:: The articles in this series were originally
:: published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


The Boeuf chronicles, Pt. 29

The fine line between tribute and theft.

Daniella Thompson

11 February 2003

Darius Milhaud, rapacious condor?

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
— Dean William R. Inge

As the structure of Le Boeuf sur le Toit clearly illustrates, the composition is a collage made up of a repetitive rondo theme concatenating 28 tunes created by at least 14 Brazilian composers (identification of the four mystery tunes could uncover more).

It is assumed that the rondo theme was Milhaud’s only melodic contribution to the piece, although it’s possible that he may have had a hand in any of the four unidentified tunes—nos. 14, 15, 16, and 20. Since Milhaud never identified his sources, the plagiarism question inevitably comes up, as indeed it has on more than one occasion.

One of the most ballyhooed instances was the poet Blaise Cendrars’ assertion that Milhaud had lifted the “Boi no Telhado” theme from Donga, an accusation that has no merit and that may have sprung wholly from the fertile imagination of Cendrars, who had a habit of crying wolf.

Blaise Cendrars, defender of the robbed?

But that wasn’t the end. In 1967, the illustrious musicologist and music professor Baptista Siqueira published the book Ernesto Nazareth na Música Brasileira (see selected scans), in which he dedicated several pages to castigating Milhaud. In Baptista Siqueira’s mind, the French composer had rapacious intentions from the start:

He didn’t want to limit his space, for he had condor-like intentions; as they say: “he doesn’t know how to fly low”! He took advantage of the Brazilian tunes, made them his own, and even hid the true source, widening the area of his “research” to South America, which, in fact, was exclusively in Brazil.

Baptista Siqueira further claims that Nazareth refused to believe in that possibility:

Ernesto Nazareth, warned by prudent persons about certain foreign “researchers,” didn’t want to believe that anyone could have even thought of lifting his tunes—so well were they known in Rio de Janeiro. [...] he didn’t foresee that internationally his name was unknown, his prestige, a chimera...

Thus, concludes Baptista Siqueira:

Hence the disappointment of those who hastened to the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro to watch the presentation of “Le boeuf sur le toit” and “Scaramouche” by Darius Milhaud, which could have been called festival Chiquinha, Calado, Tupinambá, Nazareth, etc...

One wonders how Joaquim Callado found his way into the “festival,” since Baptista Siqueira drops him there and then, and he’s never mentioned again. In his final chapter on Milhaud, titled Abuso Inominável, the musicologist speculates that it might have been the bad influence of others which compelled the composer to commit “one of the saddest usurpations in the History of Music.”

Surprisingly, the lengthy diatribe supplies little in the way of pay dirt for those wishing to identify the borrowed tunes, as Baptista Siqueira named only seven titles by five composers, including two errors:

Ernesto Nazareth — o Brejeiro e Escovado;
Alexandre Levy — Tango Brasileiro;
Marcelo Tupinambá — Viola Cantadeira e Matuto;
Eduardo Souto — Maricota sai da chuva;
Chiquinha Gonzaga — Corta-jaca, etc...

“Brejeiro” is not quoted in Le Boeuf (although an adaptation of its theme may be heard in part III, “Brazileira,” of the suite Scaramouche), while “Maricota, Sai da Chuva” was not written by Eduardo Souto (who is represented in Le Boeuf by another tune).

Ernesto Nazareth, victim of plagiarism?

A decade after Baptista Siqueira, another defender of Brazilian copyrights came to the fore. In articles published in the Folha de S. Paulo on 20 and 21 July 1977, João Marcos Coelho cried thief vociferously. His first item, titled “Plágio—Um boi francês, às custas da nossa música,” tells a story based more on invention than on fact:

On his return to France, [Milhaud] received a commission to compose music for a screening of Charles Chaplin’s silent films; he didn’t hesitate. He set out to make a simple collage of what he’d seen, heard, and noted down in Brazil, enclosing everything in a suite for piano and violin. Years later, Milhaud reformulated only the instrumentation of this suite, transforming it into an orchestral piece and giving it the title “Le Boeuf sur le Toit,” more familiar to Brazilians as “O boi no telhado.”

As examples of the stolen goods, Coelho cited “Flor do Abacate” (attributed by him to Arnaldo [sic] Sandim); Tupinambá’s “Maricota, Sai da Chuva”; Alexandre Levy’s “Tango” [sic]; Nazareth’s “Carioca”; and this revelation:

[...] and even a very well-known maxixe that was much hummed at the time, “Jacaré Comprou Cadeira, Não Tem B... Pra Sentar”.

In the second article, published the following day, Coelho furnished “confirmation of how Milhaud stole our music” under the extra-large headline Provas (proofs), reproducing the musical scores of “O Boi no Telhado” and “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho” alongside corresponding passages from Le Boeuf.

It is quite evident that Coelho had never listened to Le Boeuf sur le Toit or to “O Boi no Telhado” and couldn’t read music, for on the same page displaying the score of “O Boi no Telhado” he tells us:

O Boi no Telhado,” tango of that era that had been a great success in Rio de Janeiro, was not only taken for its title but literally used as the principal theme of the opening and as a bridge for the others themes, repeated thirteen times (see the plagiarism by examining the 17 measures that are the whole first section of the tune by José Monteiro and [sic] Zé Boiadêro).

Further damning evidence handed in by Coelho:

[...] 1) from the very familiar chorinho “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho” [...] Milhaud copied around nine complete measures. The melody is absolutely the same, only the key (G major) had been changed to C major; 2) from “Que Sôdade,” tanguinho by Marcelo Tupinambá that the people parodied with “Jacaré comprou cadeira, não tem b... pra sentar,” Milhaud copied 17 measures, practically the whole tune; his work consisted in transposing the song from D major to B major; 3) from “O Matuto,” cateretê-canção cearense also by Marcelo Tupinambá, Milhaud stole about 12 measures, not forgetting to change the key from G minor to F minor.

In conclusion, Coelho prophesies a bad end for Milhaud’s heirs if, according to the law, lifting more than eight measures constitutes a crime—and Milhaud, after all, could claim only the orchestration as his own work:

[...] the heirs of Nazareth and Tupinambá can perfectly well demand the payment of royalties for performances and recordings of “O Boi no Telhado” since 1920. [...]

Coelho forgot a small but not insignificant fact: in those days, composers sold their creations to music publishers outright, rarely receiving more than the initial lump-sum payment. Had he been paid royalties just for his music published in Brazil, Nazareth wouldn’t have died in penury.

Amusing as Coelho’s harangue is, there are those who take it seriously. Conar, Conselho Nacional de Auto-regulamentação Publicitária, is using the information in one of its cases demonstrating imitation or plagiarism:

Among all the arts, perhaps it is in music that cases of plagiarism may be most easily proven, for the convention is that the use of more than eight measures of a melody is sufficient to characterize the fraud.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to find cases in which a clear and defined consensus exists about the taking of others’ work. Rare are examples as clear as that raised by the musical critic João Marcos Coelho, through Caderno B of Jornal do Brasil [sic], in July 1977, when he proved conclusively the case of plagiarism practiced in 1920 by the French composer Darius Milhaud, who had recently been in Brazil.

Presenting to the Parisian audience as his own the composition Le Boeuf sur le Toit, or rather O Boi no Telhado, this musician had done nothing more than paste together a collage that included the title tune by the Brazilians José Monteiro and Zé Boiadeiro, with 17 measures; “Apanhei-te Cavaquinho” by Ernesto Nazaré, with nine measures; “Que Sôdade” (the well-known song “Jacaré comprou cadeira e não tem bunda para sentar”); and “O Matuto,” both by Marcello Tupinambá, with 17 and 12 measures, respectively.

This fact probably would not have happened today, given the ease of communications, but in the 1920s the French plagiarist received the glories of a work that never belonged to him.

Despite the plain lack of rigor exhibited by all the critics above, the question remains: did Milhaud pay tribute to Brazilian music or was he merely a copycat? Is Le Boeuf sur le Toit a marvelously inventive collage possessing original values and merits of its own or just a hodgepodge of stolen tunes? Could Milhaud have done the same thing while using other sources?

What do you think?


Baptista Siqueira on Milhaud


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