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Musical Self-Borrowing in Ottocento Opera and the Composer's Toolbox

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2023

Roberta Montemorra Marvin*
University of Iowa


Self-borrowing was a common practice in primo ottocento opera. Even though commentators of the era could find it somewhat troublesome, composers indulged in the practice. Drawing on existing scholarship, and reflecting on the work of my co-contributors to this journal issue, I ponder a few sundry notions about the procedure and its context, addressing theoretical, historical and practical perspectives relating to composers, historical commentators, listeners and modern-day scholars. I begin with a survey of terminology that has been applied in discussions of self-borrowing and a review of the manner in which selected present-day scholars have characterized the practice. I then consider the nature of self-borrowing in the ottocento opera repertory against a backdrop of contemporaneous theoretical discussions about how to compose opera, and I contemplate the extent to which self-borrowings in this repertory can be deemed to bear meaning. I conclude by raising the possibility of applying concepts from cognitive theory to operatic encounters with self-borrowing, proposing that the practice served as a tool for composers to fuel expectation, predictability, anticipation and even surprise to enhance musical pleasure. My purpose is to prompt reflection on the reasons behind as well as an appreciation for the value of this oft-maligned compositional ‘tool’ in the interest of gaining insight into its impact on the listening experience and the evaluation of musical works.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Carpani, Giuseppe, Le Rossiniane ossia Lettere musico-teatrali (Padua: Minerva, 1824; reprint, Bologna: Forni, 1969): 156Google Scholar: ‘[M]algrado l'essere ciascuno padrone del suo, pure amerei ch'ei ripetesse un po’ meno certi suoi passi prediletti, perché quando una volta ne fe dono al pubblico, egli non ha più il diritto di riprenderseli per regalarglieli più volte ancora.’ Passage cited, in a different translation, in Senici, Emanuele, Music in the Present Tense: Rossini's Italian Operas in Their Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019): 56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Senici, Music in the Present Tense, cit. from Gazzetta di Milano, 23 August 1817. Here and elsewhere in this article, ellipses in quotations are in the original unless they are in square brackets.

3 Posted on the Maynooth University Department of Music website: ‘Self-Borrowing in Nineteenth-Century Opera: A Reconsideration’; (accessed 21 September 2020).

4 This useful taxonomy is put forth in Spada, Marco, ‘Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra di Gioachino Rossini: Fonti letterarie e autoimprestito musicale’, Nuova rivista musicale italiana 24 (1990): 147–82Google Scholar, here 165–73. Spada sees ‘formula tematica o frase cadenzale’ as the most important category further specifying ‘spunti tematiche, formule ritmiche, formule cadenzali’ which he notes are at times transformed to such an extent that they become little more than ‘tratti stilistici’ (‘stylistic traits’). Cf. also Malnati, Andrea, ‘La pratica dell'autoimprestito nell'opera italiana del primo Ottocento’, Estetica 4/1 (2014): 71–82Google Scholar.

5 Senici, Emanuele, ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”: La pratica rossiniana dell'autoimprestito nel discorso dei contemporanei’, Philomusica online 9/1 (2010): 69–99Google Scholar, here 71: ‘il riuso di temi, frasi, movimenti e interi numeri cui il compositore fece ricorso con una certa frequenza, riprendendo tali elementi da suoi lavori precedenti, a volte lasciandoli intatti, altre modificandoli’. Another description applied to Rossini – ‘arrangements of his own music for new operas or revivals of old operas’ – can be found in Gossett, Philip, ‘Rossini in Naples: Some Major Works Recovered’, The Musical Quarterly 54 (1968): 316–40Google Scholar, here 322. A specific phenomenon of self-borrowing for Bellini as ‘the practice of pairing a single melody with two (or more) unrelated poetic texts or dramatic situations’ has been identified by Smart, Mary Ann, ‘In Praise of Convention: Formula and Experiment in Bellini's Self-Borrowings’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 53/1 (2000): 25–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 25.

6 The techniques of Handel, perhaps the most written-about composer (before Rossini) with regard to self-borrowing, have been summarized by more than one scholar. As one example, Berndt Baselt lays out three main categories of ‘parody’, which George Buelow refines and relabels: the use of an entire movement with (‘re-use’) or without (‘parody’) the same text; the use of ‘an especially expressive musical movement with a pregnant theme’ which is treated to insertions, extensions and other kinds of modifications to shape a ‘quasi new piece’ (‘reworking’); and the use of individual themes, accompanimental figuration, or other brief melodic motives, to create a completely new section/movement (‘new work’). Baselt, Berndt, ‘Zum Pariodieverfahren in Händels frühen Opern’, Händel Jahrbuch 21/22 (1975/76): 19–39Google Scholar; and Buelow, George J., ‘Handel's Borrowing Techniques: Some Fundamental Questions Derived from a Study of Agrippina (Venice, 1709)’, Göttinger Händel-Beiträge 2 (1986): 105–28Google Scholar. In the twentieth century, Charles Ives's self-borrowing took on multiple profiles; among the 14 categories in J. Peter Burkholder's taxonomy, five seem germane for ottocento opera: the use of a composition or a section of a composition in a pre-existing work, embracing its structure, assimilating some of its melodic material, duplicating its form or processes, or otherwise using it as a template (‘modeling’); use of a pre-existing melody to devise a new melody, theme, or motive (‘paraphrasing’); use of a work in a new medium (‘arranging’); use of a pre-existing melody with a new accompaniment (‘setting’); and use of a pre-existing melody as the basis of a paraphrase for an entire work or section of a work (‘extended paraphrase’). Burkholder, J. Peter, ‘The Uses of Existing Music: Musical Borrowing as a Field’, Notes 50/3 (1994): 851–70Google Scholar, here 854; see also the discussion of Burkholder in Mantica's introduction to the present journal issue.

7 The nature and meaning of the appropriate application of the term ‘self-borrowing’, with regard to Rossini, has been addressed by Marco Beghelli in ‘Dall’“autoimprestito” alla “tinta”: Elogio di un “péché de jeunesse”’, in Gioachino Rossini, 1868–2018: La musica e il mondo, ed. Ilaria Narici, Emilio Sala, Emanuele Senici and Benjamin Walton (Pesaro: Fondazione Rossini, 2018): 49–92. Beghelli proposes that nuanced descriptors such as ‘autocitazione’ (‘self-quotation’), ‘prelievo’ (‘withdrawal, sampling’), ‘trasferimento’ (‘transfer’), ‘reimpiego’ (‘re-use’), ‘riutilizzo’ (‘re-utilization’), or others, may be more fitting than ‘autoimprestito’ (literal translation of ‘self-borrowing’), carefully applying terms throughout his study to illustrate his point (p. 51).

8 In addition to the scholarship on ottocento opera cited throughout this essay, see, for example, Burkholder, ‘The Uses of Existing Music’; Buelow, George J., ‘The Case for Handel's Borrowings: The Judgment of Three Centuries’, in Handel Tercentenary Collection, ed. Sadie, Stanley and Hicks, Anthony (London: Macmillan, 1987): 61–82Google Scholar; id., ‘Handel's Borrowing Techniques’; Winton Dean, ‘Bizet's Self-Borrowings’, Music & Letters 41 (1960): 238–44; Macdonald, Hugh, ‘Berlioz's Self-Borrowings’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 92 (1965–66): 27–44Google Scholar; Graham Sadler, ‘A Re-Examination of Rameau's Self-Borrowings’, in Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Music of the French Baroque: Essays in Honor of James R. Anthony, ed. John Hajdu Heyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 259–89.

9 The literary term ‘transformative imitation’ has been applied to Handel's approach to self-borrowing. The concept, which originated with the Romans, involves gathering material from worthy sources and transforming it into something new and admirable. Such practice was accepted theoretically and aesthetically (in certain situations) in Handel's day though reproached practically and pedagogically. For an informative discussion of transformative imitation and its application to Handel's works, see Winemiller, John T., ‘Recontextualizing Handel's Borrowing’, Journal of Musicology 15/4 (1997): 444–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the term is discussed in Pigman, George W. III, ‘Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance’, Renaissance Quarterly 33 (1980): 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Hurley, David Ross, ‘Handel's Transformative Compositional Practices’, Journal of Musicology 38 (2021): 479502Google Scholar.

10 As Beghelli remarked: ‘il riutilizzo di pensieri verbali e musicali era […] all'ordine del giorno negli anni di Rossini’ (‘re-use of verbal and musical ideas was […] the order of the day in Rossini's time’); ‘Dall’ “autoimprestito” alla “tinta”’, 62.

11 Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 5.

12 Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 73, 58–60.

13 Seta, Fabrizio Della, ‘Some Difficulties in the Historiography of Italian Opera’, in his Not without Madness: Perspectives on Opera, trans. Weir, Mark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012): 119–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 119–20.

14 Letter from Guglielmi to the editor of the Corriere milanese, original published in Corriere delle dame, 25 September 1813, cit. in Senici ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”’, 82: ‘non essendo cosa difficile che un maestro, che si è formato uno stile, non volendo si riproduca in qualche piccola cosa’. Cf. Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 64, for a different translation.

15 Bonifazio Asioli, Il maestro di composizione, ossia Seguito al Trattato d'armonia (Milan: G. Ricordi, [1836]).

16 The formulaic setting of characteristic Italian verse structures has been studied by scholars Friedrich Lippmann, who discussed rhythmic-musical typologies as they pertain to specific Italian poetic metrical schemes and the impact of musical-poetic rhythm on musical style, and Robert Moreen, who focused on the relationship of text to expected norms and basic formal patterns in Verdi's early operas. See Friedrich Lippmann, Vincenzo Bellini und die italienische Opera Seria seiner Zeit: Studien über Libretto, Arienform und Melodik, Analecta musicologica, vol. 6 (Cologne: Böhlau, 1969), Italian trans. by Lorenzo Bianconi as Versificazione italiana e ritmo musicale (Naples: Liguori, 1986); and Robert A. Moreen, Integration of Text Forms and Musical Forms in Verdi's Early Operas (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1975). On melodic conventions and self-borrowing, see also Smart, ‘In Praise of Convention’.

17 Stereotypical musical gestures (such as crying, laughing, reading, singing, fainting, dying and similar) and ritual acts (such as prayers, curses, hymns and oaths) in ottocento opera and their musical depiction through semiotic emblems have been studied in depth by Marco Beghelli, especially with regard to the operas of Verdi; see his La retorica del rituale nel melodramma ottocentesco (Parma: Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 2003); ‘L'emblema melodrammatico del lamento: Il semitono dolente’, Verdi 2001: Atti del Convegno internazionale, Parma, New York, New Haven, 24 Gennaio–1 Febbraio 2001, ed. Fabrizio Della Seta, Roberta Montemorra Marvin and Marco Marica, 2 vols (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2003): 1: 241–80; ‘I buoni e i cattivi: Cori di congiurati a confronto’, Studi verdiani 15 (2000–01): 29–75; ‘Per un nuovo approccio al teatro musicale: L'atto performativo come luogo dell'imitazione gestuale nella drammaturgia verdiana’, Italica 64 (1987): 632–53; Atti performativi nella drammaturgia verdiana (Tesi di laurea, Università degli studi di Bologna, 1986).

18 Asioli, Il maestro di composizione, Book 3, article V: ‘l'addattare i suoni e i movimenti ritmici alla qualità delle passioni che imita od esprime’.

19 On the ways in which contemporary commentators deemed Rossini's expressive musical practices and imitative devices often to go against the grain, see Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 23–30.

20 Verdi's familiarity with Asioli's treatise and the ways in which it was manifest in the composer's earliest opera are discussed in Roberta Montemorra Marvin, Verdi the Student – Verdi the Teacher (Parma: Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 2010), chap. 2; an earlier version of the study appeared as ‘Verdi Learns to Compose: The Writings of Bonifazio Asioli’, Studi musicali 36 (2007): 469–90.

21 Carlo Ritorni, Ammaestramenti alla composizione d'ogni poema e d'ogni opera appartenente alla musica (Milan: Giacomo Pirola, 1841).

22 These conventions have been addressed in detail by Balthazar, Scott L., ‘Ritorni's Ammaestramenti and the Conventions of Rossinian Melodramma’, Journal of Musicological Research 8 (1988–89): 281–311Google Scholar; and Powers, Harold, ‘La solita forma” and the Uses of Convention’, Acta Musicologica 59 (1987): 6590CrossRefGoogle Scholar; cf. Malnati, ‘La pratica dell'autoimprestito’, esp. 74–5.

23 See Ritorni, Ammaestramenti, I, LXI, p. 55: ‘il maggior difetto vien dalla sazievole uniformità d'ogn’opera; perché, composte tutte di parti d'una determinata struttura, e delle stessissime situazioni e parole, risolvesi poi la maggiore importanza in un assieme tutto colle stesse situazioni, colle stesse frasi, onde tutte l'opere sono sorelle di gemelli sembianti. Veduta una le conosci tutte. E l'uniformità de’ libretti convien che trasfondasi negli spartiti, quindi tutte le musiche moderne hanno una sola fisonomia’. (‘The greatest defect comes from the excessive uniformity of every opera; since, composed entirely of parts of a predetermined structure and of extremely similar situations and words, the majority thus are completely made up of the same situations and the same phrases, so that all operas resemble twin sisters. Having seen one of them, you know all of them. And the uniformity of librettos is necessarily infused into the scores, so that all modern music has a single physiognomy’.) See also Balthazar, ‘Ritorni's Ammaestramenti’, 281, for a different translation of this excerpt and 294–98 on the nature and context of Ritorni's criticism of the conventions of opera.

24 Melina Esse has remarked that self-borrowing is ‘resistant to explanation, interpretation, and the hermeneutic enterprise’; ‘Donizetti's Gothic Resurrections’, 19th-Century Music 33/2 (2009): 81–109, here 84. Roger Parker has mused that, although the desire to find meaning in moments of musical similarity between a composer's works (what he refers to as ‘musical doubles’) can be powerful, such connections, resemblances, or cross-references may have ‘no meaning’ or may ‘resist stubbornly being co-opted to the meaning field that we wish to maintain’ despite giving us ‘an enticing glimpse of secret workings’ which through ‘happy recognition […] confound us pleasurably’; Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006): 38–41.

25 Mary Ann Smart, Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Nineteenth-Century Italy, 1815–1848 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018): 79–81.

26 Rossini to Tito Ricordi, 1864, cited in Senici, ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”’, 70 (Italian), and Music in the Present Tense, 67–8 (English): ‘si troveranno in diverse opere gli stessi pezzi di musica: il tempo e il denaro che mi si accordava per comporre era sì omeopatico, che appena avevo io il tempo di leggere la così detta poesia da musicare.’

27 See also Philip Gossett, ‘Compositional Methods’, in The Cambridge Companion to Rossini, ed. Emanuele Senici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 68–84, here 81; Malnati, ‘La pratica dell'autoimprestito’, 74–5.

28 See Emanuele, Marco, ‘L'autoimprestito in Rossini: Alcune ipotesi’, Nuova rivista musicale italiana 31 (1997): 101–14Google Scholar, esp. 102, 107. There was a risk that, rather than improving upon a previously used musical idea, a composer might instead weaken or spoil it, as Esse has commented: ‘On the one hand, the re-use of previously composed music is a kind of reanimation of dead material; composers must infuse old forms, gestures, and melodies with new life, new meaning. But on the other hand, music borrowed from earlier works seems dangerously poised to devolve into inert matter – to be easily rendered a meaningless iteration of what has been done before’; ‘Donizetti's Gothic Resurrections’, p. 84.

29 For Rossini, studies of individual operas have suggested that self-borrowing (in Senici's summary) ‘tended to affect either works that failed to circulate (from which to borrow) or that were not expected to circulate (into which to insert borrowed material), or both’. See Emanuele Senici, ‘Rossinian Repetitions’, in The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini: Historiography, Analysis, Criticism, ed. Nicholas Mathew and Benjamin Walton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 236–62, here 248. As Philip Gossett observed, ‘Rossini was usually wise enough to limit his self-borrowing to works having premieres in different cities’; ‘The Overtures of Rossini’, 19th-Century Music 3 (July 1979): 3–31, here 8. Elsewhere Gossett noted that as Rossini worked ‘he was both borrowing and recomposing’ vocal lines and orchestration; and he ‘would sometimes address a new audience by drawing on music he valued from operas that were less effective in their entirety’; ‘Compositional Methods’, 82 and 81 respectively. Selected studies of self-borrowing in individual operas include Marco Mauceri, ‘La gazzetta di Gioachino Rossini: Fonti del libretto e autoimprestito musicale’, in Ottocento e oltre: Scritti in onore di Raoul Meloncelli, ed. Francesco Izzo and Johannes Streicher (Rome: Pantheon, 1993): 115–49; Arrigo Quattrocchi, ‘La logica degli autoimprestiti: Eduardo e Cristina’, in Gioachino Rossini, 1792–1992: Il testo e la scena. Convegno internazionale di studi, Pesaro, 25–28 giugno 1992, ed. Paolo Fabbri (Pesaro: Fondazione Rossini, 1994): 365–82; Spada, ‘Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra’.

30 See the discussions of these phenomena in, for instance, Gossett, ‘Compositional Methods’, 80, and Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 206.

31 On the various criteria, see, for instance, Malnati, ‘La pratica dell'autoimprestito’, 75–8.

32 Of these songs, Julian Budden remarked: ‘it is clear from their nature that he [Verdi] was determined to present himself as a composer of tragic operas in posse’; Verdi, 3d ed., The Master Musicians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 316. On similarities and anticipations in these songs of features and passages in Verdi's operas, see Ibid., 316–22.

33 Smart, ‘In Praise of Convention’, 28–36.

34 Alexandra Wilson, The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), for this idea see esp. 55 and 108. Discussion of Puccini's self-borrowing can also be found in Francesco Cesari, ‘Autoimprestito e riciclaggio in Puccini: Il caso di Edgar’, in Giacomo Puccini: L'uomo, il musicista, il panorama europeo: Atti del Convegno internazionale di studi su Giacomo Puccini nel 70° anniversario della morte (Lucca, 25–29 novembre 1994), ed. Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and Carolyn Gianturco (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 1997): 425–52.

35 Smart, ‘In Praise of Convention’, 31–2. For additional views on Bellini's self-borrowing, see, for instance, Marco Uvietta, ‘Da Zaira a I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Preliminari di un'indagine filologica sui processi di ricomposizione’, in Vincenzo Bellini: Verso l'edizione critica, ed. Fabrizio Della Seta and Simonetta Ricciardi, special issue of Chigiana: Journal of Musicological Studies (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2004): 101–39.

36 Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 68, and id., ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”’, 70; Beghelli, ‘Dall’ “autoimprestito” alla “tinta”’, 54.

37 See the discussion by Georgina Born, ‘Listening, Mediation, Event’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135 (2010), special issue no. 1 on ‘Listening: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’: 79–89, here esp. 80–81.

38 See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

39 Senici, ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”’, 88; see also id., ‘Music and Memory in Rossini's Italy: ‘Di tanti palpiti’ as Folksong’, in Gioachino Rossini, 1868–2018: La musica e il mondo, 253–82, and chap. 11 '“Di tanti palpiti”', in Music in The Present Tense.

40 See Senici, ‘“Ferrea e tenace memoria”’; id., Music in the Present Tense, in particular ‘Memory’, 203–14; cf. Beghelli, ‘Dall’ “autoimprestito” alla “tinta”’, 53.

41 Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri; English trans. as Giacomo Leopardi: Zibaldone; ed. Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino; trans. Kathleen Baldwin et al. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). On Leopardi and the linking of repetition and pleasure, see Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 216. Senici (Ibid., 317n3) notes that Carpani, Le Rossiniane, made some tentative observations on the pleasures of repetition. On Leopardi and habituation and novelty, see Senici, Ibid., 208–10.

42 See Senici, Music in the Present Tense, especially the chapters on ‘Memory’ and ‘Pleasure’.

43 Meyer, Leonard B., Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956)Google Scholar; id., Music, the Arts, and Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967); Huron, David, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Margulis, Elizabeth, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas, 46. See also Senici on ‘Pleasure’ in Music in the Present Tense, 215–29.

45 For example, Huron observes that ‘more than 99 per cent of all listening experiences involve listening to musical passages that the listener has heard before’ (Sweet Anticipation, 241); and Margulis asserts that repetition is ‘a fundamental characteristic of what we experience as music’ (On Repeat, 5).

46 On self-borrowing and repetition, see also Senici, Music in the Present Tense, 31–53.

47 Chapter 13 of Huron's Sweet Anticipation is devoted to ways of creating predictability in music; see also Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas, chap. 3 ‘On Rehearing Music’, 42–53, and Margulis, On Repeat, chap. 5 ‘Relistenings’, 95–116.

48 Margulis, On Repeat, 95.

49 Huron puts it this way: ‘A striking fact about music is our tolerance – indeed our desire – to listen to the same music again and again’; Sweet Anticipation, 267.

50 See Huron's discussion of five types of such mechanism in Sweet Anticipation. This kind of predictability, expectation or familiarity might also have been a consequence of the formulaic nature of primo ottocento opera, especially in the concepts put forth by Asioli (discussed previously).

51 See Huron, Sweet Anticipation, 240; also Margulis, chap. 5 ‘Relistenings’, on ‘habituation’.

52 On deviation see also Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, esp. chaps 7 and 8.

53 On surprise, see Huron, Sweet Anticipation, esp. chaps 2 and 14 (the latter on creating surprise).

54 For a definition of ‘paradoxical expectation’, a concept Huron discusses in Sweet Anticipation, see 417.