The Academy Awards happened Sunday night, as you, and perhaps James Franco, may be aware. Over breakfast Monday morning, I reviewed the hilarious snark about the Oscars that had filled my tweetstream overnight. Among the catty epigrams, I found the intriguing observation that in awarding the Oscar for Best Original Score to Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor for The Social Network, Hollywood had given its approval to a musician who has capitalized on remix culture in recognition of work that lifted straight from a classical composer.
On February 24, 1876, Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale, made its debut with incidental music by Ibsen’s countryman Edvard Grieg. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” has since joined the canon of Classical Music’s Greatest Hits. It has been used in movies, TV shows, commercials, and video games, and has been arranged and covered by numerous musical artists outside of the classical genre. In last year’s The Social Network, Reznor’s version of “Mountain King” made the “Winklevii”’s Oxford boat race one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Did Grieg get name-checked by the Academy alongside Reznor and Ross on Sunday night? No. Did the duo have to license “Mountain King” from Grieg’s family (or, more likely, from TONO, Norway’s music copyright collection society) before including it in their score? No. Grieg’s Peer Gynt is in the public domain. “Mountain King” has long since joined the European fairy tales that motivated Ibsen in the shared cultural treasure trove to which artists in America and elsewhere continually turn for inspiration and raw material, whether intentionally or unconsciously.