The Khachaturian concerto takes two themes from others

The Khachaturian concerto takes two themes from others


norman lebrecht

November 13, 2019

Listening to Rachel Barton Pine’s snappy new recording of the Aram Khachaturian violin concerto, I am struck by two significant sound grabs.

The first movement opens with ‘Tea for Two’, the second with a phrase from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez that slowly develops into what may be an original melody.

How did he get away with it?



  • John Borstlap says:

    Maybe in Russia they didn’t know the tunes. Or, K got to know them and treated them as folk melodies, as he did with Russian tunes. Or, a Russian peasant, who had picked them up while secretly listening-in to BBC world radio, hummed them just when K was passing-by.

    Anyway, composers using material from their environment, from other composers, from folklore, from memory, from book collections, from the tradition they work in, is normal. They invent material themselves and reshape existing material to their own taste so that there is no sharp distinction between ‘original’ material and ‘borrowed’ material. JS Bach used any material he came across, Mozart simile, Beethoven simile but worked very hard to turn it into Beethoven, and so on and so forth. All operas by Wagner are compendiums of material from all composers he knew, Brahms reworked material from Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, and about Mahler one could fill a book with all of his clear and hidden references and borrowings. When composing, Ravel carefully choose an example which he copied and reworked until it became Ravel…. for the famous adagio from his piano concerto he used the middle movement of Mozart’s clarinet quartet. Stravinsky always had difficulties with inventing melodic material and thus always used existing material, reworking it (the melodies in the Sacre come from a collection of Luthanian folk tunes). Etc. etc.

    The idea that composers invent all of their material is a recent myth and the result of misunderstanding the concept of originality in the arts. And then, originality is not an artistic category, which is proven by the definite originality of John Cage who is not even a composer.

    • PJL says:

      maybe they didn’t know ‘Tea for Two’ ????? shostakovich orchestrated it in about an hour after a bet with Nicolai Malko

    • Steven Holloway says:

      Well done, John. You’ve said precisely what needed to be said about this matter that, certainly to musicians and musicologists, has been well-known for a mighty long time. It does remind me that what I really want to read is that someone has come up with a dusty tape of Horowitz’s fabled take on Tea for Two, especially given that at the time he first played it, he used to go to the Cotton Club to observe Art Tatum’s hands, the left most of all, not surprisingly. Mayhap he ‘stole’ a bit of Tatum’s technique. (–:

    • kaa says:

      Was it Stravinsky who said “Good composers imitate; great composers steal !”

    • AlbericM says:

      Youmans’ “Tea for Two” was well known in Russia shortly after its 1924 fame because it was added to a Russian operetta in 1926 by Boris Fomin under the title “Tahiti Trot”. Shostakovich also arranged it in 1927 under its new Socialist-approved title.

    • ^piano lover says:

      Very interesting analysis for which I thank you John.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Not necessarily “takes” the themes but yes, there’s definite similarity with Vincent Youmans Tea for Two written 20 years earlier.

    What about Lenny’s “There’s a place for us” from WSS coming from R. Strauss Burlesque for Pf and Orch. Admitedly only 5 notes but a bit suspicious

    • Cubs Fan says:

      I always thought that Bernstein tune came from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto.

    • Larry says:

      “There’s a Place For us” is like the slow movement of the ‘Emperor Concerto.”

      • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

        “There’s A Place For Us” struck me as an echo of the Beethoven Emperor Concerto’s slow movement the first time I heard West Side Story. It catches the ear despite not being the opening phrase of Beethoven’s theme but the third phrase, which Bernstein lifted out and put at the front of his song. In the Strauss Burleske it’s the second phrase. Tiny melodic cells like this can have extraordinary potency in the hands of a composer. Sometimes they go wrong, as when it was pointed out to a horrified Rachmaninov that the brooding theme in the slow movement of his 4th Piano Concerto already existed as the up-tempo vaudeville song “Two Lovely Black Eyes.”

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Carl Maria von Weber once wrote of the challenge to be creative, writing as a virtuoso pianist: “these damned piano fingers — having acquired from constant practicing, a willful independent mind of their own — become unconscious tyrants, the despots of creative power. They refuse to invent anything new — yes, the new is inconvenient to them. Secretly and roguishly — true mechanical workers — they mould into a whole, parts of small tone bits, long familiar to them, because they sound so nice and round to the deluded ear ….”

      Well I know the “Tea for Two” theme can be found in one or more of the tiresome Sevcik violin studies (Carl Flesch called them “therapeutic poison” and he was being kind) which Khachaturian might have known. But I suspect few if any of us have enough first hand knowledge of Armenian folk or religious music to know what sources might have influenced A.K. or been in his ear in the manner Weber refers to. And L.B.’s “There’s a place for us” strikes me as more borrowed from the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, although the Strauss quote is indeed in there – hadn’t occurred to me before Esther’s posting.

      Which cadenza does Rachel Barton Pine play? Seems like most violinists now prefer David Oistrakh’s (and A.K. must not have objected since he conducted at least two of Oistrakh’s recordings) but Leonid Kogan recorded Khachaturian’s own cadenza and it is a finger-burner. Kogan’s stereo recording for RCA Victor is, to me, THE jaw dropper. Reputedly Pierre Monteux was sight reading as he conducted (their concert performance had been of the Brahms).

    • Steven Holloway says:

      And more than five notes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’.

    • Hmus says:

      By the time Bernstein gets to the line “hold my hand and I’ll take you there” he’s deep into Swan Lake

  • Euphonium Al says:

    I view these as quotes rather than outright plagiarism, but it’s certainly the case that intellectual property wasn’t as litigiously protected back then.

    In any event, it’s one of my favorite violin concertos, and I was lucky enough to just see Pine deliver a bravura performance in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Just phenomenal.

  • Daniel A says:

    Whether he borrowed themes or not, I’ll simply say that the concert halls (especially in the US) need more Khachaturian programmed. His concerti are exquisite. I’d frankly, much rather hear his piano concerto than another version of Tchaikovsky 1, Rach 2, or Beethoven 4.

  • cym says:

    How did it happen ? Well, there are only 7 notes in a scale …

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==there are only 7 notes in a scale

      Huh? Well with a name like ‘Cym’ maybe there are just 15 letters in your alphabet !

      BTW: that was an excellent comment from J. Borstlap above

      • Steven Holloway says:

        I see Cym’s point. Seven different notes, the top one of the full eight being the same as the bottom one but higher.

      • cym says:

        Don’t be too critical, I am working on my alphabet knowledge !
        ( I used to be named ‘AL’ )

      • cym says:

        For your information, my full first & last name contains 14 letters, while yours contains only 12 letters. Furthermore, your name only uses 2 vowels (a-e) while mine uses 3 (a-e-u) !!
        — There is also a ‘y’ in my name, which is considered a vowel by some scholars, but I didn’t want to add controversy on this important debate.

  • Calvin says:

    True spontaneous generation is perhaps as uncommon in art as it is in nature. As Lévi-Strauss says in The Way of the Masks, “When he claims to be solitary the artist lulls himself in a perhaps fruitful illusion, but the privilege he grants himself is not real. When he thinks he is expressing himself spontaneously, creating an original work, he is answering other past or present, actual or potential creators. Whether one knows it or not, one never walks alone along the path of creativity.” Bullough’s eight volumes of the Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare runs to 4,500 pages in length. Six of Brancusi’s sculptures have the same title as six of Rodin’s, and others too are responsive to Rodin. Ives’ Fourth answers Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s all, as noted in the opening paragraph of Finnegans Wake, a “commodius vicus of recirculation.”

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Poulenc was once accused of stealing themes from other composers to use in his own works.
    His reply: “Of course I steal. But I only steal from the best!”

    • bluepumpkin says:

      The incomparable Handel was once asked why he had used a tune by Bononcini and he replied, “ Well, he didn’t know what to do with it”.

  • Bruce says:

    “How did he get away with it?”

    Two answers come to mind simultaneously:

    1. Who cares? (nobody)
    2. Maybe Youmans (if he was still alive?) and Rodrigo noticed the theft tribute and just smiled to themselves instead of filing lawsuits.

  • PeterSD says:

    Was the Rodrigo concerto a big enough hit, back when Khachaturian wrote his concerto, to have made an impression in the Soviet Union? In any case, thematic borrowings are as old as music.

  • John Borstlap says:

    One of the most famous themes in classical music, the theme of the fugato in Mozart’s Magic Flute Ouverture, is literally a theme from a piano sonata from Clementi. It sounds much better for the orchestra, but there is no reason to complain neither on behalf of Clementi nor on Mozart’s. The theme must be very happy to get a new life in another context:

  • fflambeau says:

    It’s a great concerto and the composer was astonishing. Most composers unwittingly “use” material from others: generally, it’s called influence.

    I think Bernard Herrmann “used” lots of themes from AK in his movie scores; especially North by Northwest has a lot of AK in it.

    Let’s agree on this Rachel B. Pines is a great solist in this.

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Borrowing, stealing, adapting… these are known tricks of the trade and often the “thief” has made better effect than the original. Wagner’s “Tristan” chord would be nowhere if he hadn’t added one note to the harmony of Liszt’s piano intoduction to his lied: “Die Lorelei” thus influencing Romantic and Modern music much more than Liszt ever could; same for Die Meistersinger “big tune”- check Liszt’s “FaustSymphony”…it’s the “original” but Liszt didn’t have quite the gift, (or probably the time) to develop it as Wagner did.
    Stravinsky never composed a tune! It’s all in the “Russian Folk Songs” transcrobe for4hands by Tchaikovsky! When he departed from this source the result was pitiful.
    Saint-Saëns’ pupil, Fauré brought along a theme for a proposed Tantum Ergo; S-S said: “Give me this, i can do something with it…” -it became the opening theme of his ultra-popular 2nd piano concerto, (“from Bach to Offenbach!”).
    Aram knew a KhachtyTunian when he heard one, but in this case, i think it’s coincidence; he didn’t seem short of fertile sources locally, and in any case, if he pinched T42, why not? He made an enjoyable concerto out of his booty!
    Champion theme robbers were Poulenc and Mompou, plundering trad, contemporary & pop as they saw fit. But they made marvels, especially Poulenc.
    Sometimes it’s just coincidence. Has anyone remarked the astonishing identical 7-note sequence in the opening theme of two works with the SAME title, “Mainacht” and “Mayskaya noch” (‘Майская ночь”), by two of the unlikliest bedfellows, Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakov? It’s hard to say who got there first, but i’d say it’s just coincidence; “Zeitgeist” in its finest form, as they surely wouldn’t have known each other’s works or wished to imitate even if they did.

    Agreed with whoever cited the “jaw-dropping” performance by Kogan/BSO/Munch, a classic and enough to pardon (and, indeed to encourage…) any thieving & stealing possible!

    • John Borstlap says:


      The impressive, ear-catching, unforgettable melody with which Wagner’s Parsifal opens, unfolding the wide space of the spiritual drama, is a theme from Liszt’s Introduction to ‘The Bells of Strasbourg’, with an added couple of notes to it. Almost ALL Wagner’s most characteristic, memorable themes appear to have come from his carefully studying of Liszt’s scores, he reworked them and turned them into Wagner.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Correction: i meant BSO/Monteux! Was on autopilot, so used to BSO/Munch!