Miles Kington Remembered: Need a divorce? Ask a composer – he'll know the score

13 June 2000
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The Independent Online

"So, don't forget to join us to help celebrate Copland, Shostakovich and Bach!"

Radio 3 announcement

The scene is the offices of Copland, Shostakovich and Bach, a firm of lawyers. Aaron Copland is American-Jewish and lively; Dmitri Shostakovich is Russian and gloomy; Johann "JS" Bach is elderly, German and going deaf. None of them particularly likes being a lawyer, but it's a living. They are playing pinochle, a card game unknown outside the USA and perhaps played only by characters in American fiction...

Aaron: Pfui, Dmitri! You've taken my last $5! What kind of a friend are you?

Dmitri: A very bad friend. But a good lawyer. That's why I took your last $5.

Aaron: Well, OK, let's play another hand and I'll see if I can win it back. You on for another hand, JS?

Bach: What's that you say?

Dmitri: You know he can't hear you. Just deal him a hand.

Bach: I can hear you all right!

Dmitri: Oh, yes, you can hear when it suits you, can't you, you old bat?

Bach: What was that?

At that moment, to everyone's surprise, there is a knock at the door. It opens, and a young man comes in.

Man: Excuse me, I'm looking for a lawyer...

Aaron: It's your lucky day. You've found three. Take your pick.

Man: Well...

Aaron: Perhaps I should explain. We all specialise. I take on hopeless cases. Dmitri here takes on the hopeless cases I have given up on. And JS here does divorce.

Man: Divorce?

Aaron: You want a divorce? He's great on divorce, ain't you, JS?

Man: No, I...

Aaron: I mean, JS even handled my own divorce. He was fast. So fast, I never had time to tell him I didn't want a divorce. Bam! One moment, happily married; the next moment, happily divorced. He's good. Ain't you, JS?

Bach: What's that?

Aaron: Never mind.

Man: Well, I'm married, but I don't want a divorce...

Aaron: Maybe you want your wife followed, just to make sure? Old JS is great at following people's wives. He'll follow anyone's wife. He gets into a lot of trouble following people's wives, don't you, JS?

Bach: Does someone want a divorce?

Dmitri: Look, why don't you just tell us what your trouble is, Mr...

Man: Sullivan. Art Sullivan is my name. Well, the thing is that I have been writing some music, and people keep telling me they like it, but that it reminds them of Mendelssohn.

Dmitri: Did you say Mendelssohn? I knew a guy called Mendelssohn once. Ran a hardware store. Did a very good line in cut-price kerosene...

Aaron: I knew a guy called Kerosene once. "Cut Price" Kerosene, that was his name. Unusual monicker, I always thought.

Dmitri: I knew a gal called Monicker once. "Unusual" Monicker, that was her name. She was called "Unusual" because...

Aaron: Another time, Dmitri. We have a young customer here. Maybe he isn't ready for stories like that.

Man: Look, what I want to know is, if it really does sound like Mendelssohn, can I be sued? What are the laws regarding plagiarism?

Aaron: Only one law regarding plagiarism, eh, Dmitri?

Dmitri: That's right. Admit it up front.

Man: Admit it?

Dmitri: Sure. Call it a homage. Call it a pastiche. Call it anything you like, but admit it, as Tchaikovsky did when he plagiarised Mozart and called it Mozartiana, or like when Stravinsky plagiarised Pergolesi...

Aaron: Or when Grieg imitated Holberg and called it the Holberg Suite...

Dmitri: Aaron, Aaron! Holberg wasn't a composer. He was a writer.

Aaron: You're not kidding? Now, that's clever. How does a composer like Grieg plagiarise a writer?

Dmitri: He didn't. He was paid up front to write a piece of music to celebrate Holberg's death.

Aaron: To celebrate Holberg's death? Why did they celebrate Holberg's death? Did nobody like him?

Dmitri: He'd been dead 100 years.

Aaron: Dead 100 years, and still they hated him! Boy, they sure bear grudges in Norway.

Sullivan: Look, about my case... Dmitri: Come in and sit down, young man.

Aaron: D'you play pinochle?

Sullivan: Yes, I...

Aaron: Good. You can take Bach's hand. He's gone to sleep again.

Coming soon: more wacky goings-on at the offices of Copland, Shostakovich, Sullivan and Bach!