Beethoven may have `borrowed' French tunes

Sat, May 11, 1996, 01:00

BEETHOVEN "borrowed" several tunes from French revolutionary composers in what may have been a coded message of support for the ideals of "Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite" a British conductor said yesterday.

Mr John Eliot Gardiner, artistic director of London's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, said he had traced several revolutionary tunes in the "heroic phase" of the German composer's career, which included the third and fifth symphonies.

"My thesis is that Beethoven was a man of his times, and was elated by the events of the French revolution and all that represented," he said.

"But he had to be careful about expressing his views, living, as he did [in Bonn] in a reactionary German princedom."

Mr Gardiner, who has recorded the whole of Beethoven's work, said one of the most notable "borrowings" was the use of Luigi Cherubini's Hymne du Pantheon as the basis for part of the Pifih Symphony.

The French words of the hymn, written in Paris by the Italian born Cherubini, can be translated as we swear, sword in hand, to die for the republic, and for the rights of man."

However, Mr Gardiner, who will detail his findings on a British independent television arts programme, the South Bank Show, tomorrow, does not accuse Beethoven of plagiarism.

"Many great composers have borrowed tunes from others," he said. "It takes a genius like Beethoven to transform the music of the second rate into something sublime."

Mr Gardiner, a former principal conductor of the North German Radio Orchestra, is surprised that no one has previously noticed the debt Beethoven owed to Chembini, and other French revolutionary composers such as Claude Rouget de Lisle, who wrote the French national anthem, the Marseillaise.

"I think it is the holy priesthood that has protected Beethoven's music for so long," he said. "They perceived Beethoven's symphonies as the untouchable and whole products of an isolated genius.