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Music

Oh, say, that's my work

August 23, 2008
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Peter Breiner is a busy composer and he wasn't much interested in watching the Beijing Olympic Games. But then the calls and e-mails started coming in. His daughter was certain that the Chinese were using his orchestrations of the world's national anthems. He even heard from people who are not his fans - people like Bob in Tuscaloosa, who knows Breiner's distinctive version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner," doesn't like it, and isn't happy to be hearing it from Beijing.

That's when Breiner started watching the medal ceremonies. He says he is "100 percent positive" that the Beijing Olympic Committee is using his work - without attribution, permission, or compensation. Breiner's publisher, Naxos Rights International, has tried to discuss the matter with the Chinese but so far to no avail.

In an e-mail, Sun Weide, deputy director for communications for the Beijing Olympics, said: "We have not heard of Naxos. All the anthems and songs used at the Beijing Games were orchestrated by Chinese musicians."

Breiner is no stranger to controversy when it comes to national anthems. When his orchestrations were used at the Athens Olympics in 2004 (legally and with compensation), they sparked a brief cultural fracas, beginning when American conservative commentators deemed Breiner's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" insufficiently muscular in its orchestration.

What they were noticing was the very idiosyncratic instrumentation Breiner used for the musical passage under the words "And the rockets' red glare." In Breiner's version, the phrase is indeed scored for soft strings, including a sinuous countermelody for second violins and violas.

A comparison of Breiner's version, recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the version being used in Beijing, recorded by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, reveals something indubitable: The Beijing orchestra is using Breiner's ideas so blatantly that it would be accused of plagiarism if its arrangers submitted the work as original in any respectable conservatory.

Breiner, a Czech native, was amused by the Athens Games controversy. But not so much by the current situation.

"My arrangements of public-domain anthems are actually original compositions from a legal point of view," he said this week from New York, where he now lives. "Which means if someone wants to record them, they have to purchase the material." (Washington Post)

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