“Be Our Guest” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

Alan Menken’s song “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast sounds familiar to a theme from the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. It’s a good thing that the Walt Disney Company respects the purpose and intent of public domain laws that allow artists like Menken to be inspired by earlier creative works. Oh wait

(via Nick Cross’s Twitter)


  • Toonio

    Good artists copy, great artists steal.

    However god forbids you try to steal anything from Disney.

  • Amy

    Oh brother…someone’s got WAY too much time in their hands. Just MENTIONING Menken’s name in the same breath as the great Gustav Mahler boggles the mind. Great choice with the Haitink/CSO, though.

  • Tstevens

    It can be subjective: look at all of the Warner shorts that made use of everything from Rossini to Wagner and Liszt. Is the fact that they used those compositions more or less in tact any worse than Menken being inspired by Mahler? It is always less suspicious when someone directly lifts a piece than when they use a portion of it. If you listen to enough of John William’s film scores you will also hear striking similarities to other composers. It should also be noted that some composers are so heavilly used or lifted from that no one even blinks when they here it. Grieg’s main themes from his Peer Gynt symphony are used all over the place. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” has been used in everything from TV commercials to Trent Reznor’s score fot the Social Network. It is almost as recognizable as something like Ode to Joy though Grieg is hardly a household name like Beethoven.

    Disney will almost always win out win it comes to copyrights. The Winnie the Pooh debacle from several years back is a good example of how they can bend the system. With enough money you can make things happen. The flip side of that was Nina Paley’s situation with Sita Sings the Blues and how she eventually worked around the copyright issues.

    I think the sad part is that there is such an under-appreciation for classical music that few people are really interested in knowing more about it.

  • http://www.aimeedejongh.com Aimee de Jongh

    I always find it positive how Menken (and other composers, like Tstevens says) transforms and uses classical compositions in their work. Stolen or not, I think it’s educational. For example, I’m also glad that the backgrounds of the old Disney films are influenced by classical painters like Jakob van Ruysdael – we grew up with those pictures and music themes and to me, that’s good thing. I mean, Menken’s theme is not much compared to the greatness of Mahler in my opinion. But through the films, kids DO hear a tiny glimpse of the world of classical music.

    I always wondered if the intro of “Beauty & the Beast” was inspired by the piece “Aquarium” by composer Camille Saint-Saens. Here’s the original: http://youtu.be/AsD0FDLOKGA And here’s Menken’s version: http://youtu.be/ZaIKBacgpmw Different speed and accents, but they are definitely related.

    • Kate

      For almost a year whenever I heard Saint-Saen’s “Aquarium” on our classical music station, I thought it was Beauty and the Beast until I heard the rest of the piece. They’re very smiliar.

  • http://MrFun'sBlog Floyd Norman

    The chromatic scale has only twelve pitches. So, eventually everybody is “stealing” from everybody.

  • E. L. Kelly

    I agree with Aimee. I felt rewarded to learn that the score to Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was in fact Tchaikovsky’s; I’d been enjoying classic music all along!
    (then I was baffled why a piece of it showed up again and again in subsequent Disney features…) My love of Richard Wagner stems indirectly from the soundtrack of “Bambi,” which, for me at least, sounded stylistically similar to the Ring Cycle; I now understand that Wagner and Mahler influenced much early cinematic music. I still don’t know much of the theory or terminology, but I can trace the history sonically at least. When its done right, a popular source such as a Disney animated feature/ Warners’ cartoon or what-have-you can instill some sort of spark in one mind out of a hundred.

  • John A

    Actually, I always thought that “Be Our Guest” was a direct steal from The Flintstone’s “Carhop Song” (“Here we come, on the run, with a burger on a bun…”)Making it the second idea totally ripped off from Hanna Barberra (the other is the Country Bear Jamborie, stolen from H-B’s “Hillbilly Bears”.

  • Thomas Hatch

    See my vest!

  • BOF

    I’d bet this similarity in melody came from Menken being asked to compose something closely resembling Mahler’s. It’s very common for directors and producers to grow attached to the temporary music used in the editing or animatic stages of a production. In fact sometimes their attachment to a particular piece of music can be so great that anything the composer creates seems mediocre to them, especially when compared to master composers such as Mahler. I’d have to give Menken the benefit of the doubt and blame the sometimes slave-like nature of a film composer’s job.

    However, melodies and motifs can be similar purely through coincidence (there are only 12 notes to choose from in Western Music). I hear similarities in melody and motif all the time. Using a recent example off the top of my head, John Williams’ score for Tintin has traces in the brass of Danny Elfman’s Batman score. The Incredibles main theme is half Batman and half Mission Impossible. There’s substantial reference to the melody of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ in John Williams’ E.T score, most recognizably during E.T’s farewell scene.

    Borrowing material is a very old practice in music, only since the implementation of dominating copyright laws has appropriating musical material for new use been loaded with such stigma. Menken might have a similar melody, but it’s been integrated into a new and completely different piece.

  • Matthew K Sharp

    I think, Amid, the argument could be helped along by providing some examples of worthwhile works that have been created using other public domain cartoon materials – except I’m not sure there are many. (I include the word “worthwhile” because I occasionally swipe the odd bit of old PD cartoon for a quick gag in my TV efforts, but I’m not so immodest as to call any of them worthwhile…)

    I’m slightly cynical about the calls for things like the old Disney shorts to fall into public domain, because I suspect the interest is more in making a fast buck through PD DVD sales of a popular brand, rather than an artistic interest in creating derivative works. It would be interesting to see the outcome of an IP law which, say, continued to protect works in their entirety (so that one couldn’t just cash in on a DVD of old Mickey Mouse cartoons), but included a provision that allowed use of copyright material to be used in derivative works for a small set fee (in the same way that one can, in Australia at least, release a CD of covers of other people’s songs by paying 6.25% of the cost price of the CD to the publishing agency).

    • amid

      The restrictions you propose only serve to hurt the creative community. No individual or corporation should be allowed to retain infinite control over our collective culture.

      True, there will always be the handful of people who are interested in turning a quick buck by re-releasing films. It already happens all the time with public domain literature and music. But since everybody can release the films, companies will compete to create better versions of the films, and in the end, consumers still benefit.

      That’s just one small part of the equation, and to use that as an argument against public domain is incredibly shortsighted. The real value of PD will always come to those who create derivative works, just as Disney has done with White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Tangled, Alice in Wonderland, Hunchback, and The Jungle Book, among others. It would not be a stretch to argue that without public domain laws, Disney would not exist as a company. It’s unfortunate that Disney is trying to stamp out its competition by altering the law to deny other companies the same benefits it had in the 20th century.

      • BOF Jr.

        Lord, have mercy! That’s what you get for sticking up for a corporation that oppresses creative culture with an white-gloved fist.

      • Matthew K Sharp

        I’d disagree with your point about PD compelling companies to try and outdo each other to release the better product. You only have to look at the large number of truly terrible DVD releases of PD feature films. It becomes more difficult for the consumer because it becomes hard to know which release to pick in order to get a decent product. It’s very rare to have someone like a Steve Stanchfield involved who you know will go the extra yards every time to make a quality product.

        Given the multiple overlapping copyrights involved in any cinematograph film, I don’t see that allowing the films themselves to go PD gets you anywhere much. The script of the film could still have a separate copyright – I would imagine the story and the script would be the more useful things to have in PD in terms of creating derivative works. Drawing again on the parallel of music publishing, there should be an easy way of retelling stories by different people, in the same way that there’s an easy way to make covers of compositions.
        (As an example, I’d love to make a version of “An Angel On My Shoulder”; although the film itself is in the PD, as far as I recall the script isn’t, which makes the project a non-starter. Whereas if it was the other way around, perfect!)

        But as I said initially (slightly too brusquely, in hindsight, I think), there’s plenty of films, cartoon and live action, currently in the public domain; but I’m hard pressed to think of any derivative works that actually take advantage of that.

      • amid

        The fact is that Steve Stanchfield, who you mention above, couldn’t be doing what he does if not for the public domain. Hundreds of amazing films that would otherwise be inaccessible are made available thanks to the valiant efforts of film historians like him. Likewise, there are a countless transfers of the Cary Grant film “Charade,” which is in the public domain, but again, Criterion stepped to the plate and made a beautiful transfer that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

        You’re suggesting that we should change copyright laws to protect the rights of Disney, but what about the thousands of other non-Disney films from that period that are languishing in film vaults and with little to no commercial value. Protecting our collective culture by making it available to as many people as possible is far more important than allowing a mega-corporation to spend millions of dollars to subvert the law for its own purposes.

      • Matthew K Sharp

        Amid, I don’t want to have a blue with you. I’m very well aware that Mr Stanchfield does what he does through public domain. I’d also assert that Disny has basically done the right thing too by releasing all their animated back catalogue. I’d like to see more of that sort of behaviour. I’d love to see Warner Bros do complete sets of all the WB and MGM cartoons; I’d thrill to see Sony release the Krazy Kats and Scrappies; I’d be over the moon if Universal delved further into their Lantz library.

        I agree that there should be some mechanism in law that prevents the kind of situation we have with the Fleischer back catalogue where the copyright owner sits on its corporate backside and does nobody any good at all. I’d completely concur that with ownership of the right to copy should come some responsibility to utilise that right in the best interest. Use it or lose it is a completely fair proposition.

        It’s interesting you mention Charade – my very nice DVD copy is the PAL release from, of all people, Universal. And the best DVD releases of Till The Clouds Roll By and Royal Wedding are from Warner Bros. And the nicest prints of Road to Bali & Rio are on the Bob Hope collection released by Shout in conjunction with the original owners. Etc etc. Public domain is all very well, but he who has the best source material wins, even if they are big bad corporations. Call me a lackey to the man if you will, but I’d rather pay my dollars to a corporation offering a decent product than a shonk with a shaky 16mm transfer.

        All of this, though, is dancing around the central issue of derivative works. I still don’t see the great creative benefit of Steamboat Willie being available for all and sundry to use. You could remake it or adapt it, sure, if you felt it was worth doing so. You could chop the film up and repurpose it for a multimedia project. It probably wouldn’t give you the ability to make new Mickey Mouse cartoons, but that’s trademark law coming into play, not copyright.

        I admit I’m no great shakes as a creative artist; I’m just trying to envisage practical outcomes. I’m not saying the big corporations are always right, but I don’t think putting everything into PD is going to result in a great creative flowering either.

        But then I’m an Aussie, so what would I know? We hardly have any cultural heritage anyway, and the little we do have we’re not allowed to celebrate. ;-)

  • Scarabim

    Menken just took Mahler’s tune and “plussed” it.

  • Scarabim

    I hope Mickey Mouse NEVER falls into public domain. I can only imagine what some people would do with him. After all, look what’s happened to The Wizard of Oz. Using “Wicked” as an example, while the stage show may very well be as good as some say it is (I’ve never seen it), I nearly threw up when I tried to read the book. The characters I grew up with were repugnant and unrecognizable in it, and the author seemed to go out of his way to be provocative rather than inventive or entertaining. While it’s indisputable that good things *can* come from works that fall into the public domain (as some of Disney’s versions of classic fairy tales prove), all too often a new interpretation of a classic property amounts to turning diamonds into coal. That’s even happened to the Chipmunks, and *they* still enjoy copyright protection.

    • Doug

      You should probably stay away from “A Barnstormer in Oz” by Philip Jose Farmer…or for that matter, the comic book “Oz Squad”! Both take rather more liberties with the original than “Wicked” does.

      • Scarabim

        Oh, I saw the “Oz Squad”. A crappy comic overall. Similar comic debasements are currently happening to Wonderland…

    • tommmy

      You just ruined your whole argument with the last sentence.

  • Bob Harper

    I agree that copyrights should not be protected infinitely. The limitation should be linked to the date of creation, not to the life of whoever created it. I’d figure 25 years would be fair enough for for a company or individual or their heirs to benefit from its creation exclusively.

    The next battle will be whether using those characters that fall into public domain would infringe upon trademarks. And unfortunately considering who has the deepest pockets to fight that fight, we can guess who’s going to win that war.

  • Scarabim

    If you’re referring to the Chipmunks, well, I’ve seen the original “Alvin” show from the 1960′s on Youtube. And it’s a far cry from the big-screen version. It’s actually funny, and the humor is aimed more at adults than is the humor – if you can call it that – in the Chipmunk movies. Similarly, the recent Smurfs movie lacks the simple charm of the comic and the earnest tone of the TV cartoon. Look there’s a reason both properties stuck in the public’s consciousness for so many years prior to their new movie incarnations: they do have some worth. Unfortunately, the writers and directors behind the remakes seem to have missed that and focused instead on updating them for a generation they seem to have even less respect for than the properties they’ve debased.

  • Anthrocoon

    Sometimes a song will borrow a melody from an old folk
    song, something not copyrighted. Go to YouTube to hear Peter Paul and Mary’s rendition of the folk tune “Stewball” and you’ll find yourself remarking that the
    melody is identical to the verses of John and Yoko’s
    “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. Woody Guthrie put new lyrics
    to an old gospel song, I believe, and got “This Land is
    Your Land”.

    More recently, John Fogerty, George Harrison,
    and Led Zeppelin had lawsuits when it was found they had
    songs “inspired” by: Fogerty himself (Run Through the
    Jungle/The Old Man Down the Road; I guess Saul Zaentz had
    copyright on the former), the songwriters of “He’s So
    Fine” (My Sweet Lord); and Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love”
    was borrowed from the Willie Dixon tune “You Need Love”.
    Plagiarizing from _copyrighted_ tunes.

  • elle

    Crazy thought, but perhaps the director wanted to evoke a certain time period and so requested that Menken base segments of the score on notable pieces from that time period? Just, you know … stating the obvious.