Are you a fan of Howard Shore's music for the Lord of the Rings movies? Of course you are. And do you remember the main Fellowship theme, that rousing, heroic melody that plays in variations throughout the films? Naturally.
Next question: how well do you know Sibelius' third symphony? No snobbery intended here - it was new to me when I listened to it the other night - but, jings, Shore lifted a massive and highly distinctive chunk for the Fellowship theme. This isn't inspiration. It's full-on, shameless theft. Anyone who knows Shore's theme can't help but hear it in Sibelius. It's huge. A massive rip off. Or homage. And I'm not the first to spot this, of course - just Google it and you'll see. And don't go telling me Howard Shore hadn't heard the Sibelius either. He's steeped in the stuff.
But why should it be a problem? Shore is just doing what Tolkien did - borrowing from great works of Finnish culture. I don't know much about Sibelius, but I know he was immersed in the myths and national tales of Finland. The Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, forms the basis of some of his greatest works, and the same goes for JRRT. Everyone knows how much Middle Earth grew from European myth and legend, and The Kalevala was a huge inspiration on Tolkien from a fairly early age. The depiction of Middle Earth in words and in music is inextricably bound up with these Finnish folk tales.
It's understandable that hearing the lifted melody would have us reaching for the plagiarism knife but to me the connection with Sibelius only made me love Shore's music more. It roots the score in a deeper lineage, reveals a hidden musical history that was otherwise concealed, connects the thrill of that soaring, heroic melody with something ancient, albeit through the imagination of a modern composer. It reminds us that what we see on screen is the product of many years of thought, reflection and creativity, of countless minds brought to bear on the grand themes of humanity. It is a tribute, a torch held up to Tolkien antecedents, lighting a path for us into the origins of these adventures.
To bring things down to more mundane inspirations, all this came to mind when I was working on a short story the other day. There's a scene in it that is, quite frankly, ripped off from a famous moment in a Month Python movie, but it's not intended as theft. On the contrary, it's an attempt to show the reader where these stories come from. As well as a chance to get some cheap laughs.