Jeremy Yudkin is a professor of music at Boston University. He gives preconcert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.

An orchestra performs on stage

Violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, perform Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 on Sunday. Aug. 21.

LENOX — Homage, reference, quotation, imitation, influence, borrowing, debt, plagiarism. These all lie along a spectrum of possibilities whereby one composer refers to the music of another. Saturday and Sunday’s concerts at Tanglewood gave us a fascinating opportunity to consider this spectrum.

Creative artists are naturally aware of the achievements of those who came before. As young people, they fall in love with the work of their predecessors and imitate it closely. Later, they deliberately shun these influences; while finally, as mature artists, they are able to assimilate what they have learned without fear of slavish imitation. These stages of artistic maturity have been laid out by the literary critic Harold Bloom.

Bloom was discussing English poetry, but the concept may be applied to any artistic field and may be clearly seen in the history of Western music. Bach leaned on Vivaldi, Beethoven idolized Mozart, Stravinsky assimilated Rimsky-Korsakov, and Bernstein absorbed the rhythms and harmonies of jazz.

On Sunday afternoon we heard “subito, con forza,” a piece composed for the Beethoven anniversary of 2020 by Unsuk Chin. She is admired in Europe for her craftsmanship and innovative orchestral color. This concise work is filled with sly and telling references to the music of Beethoven. From the “Coriolan” Overture to the Ninth Symphony, tiny snippets of Beethoven’s works are embedded in a scintillating score, like jewels woven into cloth. This is quotation as tribute. The jewels are meant to be recognized.

Next on the program was Max Bruch’s beguiling Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, played by the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Now nearly 77 years old, his tone is not as robust as it once was, and something about his playing evinced lassitude, especially the tendency to slide between notes rather than finger them cleanly. But the audience offered its respect for a lifetime of achievement.

The Bruch violin concerto owes a debt to that of Mendelssohn, but the debt is purely structural. From Mendelssohn, Bruch learned to color his first movement with the minor key, to bring in the soloist in the first few measures of the piece, and to link the three movements together.

The shadow that Beethoven cast almost overwhelmed Johannes Brahms. He found it difficult even to put pen to paper, hearing “the tread of that giant over my shoulder.” It took him 20 years to finally accomplish his First Symphony. By this time, he had learned to overcome his dependence, to find his own path, and even to assimilate the lessons of his great forebear into his own work. The First Symphony of Brahms is in Beethoven’s favorite key (C minor) and refers overtly to the “Ode to Joy” in its last movement. None of Beethoven’s melody is used; a completely original melody is created. And yet the placement, simplicity, rhythm, and shape of the melody inescapably recall that of Beethoven. The reference is deliberate. “Any a-- can see that,” Brahms retorted to a cocky critic.

The Russian-born guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk has made a career in Finland, and he elicited a fine performance from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The principal wind players and the concertmaster shone in their solo turns, and the contrabassoonist, who, I imagine, is not often singled out for praise, deserves a tribute for his notable contribution.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review the spectrum of composers’ dependence on their forebears. The John Williams concert on Friday night gave us a glance at one of the far edges of this spectrum. Williams’s overt, sometimes even note-for-note, copying of the music of other composers (such as Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, and the earlier Hollywood composer Erich Korngold) in some of his most famous scores has become something of a scandal. Passing off the work of others as your own is not a savory occupation.

In most fields (scientific discovery or creative writing, for example), it would result in censure and condemnation. With Williams, it has passed either unnoticed or unmentioned in polite circles. Williams is not the only composer to have leaned heavily on the music of others, and only a small portion of his work is so overtly and thoroughly taken from others, but his unattributed “borrowings” are among his most famous scores and have made him both wildly popular and very wealthy.

The Saturday tribute to Williams on his 90th birthday was a sell-out at Tanglewood. I doubt, however, that most of the 18,000 people who came were there for Williams’s classical scores, which formed the bulk of the program and represent his as-yet-unrealized ambition to be considered a serious and compelling composer. They came to hear the theme from “Star Wars,” which is based, let us just say, “very closely” on the original music of Erich Korngold and was performed as an encore.


What: John Williams — The Tanglewood 90th Birthday Celebration

Who: Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ken-David Masur, conductor with special guests: J. William Hudgins, vibraphone; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Eric Revis, bass; James Taylor, vocalist; Jessica Zhou, harp.

When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 20

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

What: Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Unsuk Chin, Bruch, and Brahms featuring Itzhak Perlman, violin

Who: Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra.

When: 2:30 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 21

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

Jeremy Yudkin is a professor of music at Boston University.  His gives preconcert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.