When Debussy Borrowed From Wagner

Photo by Kwinten De Pauw on Unsplash

A few years ago I went to a concert in what was then called The Hospital Club (now the h Club) in London. It’s got nothing to do with a hospital, other than that the site used to be a hospital back in the 18th century — nowadays it’s a members club for the creative industries. I didn’t really know what to expect, but something about the ticket told me that it wasn’t going to be an ordinary classical concert.

I can’t quite remember what the name of the orchestra was, unfortunately, but the setup was as follows: small stage, small audience, small ensemble (maybe around 10–15 players). What was special was that the conductor also took the role of a moderator. He explained which pieces they were playing and why. I love this concept, and it was the first time I had attended an event like this.

One thing I remember until today, and which blew my mind back then, was when the conductor gave an introduction to the next piece they were about to play: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It’s an absolutely lovely piece, and I left the evening liking it even more, because the conductor pointed out a specific section of it which was “inspired” by one of my favourite composers — Richard Wagner. Before playing the full piece, he made the orchestra play an excerpt from Wagner’s opera Parsifal right after the section from Debussy. And it was the coolest thing to hear the similarity, even if it was just a few notes, because you know it can’t be a coincidence if you know the story behind Debussy and Wagner. But more on that later.

I’ve been thinking about writing an article about this for quite a while. And finally I found the time to do more research about composers borrowing from each other. In what follows I give you a compilation of the things I found, with links to youtube videos at the right sections so you can hear for yourself. It’s a brief and incomplete list so if you know of more examples do let me know. Ready? Let’s go.

Haydn & Mozart

Let’s start right in the Classical period with Haydn’s Symphony №31 composed in 1765. At around 20 seconds we hear a brass fanfare followed by a downward string movement. A few seconds later the same pattern repeats. Now compare this to the end of Mozart’s Symphony №41 from 1788. If you listen carefully you’ll hear an extremely similar sounding downward movement in the strings. So that’s pretty cool — but does that mean that Mozart stole from Haydn?

Stealing is perhaps the wrong word. There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Haydn and Mozart were good friends and that Haydn to some degree can be seen as a mentor to Mozart. Haydn highly praised Mozart’s music and even confessed to dreaming about Mozart’s work. [1] Similarly, Mozart is known to have had a high esteem for Haydn himself. So much that Mozart even dedicated a set of 6 Quartets (the “Haydn Quartets”) to him.

Clementi & Mozart

Copying motives from other composers was not so much a problem back in the days as it is nowadays. Back then it was often seen as a compliment when a composer picked a piece from someone else and incorporated it into their song. One such example is the opening motif of Muzio Clementi’s B-flat major sonata (Op. 24, №2) from 1781.

An almost identical copy of it appears in Mozart’s overture for the Magic Flute from 1791 at around 1:42. Muzio didn’t seem to have hard feelings about this as he continued to admire and transcribe Mozart’s music. The two of them once played in a improvisation competition which ended in a draw. After the encounter, Clementi was more enthusiastic about Mozart’s skills than the other way round, though some scholars see a clear influence of Clementi’s style in Mozart’s later pieces [2]

Mozart & Beethoven

There’s a thin line between someone knowingly reusing someone else’s melody and two people just coming up with similar sounding melodies independently. In the end we will never know for certain. Let’s look into 2 examples that aren’t so clear cut.

Listen to the first 4 bars of Mozart’s opera Bastien und Bastienne from 1768 when he was just 12 years old. Now listen to the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony №3 from around 1803. Leave out Beethoven’s 2 chords right at the start and focus on the melody that follows. It’s written in a different key, and sounds a lot less tame, but the similarity between the 2 melodies is striking — don’t you think?

This might actually not be an example of Beethoven taking directly, or knowingly from Mozart. It is believed that Beethoven wasn’t aware of Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne when he wrote his 3rd. Especially because it wasn’t published at this time. One explanation for this might be that they both coincidentally heard and learned the theme from someone else[3]. Nevertheless, the melodies sound very similar.

Another example is Mozart’s Misericordias Domini from 1755. Listen to the melody which starts at around 0:59 — does it sound familiar? If it does, then you are probably thinking about Beethoven’s famous Ode to Joy in the last movement of his Symphony №9 from 1824. You can hear it for example at around 2:37. It’s a very famous melody which by the way is also the anthem of the European Union.

The chances of Beethoven knowing of this melody are again quite slim. However, it is established that Mozart’s melody at least “foreshadows” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy [3]. Whether or not Beethoven was aware of it, there is a striking resemblance between these 2 sections. And if he wasn’t, it is kind of nice to think that 2 of the greatest composers of all times independently came up with similar sounding melodies.

Beethoven & Mahler

Beethoven — one of the most esteemed composers of all time. He is said to have marked the peak of symphonies as an art form. Anyone who ever wrote a symphony after him can’t get around getting compared to him. Let’s look at how other composers might have incorporated a section in their own music here and there. For example, consider Beethoven’s Symphony №4 from 1806.

It’s never quite reached the same popularity as the 3rd (“Eroica”) or the famous 5th. Nevertheless, Mahler seemed to have enjoyed the first couple of notes (starting at around 49s) of this symphony. If you compare it to the beginning of his Symphony №1 from 1888 you might hear that he is using a very similar sounding descending motif. This is just one example, but it demonstrates that Beethoven was one of the bigger influences in Mahler’s style. Mahler actually interacted quite a bit with Beethoven’s work. He re-orchestrated some of Beethoven’s pieces to adjust them to the tastes of Mahler’s time.

Beethoven & Brahms

We’ve talked about Beethoven’s Symphony №9 and how it resembles one of Mozart pieces a bit. In turn, the famous Ode of Joy has also inspired other composers after Beethoven. Listen for example to the melody starting at around 2:50. And now try to hear the similarities of this melody with a section towards the end of Brahm’s Symphony №1.

If you do hear some degree of resemblence there, then that’s no coincidence. Brahm’s 1st symphony is somtimes referred to as “Beethovens Tenth” because of the many similarities. Brahm’s reportedly wasn’t a big fan of any such talk. While he acknowledged that he might have borrowed from Beethoven, he also annoyingly said “any ass can see that” [4].

Berlioz & Wagner

Moving on to another well known piece: BerliozRoméo et Juliette from 1839. Based on Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet, it is considered one of Berlioz’ most significant pieces. Richard Wagner reportedly sat in the audience when it was first performed in Paris and maybe this was the time he fell in love with it. Consider first the passage starting at around 16:33 in Roméo et Juliette.

Now, compare that to Wagner’s opera Tristan & Isolde from 1859, in particular the section starting from 5:32. The similarity is striking isn’t it? This by the way is only one of many sections where the 2 pieces are similar. Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette is considered to be a major influence behind Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde. Wagner is said to have felt as a schoolboy to Berlioz’ side when he first heard the piece in Paris in 1839. Wagner clearly admired Berlioz, to the extent that in 1860 he sent Berlioz the published score of Tristan & Isolde inscribed with

To the great and dear author of
Romeo and Juliet
from the grateful author of
Tristan and Isolde. [5]

So contrary to the example of Brahms & Beethoven, Wagner very clearly and very openly borrowed motifs from Berlioz. Of course, Wagner didn’t just copy and paste it, but instead he left his own mark on it and turned it into something new.

Wagner & Debussy

It’s time to close the circle and come back to the example from the beginning of this article. Wagner’s compositions, and in particular his Tristan and Isolde, are sometimes considered the beginning of modern music. And as such, they had a great influence on the composers who came after him, such as composers of the Impressionist era like Debussy. Listen first to an excerpt from Wagner’s opera Parsifal from 1882, starting from around 6:36.

And now compare this to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune from 1894. In particular the section starting from 4:35. This is the section that inspired me to write this article — can you hear why?

It is the also last video of this article so you can play it until the end and enjoy. Debussy heard Wagner’s Parsifal for the first time in 1887 and judged it “decidedly the finest thing I know”. It is perhaps no coincidence that for a short time, Debussy was strongly influenced by Wagner. One can argue that because of Wagner’s monumental influence at the time (not only on Debussy), he felt the need to break away from him and subsequently became more interested in non-western music styles. But even many years later, in 1903, he wrote that Parsifal was

“Incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong. Parsifal is one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music.” [6]

So this is it, I hope you found the examples I gave compelling.

Thanks for reading!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haydn_Quartets_(Mozart)

[2] Hermann Abert (1920), W. A. Mozart, translated by Stewart Spencer, Yale University, 2007

[3] Gutman, Robert W., Mozart: A Cultural Biography, 1999, p. 242

[4] Back cover blurb Archived 2009–03–18 at the Wayback Machine for David Lee Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony №1 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). “Brahms’ First Symphony has been hailed as Beethoven’s Tenth.”

[5] Cairns (1999), p. 650.

[6] Beckett (1981), p. 108



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Jonas Vetterle

Jonas Vetterle

Machine Learning Engineer. Be curious, stay optimistic.