Berlin Elgar Hendrix                 by Daryl Runswick

   This is a piece about copyright. Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
   left his Third Symphony incomplete. Preparatory sketches for the    work, in Elgar’s hand, were reproduced posthumously in a book    in 1936. In 1995 Elgar’s family commissioned the composer    Anthony Payne to complete the symphony, working up the    sketches into a finished piece, adding bridging material of his    own where necessary. Why? Elgar had instructed that the    sketches be destroyed. The family, despite ignoring these    wishes, had no wish for the symphony to be completed. What    made them act? And why then, in 1995?

   The answer lies in copyright law. Any work (musical or literary)    remains the intellectual property of the heirs and/or publishers    of an artist for 70 years after the artist’s death. During that    period the copyright owners can licence or forbid the use of that    work as they see fit. For 60 years the heirs of Sir Edward Elgar    had forbidden any use of the sketches of the Third Symphony.    But sometime in the 1990s they realised that the situation    would soon change. At the end of the 70th-anniversary year of    Elgar’s death, 2004, the Third Symphony would come into the    public domain. Had the sketches been kept within the family,    they could have simply hidden them from public view. But the    pages had been published, and from 2005 would be available to any hack to do what he liked with. The solution of least harm, decided Elgar’s family, was to commission someone they trusted to complete the symphony: they could then control the quality of the result. In addition, the complete work would now remain under copyright protection for a long time into the future – until 70 years after Anthony Payne’s death, in fact: this is because any work of music or literature remains in copyright until 70 years after the death of the last surviving contributor to it.

I was personally affected by all this some years ago: not in relation to Elgar or
his works, but to those of Irving Berlin (1888-1989). I was commissioned by The King’s Singers to arrange I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas for them, to go on a CD called A Little Christmas Music. And I did, and The King’s Singers recorded my arrangement, and it went, along with two others I’d done, onto the CD. But then a snag arose. Irving Berlin was still living, aged 100, still taking a lively personal interest in his works. When the record company EMI wrote their usual stock letter requesting permission to issue the recording, Berlin demanded an enormous fee. EMI, astonished, had to decide what to do. The CDs were already made, the booklets printed and boxed, the cellophane wrappers were on. The decision they came to (The King’s Singers told me) was to refuse to pay the fee and to trash the entire print run of CDs. They then re-manufactured them with White Christmas omitted: presumably that was the cheaper option. I was disappointed of course, but they presented me with a cassette of the recording
of my arrangement, so I could hear how it went.

   That was in 1989, and the sequel is equally surprising. Berlin promptly died,    that same year. His heirs, not so fanatical in their stewardship of the estate    (which must already have run to billions) issued a blanket permission for any    Irving Berlin tune to be recorded by anyone, for no fee (so long as the usual    royalties were paid on sales). And here’s the rub: EMI’s CD had not yet come    out. Did they now reprint with White Christmas included again? Did they hell.    By the accident of a few weeks my arrangement was consigned to history.

   Or was it? I’ve been informed by Jo Fowler that some people have copies of    A Little Christmas Music with White Christmas present. My copy doesn’t, and    the track list on Amazon omits it. Curiouser and curiouser.

   Meanwhile, what do you think of this? – Irving Berlin’s first major hit tune, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, was composed in 1911 as the First World War loomed on the horizon. Because Berlin lived until 1989, this ancient melody by someone born in 1888 will still be in copyright until 2059.

A similar situation holds for works by Gershwin, but not all of them: George
died in 1937, so Rhapsody in Blue came out of copyright at the end of 2007.
But his lyricist brother Ira didn’t die until 1983, so the song I Got Rhythm, composed in 1930, stays in copyright until the 70th anniversary of Ira’s death
in 2053. Jimi Hendrix died young in 1970, so his Purple Haze ­of 1966 will come into the public domain at the end of 2040, nineteen years before Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a song written half a century earlier by a man 54 years Hendrix’s senior. A good pub quiz question…

                                        

 

Footnote: my White Christmas arrangement also quotes directly from Prokofiev’s Troika. Has EMI or anyone else noticed? Prokofiev, and his publisher Boosey & Hawkes, ought to be getting royalties too,
until 2023.