Making Music with Tuneful 'Leftovers' Even history's most famous composers raided their own works for themes and ditties to use in future works. They also borrowed from the works of their predecessors. Renee Montagne talks with music commentator Miles Hoffman about famous musical leftovers.

Making Music with Tuneful 'Leftovers'

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It's become a holiday tradition on MORNING EDITION to invite commentator Miles Hoffman to take the Thanksgiving meal and discover within it a musical pun or play on words. In years past, he's talked about musical turkeys and also plucking in classical pieces, and for this day after Thanksgiving, his theme is musical leftovers.

MILES HOFFMAN: The tradition of using material that's already been used, whether it's a composer's own material or borrowing or stealing material from other composers, is a time-honored and actually very noble tradition. It's been going on for centuries. A composer will take a piano piece, for example, and make it into a symphony. And right away when I say that, I think of the "Eroica" symphony of Beethoven. Talk about stretching out the leftovers, there's a tune in the last movement. It's a tune that Beethoven used a total of four times. He used it first in the finale of a ballet that he wrote, called "Prometheus," and at the same time he wrote a little dance with that same tune, then he wrote piano variations based on this tune.

(Soundbite of piano passage)

HOFFMAN: And then we hear how it occurs in the last movement of the great "Eroica" symphony.

(Soundbite of "Eroica" symphony)

MONTAGNE: Is there any aspect of this that would be a commercial decision? That is, would Beethoven be thinking, `Oh, they loved it on the piano; let's give it to them again in my new symphony'? I know that sounds a little bit silly, but...

HOFFMAN: No, no, no, it's--actually, it's an excellent question, Renee, because when you talk about commercial possibilities, think of the form that we call the suite, where you have a whole ballet or you have a whole opera, and a composer draws some of the most popular or the best parts out of it. "The Nutcracker Suite" is a great example. You can't always get all the tutus together; that's very expensive, that's a major production. But Tchaikovsky knew that this music was terribly, terribly popular, and has remained extremely popular, in large part because of the suite.

(Soundbite of "The Nutcracker Suite")

MONTAGNE: What about critics? I mean, do they--have they sneered at the idea--something like, `Hey, this composer is running out of ideas'?

HOFFMAN: Oh, I don't think so. In fact, in many cases, it's a gesture of homage and admiration for another composer's great melody or great tune. One famous melody that's been borrowed more than once is the theme of the "24th Caprice" by Niccolo Paganini. This is a great virtuoso showpiece for the violin.

(Soundbite of "24th Caprice" on solo violin)

HOFFMAN: And now we hear a little portion of Sergey Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which became in its own right a beloved piece.

(Soundbite of "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini")

MONTAGNE: That is a pleasure.

HOFFMAN: And this is common to composers, taking somebody else's work and turning it into a flashy virtuoso arrangement.

MONTAGNE: Miles, can you give us an example of an extreme, if you will, transformation?

HOFFMAN: OK. An extreme transformation--think of the folk song "Frere Jacques." (Singing) Da da dee da, da da da. Well, Gustav Mahler used this tune in the third movement of his First Symphony, and he has it as this deep, dark thing, certainly about as far away from the original feeling as you could possibly get.

(Soundbite of Mahler's First Symphony)

MONTAGNE: So would you say in a way that this Mahler piece draws its power from the tension to the very innocent reference that one picks up?

HOFFMAN: I think you should be a music critic, Renee. I have to...

MONTAGNE: Using a word like `tension'?

HOFFMAN: No, I mean, that's a very--you've hit on something there. And the contrast between what Mahler does and the original does somehow give extra meaning to this music. I think you should be going into music college.

MONTAGNE: Well, if I was really good, I might be able to hear a theme or a phrase that was so artfully stolen or so fleetingly used that mostly people couldn't hear it. Do composers do that, as well--get away somehow with stealing and not get caught?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. There's a famous example of that that Leonard Bernstein did, and it's no secret and he did not mean it to be a secret. He wasn't hiding anything. But his song "There's a Place for Us," from "West Side Story."

(Soundbite of "There's a Place for Us")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us.

HOFFMAN: It's based very, very closely on the beautiful principal theme of the slow movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto.

(Soundbite of "Emperor" piano concerto)

HOFFMAN: And then, of course--I mean, the piano concerto goes off in different directions, the song goes off in different directions, but that little kernel is very, very touching.

MONTAGNE: And you might actually not notice.

HOFFMAN: Well, that's right. It passes quickly. Although it is, in fact--among Beethoven fans it's a famous moment, too, and it's a famous steal.


HOFFMAN: And he--you know, if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.

MONTAGNE: Miles, thank you for whipping up this musical version of--What?--turkey tetrazzini, I guess, if you will.

HOFFMAN: Well, now, you see, Renee, before we leave, turkey tetrazzini, or actually chicken tetrazzini originally, was named after Louisa Tetrazzini, a very famous operatic soprano.


HOFFMAN: Yes, that's true. Look it up online.

MONTAGNE: That's--a lot of people will, as a matter of--yeah.

HOFFMAN: There you go. And she always said you should eat well, by the way. That's another thing. I have a book by her and she says, `You should always eat well if you want to be a good singer.'

MONTAGNE: Well, that's a nice thought the day after Thanksgiving. And thank you, Miles. It's a pleasure, as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director for the American Chamber Players and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion." A list of all the music you heard and, of course, a recipe for turkey tetrazzini, can be found at From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.


MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.

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