Better by Arrangement?

Why do some great composers rearrange and rescore other great composers’ work? Michael Oliver explains.

Schoenberg’s famous Society for Private Musical Performances was founded in 1918 to present new or unfamiliar music in performances of the greatest possible perfection. Each concert was given dozens of rehearsals. There was intense concentration on the music and nothing but the music: preliminary publicity was limited to a bald announcement of the works to be performed, critics were not invited and applause was discouraged. Of course the pieces that the Society most wanted to perform were just those that it couldn’t afford: the major orchestral works of Mahler (still a neglected composer nearly a decade after his death), Debussy, Bartók, Ravel and Busoni, as well as Schoenberg himself and other composer-members of the Society such as Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky.

The solution was to perform orchestral music in transcriptions, either for two pianos or piano duet or for a chamber ensemble of a dozen players at the outside. This was not, Schoenberg insisted, a cheap substitute for the real thing but a positive advantage, concentrating listeners’ minds on the music’s essentials, without the ‘distraction’ of sheer numbers or of orchestral colour. Mahler himself had done something rather similar: he arranged string quartets by Beethoven and Schubert for string orchestra, partly so that ordinary concert-goers as well as chamber music specialists could enjoy them, also because of a feeling that some chamber pieces are so big in conception that they really need an orchestra to do them justice.

Schoenberg and Mahler were both very conscientious about their transcribing: they tried to add or subtract as little as possible, though in the very act of transcribing they had of course already added or subtracted a good deal. Orchestration is not a distraction; for most composers a musical idea and its instrumental setting are inseparable, and to reduce an orchestral score to a piano duet ‘essence’ or a skeletal version for a handful of instruments is an inevitable distortion. So is the orchestration of a string quartet, depriving it of the personal expressiveness given by solo instruments, the very conversational essence of chamber music.

Faithful – or creative?
Mahler’s arrangements of Beethoven and Schubert quartets are of interest only because he made them. The main interest in Schoenberg’s transcriptions is his realisation that in some of his late music Mahler used the symphony orchestra as a loose assemblage of chamber ensembles. (But remember that Schoenberg’s transcriptions were often the work of others, done at his suggestion; the recently recorded ‘Mahler/Schoenberg’ The Song of the Earth is a working out, by Rainer Riehn, of a transcription that Schoenberg abandoned after a few pages.)

Surely the really interesting arrangements are those that are much less scrupulous. No one today would get away with Handel’s habit of stealing whole movements from other composers and transforming them with a few deft touches into pure Handel. But there’s an old French saying, politically deeply incorrect, to the effect that translations are like women: those that are faithful are not beautiful, while those that are beautiful are not faithful. That might well be said of transcriptions. Consciously or unconsciously taking the sexual analogy of the French proverb to its logical conclusion, Stravinsky said that ‘if one loves something’ (and he chose a woman as his example, but he meant the music of other composers) ‘one wants to possess it’. His way with other composers, whether or not he acknowledged their involuntary collaboration (as in Pulcinella, his ballet ‘after’ Pergolesi, or in The Fairy’s Kiss, ‘dedicated to the muse of Tchaikovksy’) was to swallow them whole, digest them and absorb them into his own musical personality.

In that sense many composers transcribe creatively. Mozart’s greatest ‘transcription’ of Handel (and of Bach, whose music he also studied intensely) was not his rescoring of Messiah but some of the choruses in his own Requiem. Some of Liszt’s operatic paraphrases were undoubtedly intended to make the masterpieces of Bellini, Verdi and others available to audiences far away from opera houses. But in the finest of them he took an idea that seized his imagination as a romantic and a keyboard virtuoso – using, for example, the statue music from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to conjure up an eerie evocation of the supernatural – and converted Mozart into a unique compound of Mozart and Liszt. Something very similar happens when composers write ‘homages’ to each other, compose variations on each other’s themes or merely quote each other. After a period in which originality and novelty were prized above all qualities, composers are again beginning to use the music of their predecessors as a legitimate part of their own language. Whether it’s Alfred Schnittke bemusedly wondering whether the past is another country or another planet (try, for example, his Moz-Art à la Haydn), Kurt Schwertsik writing five songs of his own (the Gedichte an Ljuba) as a loving and respectful setting for a sixth by Hanns Eisler or Robin Holloway rearranging his mental furniture (everything from Wagner’s Tristan to Chopin’s Barcarolle, from Arrivederci Roma to Parry’s Jerusalem) in his brilliant and absorbing Second Concerto for Orchestra, we may be entering the Golden Age of Transcription.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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