Critic Tom Manoff and musicologist Brian McWhorter got a surprise earlier this month when they attended a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's Sidereus given by the Eugene Symphony in Oregon. The two men had recently been editing a recording of Barbeich, a work by composer and accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, and the two pieces sounded suspiciously similar. Golijov had acknowledged the use of a theme from Ward-Bergeman's score, but to Manoff and McWhorter's ears he had taken more than that. Manoff later wrote that the plagiarism accounted for over 50% of the score and included 'melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, and notable musical structures.'
Osvaldo Golijov is well known for his collaborative approach to composition, and the popularity of his music stems in no small part from his close interactions with musicians working in popular styles. Ward-Bergeman has been one of his collaborators, and it turns out that both composers are happy with the amount of Barbeich that appears in Sidereus.
So where's the harm? Well, Golijov is a best-selling composer, and his work is of considerable financial benefit to his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, his agents, Opus3 Artists, and his record label, Nonesuch. None of these organisations are likely to reap the same dividends from a score jointly credited to the lesser-known Ward-Bergeman. And music by, or at least credited to, Golijov doesn't come cheap. The commission for Siderius came from a consortium of 35 American orchestras, each contributing between $1,500 and $4,000, none of whom had any idea about the connections between this and the earlier work. A number of these orchestras are now in the unenviable position of having to defend the composer and the work, but whether they will be returning to him for further commissions remains to be seen.
Any claims to originality for Siderius are also undermined by the fact that Golijov has used the same music before but under a different title. Ward-Bergeman's Barbeich was originally composed as part of a film music project, in which Golijov was also involved. There is no suggestion that Golijov played any part in the creation of Barbeich, but he did make an orchestration of it called Patagonia, which was performed in concert by members of the Chicago Symphony in March 2010.
Since the story began making headlines in the States last week, another instance of questionable attribution on Golijov's part has come to light. After posting his comments, Manoff was contacted by Lúcia Guimarães, a Brazilian journalist based in New York, to tell of a similar experience. She had attended a performance of Kohelet, written by Golijov for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. But one of the movements sounded very familiar, as a popular song by a Brazilian composer. Guimarães knows the Brazilian composer personally, and has been discrete in not naming the allegedly copied work. But she contacted Golijov himself, who apologised and withdrew the movement.
Some commentators, including Alex Ross, have suggested comparisons with Baroque composers as a defence for Golijov's actions. After all, both Bach and Handel routinely passed off other composers' works as their own. But, as Ross himself points out, Golijov's increasing reliance on the work of others parallels a significant decline in both the quality and quantity of his output. Sidereus, for example, is significantly shorter than its commission stipulated. He has also been having trouble meeting deadlines, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic had to cancel the high-profile première of his Violin Concerto last May as the score was not ready.
All of which stands in stark contrast to Golijov's works of a decade ago, when music like La Pasión según San Marcos and Ainadamar established him as a major new voice in classical music. As a result of those imaginative and popular scores, the credit 'by Osvaldo Golijov' still carries a significant financial premium. If it is to continue to do so, the composer himself needs to define precisely what those words mean.
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