joy, the "Fate" (or, during WWII, "Victory") motive in the 5th symphony, et alia, were treated as unique accomplishments of a genius. And copyright law might be used to prevent composer A from using a theme created by composer B, whether A has ever heard B's work or not.

When I was fairly young, the following example unsettled my trust in the notion of originality that this discourse depended on.

Mozart: Overture - 'Bastien und Bastienne'


The opening motive to Beethoven's Eroica is clearly present in Mozart's overture. To my knowledge it's never been established that Beethoven knew this overture, and the development of the motive is completely different in each piece. Nevertheless, it is a bit unsettling to a young person besotted by Beethoven's music to discover that an opening motive, into which so much has been read, must have been in the air during this period of music.

The following is another example, with stronger evidence of the powerful influence Mozart had on Beethoven's music: the second movement of Mozart's Piano Quartet 1 (starting ca. 10:51) and Beethoven's song "Adelaide".



This has a nice short discussion of these two pieces


Here much more than the opening motive has been borrowed; nevertheless, Beethoven's piece moves in a quite different direction than Mozart's slow movement; the main motive ends up focusing on something quite specific in Adelaide that is only potential in Mozart's theme.

Leonard Ratner's Classic Music, which I read in my teens, helped me make sense of how such "borrowing" occurred. Most musical figures were what the rhetorical tradition called "commonplaces", i.e., phrases that were viewed as part of the common stock of society. The rhetorical tradition treated them as essential tools for creating speeches. If one reads enough Elizabethan literature one will find fragments of famous Shakespearean phrases popping up all over; these were not considered Shakespeare's at the time, but rather could be found in school texts and commonplace books.

However, there is a big difference between Shakespeare's sonnets and plays and those or most other authors of the period, despite the fact that all relied upon the same basic stock of commonplaces. It is much too easy to see a common figure/hear a common motive and cry "x borrowed from y". Everyone must have borrowed something from somewhere else, or nothing would be comprehensible.

Nevertheless, I've always wanted to avoid the cheap postmodern trick of claiming that there is no such a thing as originality (usually surrounded by scare quotes). The claim is intended topple all the great composers/authors from their pedestals and proclaim a utopia in which every composer and artist is just as good as everyone else. This is literally a utopia, a "nowhere", as every art form has had more successful and less successful artists, and it would be quite an extravagant clam that all of them were equally gifted, equally hard working, and so forth, but that some just had bad luck.

The latter claim is in fact--selectively--very much true, and demonstrably so; Fanny Hensel, older sister of Felix, was tremendously gifted, and Felix included her songs in his most famous collection of songs; no one to my knowledge ever picked her songs out and claimed that they were demonstrably second-rate. But she died suddenly when she was young, just as she was starting to publish her works in her own name, and the Mendelssohn family buried her works for about 150 years.

There are plenty of other cases of gifted and superbly accomplished composers from smaller nations who have been neglected, and of less gifted composers who ended up perched at the peak of a powerful country's musical system. Martinu was one example of the former, and I would claim that the Copland and possibly Britten were examples of the latter. Enescu, to my mind easily one of the finest composers of the 20th century, died in exile, with most of his works unfinished, and/or difficult to find scores or champions for; his century-old masterpieces are still barely known to the musical community.

However, there is a natural tendency to turn such cases into morality plays, in which the cad one wishes to topple "unjustly won renown', or "trampled over equally accomplished composers", etc. In some cases this might be true, in others not. But to make such a claim requires that one believe that merit exists. Alas, such advocates often overplay their hands by asserting that "merit" and "talent" are mere illusions, which contradicts the case they are attempting to make for their favored composers.

There are many fine composers whose music deserves much more attention, but I think the tactics commonly used to validate neglected composers often undermine the claims for the value of the music. Simply claiming that x or y had bad luck is not a valid argument for the entire musical community to take the time to listen to hours' worth of music by the composer. In addition, the postmodern undermining of both "originality" and value claims for art has left advocates of brilliant past composers at a loss.

Morality plays don't help much, either: outstanding women authors from the past were often just as enmeshed in brutal everyday practices of the past as male authors of their time. Joseph Bologne's career was funded through slavery, just as those of countless white musicians and artists were.

The moral/ethical aspect shouldn't be ignored, but it often has an ambiguous relationship to the value of the art. Wonderfully humane people might be mediocre composers, and toxic egomaniacs [read: Wagner] might in fact be brilliantly original and accomplished artists.

I'm not so much interested in tearing down composers in the pantheon, because this practice is degrading; I would prefer to make a case for neglected composers of outstanding

accomplishment. I do think our art form would benefit tremendously from finding more of these lost voices.


That in connection with this piece:


So much to catch up on!

All Best,


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That resignation letter is incredible!

"It is more important now to be in love than to be in power." - Barry Lopez

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I would join the stone club too! And I’ve always loved Joan of arc 🩷

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Loved that article about wolves and transformation. Brought to mind the book The Wolf and The Whale. I’ve been drawn to wolves since I was a child. Adding Sonja’s book to my wish list! Thank you for sharing.

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I was just thinking about Emily of New Moon the other day. My favorite of her books is The Blue Castle, but Emily is a close second.

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Good for you on cancelling your susbscription! 💪🏼

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