Stravinsky supposedly once said:”Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

The recent decision to award Marvin Gaye’s family several million dollars over copyright violations by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in their recent hit “Blurred Lines” has sparked a lot of discussion about the border between imitation and plagiarism in the music world, a “blurred line” if there ever was one. There are lots of examples in the classical world, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Pop music is full of ripoffs – the way the business works, it’s almost inevitable. There have been many lawsuits like this recent one – artists like Johnny Cash and the Beatles were accused of theft, and in my personal favorite, John Fogerty was sued for ripping off his own band, Creedence Clearwater Revival!

Mr. Thicke gets the award for best excuse, though (from an article on AOL):

“When asked if he was present for the creation of ‘Blurred Lines,’ Thicke replied: ‘I was present. Obviously, I sang it. I had to be there…To be honest, that’s the only part where – I was high on vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio…I wanted some credit for this big hit. But the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.'”

So, in summary, Mr. Thicke went with a combination of “I didn’t do it, but I wanted credit for it because it made me a lot of money” and “I was high, so I actually couldn’t have done it” – an impressive pairing indeed. There are lots of blurred lines here – makes me think of this one:

But wait, it gets better – when an attorney for the Gaye family played a mash-up of the Gaye original, “Got To Give It Up,” and the Williams/Thicke opus, to show their similarities, Thicke protested:

“It’s so hard to listen to it…This is [like] Stanley Kubrick’s movie Clockwork Orange. Where he has to sit there and watch…Mozart would be rolling in his grave right now.”

Well, at least Mozart has been avenged – I know I feel better.

Anyway, there’s a long history of imitation and borrowing in classical music, going back at least to the days of Palestrina and Josquin writing masses based on popular or sacred melodies of the time. Bach updated (and improved) pieces by Vivaldi, though of course he did it openly. Our whistleblower Stravinsky used Russian folk melodies in the Rite of Spring (and denied it).

Brahms’s famous Variations on a Theme of Haydn – the theme isn’t by Haydn. Did Brahms know? Maybe, maybe not. In any case, composers routinely would put the names of more famous colleagues on pieces to help them sell – the great violinist Fritz Kreisler was notorious for it.

Now this is a more impressive kind of deception – instead of simply ripping someone else off, you have to imitate them convincingly – not too easy! One of my favorite cellist-composers, Gaspar Cassadó, was really good at it – here’s his very impressive counterfeit “Schubert” piece (played by a very good cellist from Cassadó’s era I confess I’d never heard of, Feodor Luzanov):


To me, this is artful and respectful imitation, even if Cassadó blurred some lines of his own in putting Schubert’s name on it! Perhaps Mr. Thicke could learn a lesson from Cassadó – if you’re going to mislead people, do it skillfully! Also, consult your PR manager and/or lawyer before testifying in open court.

In any case, really good imitation is something to enjoy – I’ll leave you with my new favorite example. A few weeks ago, I was driving to a rehearsal and listening to the radio – an old Ella Fitzgerald record came on and I almost crashed the car – here’s why:

Till next time,


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