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March 7, 2019

One man deserves the blame
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:22 PM * 23 comments

Pretty sure we’ve all heard Tom Lehrer’s “Lobachevsky,” right? A song about plagiarism where all the bits of melody are stolen from other songs.

I just learned that even the idea for the song was stolen! Danny Kaye used to do a routine about the Russian theatrical director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and it’s the obvious basis for the Lehrer song. Lehrer credited Kaye in his intro to the song, which was left off the version on the album I listened to as a kid, but it’s on

Comments on One man deserves the blame:
#1 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 01:05 AM:

Oh that's where that comes from! Absolutely bril. But then, of course. The video is remarkably effective, as well.

Reminds me of Kaye's 100 Russian Composers in 60 seconds (which I heard he eventually got down to 35 seconds). Featured in one of my all-time Dick Cavett episodes.

#2 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 07:58 AM:

According to the uploader of the YouTube video, one woman deserves the credit, one woman deserves the blame: Sylvia Fine.

#3 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 10:40 AM:

You must have had the studio recording. I grew up with the live ones ("An Evening Wasted," "That Was the Year That Was," and "Revisited") and the monologue was definitely there.

#4 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 10:59 AM:

I grew up with More of Tom Lehrer (I think that was the name of the album), and I seem to recall the introduction. Which (thank you, internet, goes as follows--including dig at low pay for teachers.

"For many years now, Mr. Danny Kaye, who has been my particular
idol since childbirth, has been doing a routine about the great
Russian director Stanislavsky and the secret of success in the
acting profession. And I thought it would be interesting to st...
to adapt this idea to the field of mathematics. I always like to
make explicit the fact that before I went off not too long ago to
fight in the trenches, I was a mathematician by profession. I don't
like people to get the idea that I have to do this for a living.
I mean, it isn't as though I had to do this, you know, I could be
making, oh, 3000 dollars a year just teaching.
Be that as it may, some of you may have had occasion to run into
mathematicians and to wonder therefore how they got that way,
and here, in partial explanation perhaps, is the story of the
great Russian mathematician Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky."

#5 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 12:54 PM:

After ending his brief side-trip into showbiz, Prof. Lehrer would split his year between lecturing on math at Harvard and teaching at University of California Santa Cruz. He still lives near Santa Cruz but is retired now. My pal Steve Collins told me about taking Lehrer's course in musical theater, which sounds like a wonderful experience.

#6 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 04:47 PM:

Here are the lyrics to Kaye's "Stanislavsky", and here he is performing it on his radio show.

#7 ::: Eccentra ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 05:32 PM:

I’ve known that song most of my life, and I had honestly never realised that the melody was plagiarised too! What are the original sources?

#8 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 06:17 PM:

#6 & #7:

Here's the story of how "Stanislavsky" got written, by Kaye biographer Danny Koenig. Special bonus: facsimile of Sylvia Fine's original typewritten lyrics.

#9 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2019, 10:18 PM:

Jacque @ #1:

And I'm pretty sure I remember reading that that was the (or at least an) inspiration for another of Lehrer's well-known ditties.

#10 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2019, 02:15 PM:

Eccentra @7: Me too! I also had no idea about the melody being plagiarized.

I currently have the compilation CD 'Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer' and it does not include the introduction at all; I don't think I have ever heard the introduction.

#11 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2019, 09:08 PM:

Just to lay out explicitly what a couple of people have alluded to already:

Two of Lehrer's three main albums were released in both vanilla studio versions and recorded-live versions. Songs by Tom Lehrer contains the same songs as the live album Tom Lehrer Revisited, and More of Tom Lehrer contains the same songs as the live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer.

Only the live versions contain the spoken introductions.

(His third song set was only released as a live album, That Was the Year That Was; perhaps the introductions were considered necessary to set up the topical jokes, or perhaps the live albums just sold better.)

Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer is a compilation of the studio recordings, so no introductions.

What I have is The Remains of Tom Lehrer, which came along some time later; it has the two studio albums on one disc, the two corresponding live albums on a second disc, and TWTYTW plus miscellaneous extras on a third disc.

#12 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2019, 08:19 AM:

How many generations were either of those guys from a Russian (or Polish or etc.) shtetl themselves?

Or Sylvia Fine, to whom we owe Danny Kaye as we know him?

Which is to say: they all came by the theft honestly.

#13 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2019, 08:19 AM:

How many generations were either of those guys from a Russian (or Polish or etc.) shtetl themselves?

Or Sylvia Fine, to whom we owe Danny Kaye as we know him?

Which is to say: they all came by the theft honestly.

#14 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2019, 08:24 AM:

Sure, it looks like I double-posted, but it wasn't like that.

I wrote #12.

Someone else wrote #13, in an act of blatant plagiarism.

#15 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2019, 09:41 AM:

Like Paul A., I have the collection The Remains of Tom Lehrer, which is well worth getting if you can. Not only does it have all the songs and albums that Paul A. mentioned, but it also has a hardback booklet that contains a little bit more information and all the lyrics.

Unfortunately, I still find most of his more political songs distressingly topical, despite him having written and performed them several decades ago.

For those who might want even more Tom Lerher than that, he and some others at Harvard wrote and performed in The Physical Revue in 1952. In addition to st— adapting music from other composers, there is some original composition by Lehrer, who also played the part of the math major and sometimes played the piano. It contains songs about math, science, general geekery, and life at Harvard.

#16 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2019, 12:15 PM:

I can confirm that "TWTYTW" had the introductions - I still remember the one for "New Math": "base 8 is just like base 10, if you're missing two fingers!"

#17 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2019, 04:21 PM:

The spoken introductions to each song in the live performances are never less than entertaining, and are sometimes borderline brilliant (from An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, concerning "the late Dr. Samuel Gall, inventor of the gall bladder... His educational career began, interestingly enough, in agricultural school, where he majored in animal husbandry, until they caught him at it one day..." )

Revisited also has Lehrer's hilarious introduction describing himself ("Even before he came to Harvard, however, he was well known in academic circles for his masterly translation into Latin of 'The Wizard of Oz', which remains even today the standard Latin version of that work ...")

#18 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2019, 07:20 PM:

Gee, Lehrer doesn't get the credit on the Latin edition of Oz I have (published in 1987, many years after the recording you mention). Maybe he was just being prescient again.

#19 ::: Jennifer Krieger ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2019, 01:59 PM:

First time I'm reading you and you talk about Tom Lehrer. Karma, kismet, all that. Jenny

#20 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2019, 05:16 PM:


But the question, Tom, is who *deserves* the credit?

Perhaps your 1987 edition of the Magus Mirabilis was translated by Lehrer, and plagiarized by the later publishers?

#21 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2019, 06:19 PM:

I am ashamed how long it took me to realize that the melody for the lines "As someone once remarked to Schubert/Take us to your lieder" (from "Whatever Became of Hubert?"was stolen from, golly gee whiz, one of Schubert's lieder. ("Leise flehen meine Lieder")

#22 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2019, 08:54 PM:

And I heard part of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody the other day on the radio and realized Lehrer draws on that for "Lobachevsky." Took me a few decades.

#23 ::: Jefffurry ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2019, 09:25 PM:

Thanks for posting about Lobachevsky! It's one of my favorite Tom Lehrer songs.

I want to add that there's another difference between the studio version and the live version. The studio version (1953) has "With Ingrid Bergman playing part of hypotenuse", and the live version (1960) has "With Brigitte Bardot playing part of hypotenuse".

Both versions can be found on YouTube, as can much of Lehrer's other stuff, including a live recording from Copenhagen and Tom Lehrer Discovers Australia (and Vice Versa) which I hadn't even known existed until today.

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