Wolfgang Amadeus Copycat

Did Mozart plagiarize?

It’s a testament to playwright Peter Shaffer’s pen that to this day when people hear the name Mozart, the image of Amadeus’ whimsically childish genius replete with glass-shattering cackle instantly comes to mind. Yet beyond the liberty Shaffer took with Mozart’s personality, two important exaggerations of his remain in our collective imagination: Mozart’s supposed abilities to both instantly conjure masterworks of the utmost ingenuity and then to perfectly dictate them from his head to staff paper in the form we now hear them.

In fact, Mozart wasn’t only more workmanlike than many of us think, crafting numerous sketches and drafts of his pieces just like other composers. He was what you might politely call a “creative collaborator.”

Or so a new recording by the Boston Baroque orchestra would have it. Thanks to the research of University of Northern Iowa musicologist David Buch, The Beneficent Dervish is more than simply an interesting world premiere. It’s evidence that Mozart wasn’t quite as inventive in the writing of The Magic Flute as previously thought.

The Beneficent Dervish was composed by several players from Mozart’s circle and based on librettos from the same book as The Magic FluteDschinnistan, by Christoph Martin Wieland, a writer of so-called “Oriental” fairy tales. Like The Magic Flute, it’s a singspiel—an opera made of musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue. Both were performed in Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden in the final decade of the 18th century, and both were pet projects of the theater director (and Mozart’s first Papageno, a major character in Flute) Emanuel Schikaneder.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. According to Buch’s recently conducted research—based on the discovery of an audience member’s diary, a book of vocal texts found in the Austrian National Library, and old newspaper ads—Dervish was performed before The Magic Flute was written and was very likely heard by Mozart. Both Dervish and Flute feature princes as their protagonists as well as simple jester-sidekicks. In Flute, the latter is Papageno, the lovably dopey bell-ringing man-bird; in Dervish, it’s Mandolino, a wacky fisherman with a magic fool’s cap and—ding, ding!—a set of bells too. Both sidekicks have female counterparts (Mandolino with Mandolina, Papageno with Papagena); the princes share their mission—to win a princess—with the help of a secret observer; and magic everyday items serve as important props.

Even the music is somewhat similar, despite Dervish being a far less cohesive, intelligent, and grandiose work. Dervish’s overture opens with three stately chords, just like the Magic Flute’s—many people remark on Mozart’s interest in the mythical and Masonic importance of the number 3. Dervish features an aria almost identical to Papageno’s famous anthem. And bells, a brand-new operatic element at the time, are used in both pieces.

Calling Mozart a plagiarist would be going too far; the musicians from within his theatrical community borrowed freely from each other as colleagues and partners who made livings off ticket sales. And it’s not uncommon for classical-music composers to quote one another; using age-old tunes like the dirgey Dies Irae (used most notably in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique), chorales of Bach (in tons of music from the Baroque to the present day), or famous folk tunes like the Eastern European melody that first appeared in Smetana’s Moldau and later showed up in Naftali Herz Imber’s score for the Jewish “Hatikva.” Usually, fear of being called derivative—one of classical music’s most serious insults—is enough to keep composers from out-and-out plagiarism. But it does happen, and the borrowers aren’t always second-tier hacks, either. Beethoven used Pachelbel’s Canon in the rondo of his Op. 28 Piano Sonata somewhat sneakily; Richard Strauss took 50 themes from Vittorio Gnecchi’s 1905 opera Cassandra for use in Elektra in what was less tribute than underhanded grab. Shostakovich commented on the whole issue of theme-stealing himself with his use of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” an instantly recognizable tune, in his sarcastically witty Prelude No. 15 in D Flat, Op. 87.

Ironically, The Beneficent Dervish lived on only because it was lifted: If Mozart had never lived, it surely would have disappeared into the ether. Which may be why Mozart took it in the first place: He probably thought little of the common singspiels performed around him in 18th-century Vienna and never counted on assiduous musicologists like David Buch digging them up. His presumption is damning but also humanizing: It turns out that classical music’s most enigmatic genius was either a casual copycat, one of the boys, or, more realistically, a little bit of both.