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In the middle of looking up a reference in Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears,  I came across this remarkable bit of musical history that I’d completely forgotten about since I last opened the book. Szendy tells  how Stravinsky lost the rights to Firebird, originally published by Jurgenson in Russia in 1911,  as a result of the legal problems caused by the Russian revolution. To reassert his rights, he made a new version of it in 1918-1919, which he sold to Chester. This resulted in a legal dispute between Chester and Jurgenson in Leipzig: Chester lost, blaming Stravinsky for having let them publish a work that he wasn’t entitled to assign to them.

Third time lucky: having become an American citizen in 1945, Stravinsky made yet another arrangement, which he successfully assigned to the music publisher Leeds. But then he got into a dispute with Leeds, because without his permission, they decided to authorize a foxtrot arrangement of the theme from the “Dance of the Princesses.”  And thus was born the foxtrot Summer Moon, lyrics by John Klenner. Thanks to the glorious internet, here it is: 

Stravinsky was none too pleased at his work being appropriated by “these vulgar Broadway people” to cash in on the jukebox market .  He lost his case against Leeds,  but Schoenberg apparently wrote an essay in support of him,  decrying the publishers as “pirates” and “opportunists” .  I can’t help wondering if today, Stravinsky wouldn’t be emailing the publishers insisting they try harder to get his music placed in a TV ad or a film. (If you can’t remember how the original went, listen to the clip below)

Don’t rely on your friends for copyright advice

Given this history, it’s amusing to note that in Petrushka, Stravinsky inadvertently borrowed the song La jambe en bois (the bit that sounds like My old man’s a dustman) that he heard through his hotel window played on a barrel organ, without bothering to ask whether the composer was still alive, or if the music was in copyright.

Very unhelpfully, considering the outcome, a Monsieur Delage who was with Stravinsky at the time, said that he thought it was a bit of “musique ancienne..  Wrong. As someone soon pointed out, it was by Émile Spencer, who was very much alive, and didn’t die until 1921, so the Spencer estate have probably been enjoying a percentage of Petrushka royalties until at least 1972.


Szendy, P. (2008). Listen: A history of our ears (C. Mandell, Trans.). Fordham University Press.
Villette, H. (2015, December 31). Chanson « Elle avait une jambe de bois » – Petrouchka Pixel ! Petrouchka Pixel!
Demers, J. (2010). Melody, theft, and high culture. In P. K. Saint-Amour (Ed.), Modernism and copyright (pp. 114–134). Oxford University Press.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist