Did Beethoven steal tunes from his older contemporary for the “Eroica” Symphony, the Ninth Symphony, and for his most popular and beautiful song?

“This entire passage has been stolen from the Mozart symphony in C.” —written by Beethoven on one of his own musical sketches

It is one of the most popular tunes in all of classical music, nay, in all of music, period. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme undergirds the long fourth movement of his massive Ninth Symphony, written between 1822 and 1824. The melody occurs repeatedly, in various guises, in this final movement, which employs vocal soloists and a chorus, singing the words of Friedrich Schiller’s hymn to love and the brotherhood of all men. It will be forever associated with Beethoven’s name, and alone would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest composers—in the estimation of many, THE greatest composer—who ever lived.

But the “Ode to Joy” theme is not entirely original to Beethoven. He might well have borrowed the main part of it from none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In 1775, at the age of nineteen, Mozart composed the “Misericordias Domini,” K. 222, a six-minute sacred work that is little recorded and seldom performed today, yet which constitutes a minor masterpiece. Mozart employs what became the germ of the “Ode to Joy” theme three times throughout the work.

And there is another case of Beethoven using a tune previously employed by Mozart. In 1768, at the age of twelve, Mozart composed a one-act singspiel, Bastien und Bastienne, the overture of which uses as its main theme the primary melody of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Mozart’s little opera was unpublished at the time that Beethoven composed his revolutionary symphony in 1803. Could Beethoven still have heard the piece performed or seen a copy of the score? Or might both Mozart and Beethoven borrowed the tune from a third, unknown source?

Though these borrowings may strike some readers as fairly trivial, Beethoven himself acknowledged more direct usurpations from his musical god. For example, on one of his musical sketches, for a work in C minor, Beethoven wrote, “This entire passage has been stolen from the Mozart symphony in C.”

Also, the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony is nearly identical to the slow movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. And the most obvious—egregious?—example of Beethoven borrowings of Mozart’s music comes in the former’s beloved song, “Adelaide,” composed in 1794-1795, which might be described as a slight re-working of the middle movement of Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478, written a decade earlier. Indeed, a listener ignorant of the two compositions might, upon first hearing both, think Mozart’s a straightforward transcription of the song.

Of course, the nineteenth century—and previous centuries—did not have the same understanding of the borrowing of ideas that we have today. Composers commonly borrowed from themselves as well as from others. Beethoven re-used the tune of a contredanse for the finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, for the finale for the mighty Eroica symphony, and in his Eroica Variations for piano. Hector Berlioz salvaged a melody from an early, discarded Mass, using it in his scenic cantata Herminie and most famously, as the “idee fixee” of the Symphonie Fantastique. Georg Frederic Handel was notorious for self-borrowing, constantly re-using themes in different guises; many of the famous tunes of his Messiah originated in earlier instrumental works. Self-borrowing was common and rarely aroused comment.

In terms of borrowing from other composers, the bounds of accepted practice were somewhat muddier. Though the term “plagiarism” was coined in the 1600s, and England adopted the first copyright law in 1709, protection seems to have focused more on the written word. In music, composers freely borrowed ideas, melodies, and even opera plot lines from their peers. In an age before recording, few local audiences would even recognize when a composer borrowed from a peer, and to do so brought little or no shame anyway. It was what the composer did with the storyline, the idea, or the tune that mattered.

Johannes Brahms turned the same trick on Beethoven that Beethoven had turned on Mozart. When Brahms finally summoned the courage to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps in composing a symphony, critics pointed out that the main theme for the finale of his First Symphony was similar to the “Ode to Joy” theme. “Any fool can see that!” retorted Brahms without apology. The sobriquet given to Brahms’ first essay in this genre—”Beethoven’s Tenth”—thus had a double-edged connotation, being hailed by some as a worthy successor to his predecessor’s symphonic models, by others as a weak imitation of them. But this was a comparatively harsh judgment.

More often, composers were forgiven their borrowings, as long as they demonstrated originality and genius in their use of them. Creating variations on often quaint tunes, for example, was a common practice. Brahms did this with his Variations on a Theme by Haydn (though the theme was misattributed and is by an unknown composer); Beethoven did it with his “Diabelli Variations” for piano; Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote variations on themes of Paganini, Corelli, and Chopin. Sometimes, it was not a tune per se but the overall concept of a piece that provided inspiration for a later composer.

For instance, the late conductor-musiciologist Sir Charles Mackerras convincingly demonstrated that Mozart himself modeled his great aria, “Martern aller Arten” on an aria by Johann Christian Bach, imitating its instrumentation, structure, and spirit.

Mozart also clearly used Michael Haydn’s Requiem as a model for his own famous Death Mass. And Beethoven borrowed ideas not only from Mozart but also from other composers, like Justin Heinrich Knecht, whose “Musical Portrait of Nature” was clearly a template for Beethoven’s famous Pastoral Symphony. The list could go on at length, of course. In each of these cases, the later composer improved upon his model, making something mediocre into something great.

As T.S. Eliot, who is sometimes himself accused of plagiarizing, said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In the case of the “Ode to Joy,” the main theme of the “Eroica” symphony, and “Adelaide,” the listener can judge for himself if this is what Beethoven accomplished with Mozart’s tunes.