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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

In Different Dress: Music Arranged and Borrowed

Today’s post takes a fairly wild ride through an enormous range of music to look at one particular aspect of the composer’s craft. I want us to focus on some examples of how composers use pre-existing material - either their own or from others - to make a new piece of music.

We can look at this from a number of different angles, but right from the start I want to define a few terms which might make things a bit clearer. Some of the music we’ll hear is “transcribed”. A transcription involves mostly mechanical work and not a lot of new thinking, where a composer takes music originally intended for one medium and transfers the notes into another medium. Where original material is reworked in some way - in other words, where new ideas are involved and the original is changed in some way but still substantially recognisable - this is an “arrangement”. Music which is arranged has had a degree of creativity exercised on the part of the composer or arranger; they start with a pre-existing piece and make something new out of it. The differences between transcription and arrangement are often blurred and in some cases often boil down to a question of degree.

The music I used as the theme for my radio program Keys To Music, for example, is clearly an arrangement. Bach took the Prelude from his E major partita for solo violin [listen] and arranged it in spectacular fashion for organ and orchestra as the opening sinfonia to his cantata no 29. [listen]

St Thomas, Leipzig, where Bach worked for the last 27 years of his life

This is far more than mere transcription; although the organ part might be said to be a transcription of the violin original, the whole piece - with the addition of an entire orchestra - is clearly an arrangement of the original.

Bach did this very often, making use of a piece which would have been heard only once or by a very few people and getting more mileage out of it. The famous third Brandenburg concerto is scored for nine-part solo strings and continuo only. [listen]

But a decade later Bach arranged the piece as the prelude to his cantata no 174. The original piece is there, clearly recognisable, but to the original Bach added parts for tutti strings, oboes and high horns, making this stunning arrangement. [listen]

If you want to learn more about this transition from concerto to cantata, the early music specialist John Butt goes into the piece in this video.

Some decades later Mozart discovered the music of Bach and saw in fugue the possibilities for deeper and more personal musical expression. One of the works directly inspired by his encounter with Bach’s music was his Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K426, composed in December 1783. [listen]

Five years later Mozart revisited this piece and arranged it for strings. Much of the work might be said to be a transcription of the original, but in making the string version Mozart added a newly-composed introduction which aims to reinforce the old world of the Baroque. This alone makes it more accurate to refer to the string version (K546) as an arrangement, one of the most magnificent works for string orchestra of any era. [listen]

There are literally thousands of such examples we could draw on to illustrate how composers have re-used their own material, but one more I’ll mention comes from the 20th century and the music of Sergei Prokofiev. In 1943 Prokofiev wrote his D major flute sonata, op 94 and it was premiered in Moscow in December of that year. This is the third movement. [listen]

L to R: Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khatchaturian (1940)

The famous Russian violinist David Oistrakh thought there was only one thing wrong with the flute sonata: it wasn’t composed for the violin. Prokofiev felt that the flute sonata should be played with “a bright, transparent, classical tone,” but Oistrakh said, “I would have desired a more full-blooded life for this wonderful work...” At his request Prokofiev arranged the solo part for violin, making what is now known as Prokofiev’s violin sonata no 2. This is the same movement in the violin version, from David Oistrakh’s own recording from 1957. [listen]

The idea of playing the work on the violin did not meet with universal approval. No lesser figure than the pianist Sviatoslav Richter (the pianist at the premiere of the original flute version) said of the violin version: “It counted as a second violin sonata but it is incomparably more beautiful in its original form for flute”. Similar controversy surrounds many such re-workings of music. Late in his life Brahms wrote two sonatas for clarinet and piano, almost simultaneously arranging the clarinet part for viola. Both versions have their supporters and detractors; I was one of those renegade violists who always felt the music sounded more natural on the clarinet.

Of course music transcribed or arranged by the original composer is only part of the story. The world is full of music transcribed or arranged by people other than the original composer. And beyond this, there are many examples of a composer quoting part of a work by another composer within the context of an otherwise original piece. Let’s start with an example of the latter.

One of Franz Schubert’s many works for piano four hands is his famous military march (or Marche Militaire) no 1. [listen]

More than a century later, in 1942, Igor Stravinsky was asked by the choreographer Georges Balanchine to collaborate with him on a most unusual project. Balanchine had been commissioned by the Barnum and Bailey Circus to choreograph a ballet of elephants and had been given free choice as to who the composer should be. Stravinsky provided what is now known as his Circus Polka, a piece which itself has undergone a number of arrangements at the composer’s hand. Originally scored for a circus band, the work is best-known today in the composer’s version for full orchestra. Regardless of the version, Stravinsky’s cheeky reference to the famous Schubert march near the end is unmissable. [listen]

George Balanchine (1942)

Some time after the original circus commission, Stravinsky made his own transcription of the Circus Polka for solo piano. By returning Schubert’s famous tune to the piano, while surrounding it with his own inimitable sounds, Stravinsky seems to make us able to hear music from two centuries simultaneously. [listen]

Another 20th century composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, made brilliant use of a pre-existing tune in 1928 in order to win a bet. Three years before, Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar had a huge success with their musical No, no, Nanette. It contained this song, which instantly became a hit. [listen]

By 1928 the song was known the world over. In the USSR, the conductor Nikolai Malko (later Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) made a bet with Shostakovich that he couldn’t - after one hearing of the recording of the Tea for Two - come up with an orchestral arrangement within an hour. Shostakovich returned 45 minutes later with the score of this to claim his 100 roubles. [listen]

Nikolai Malko

As a final example of a tune “in different dress” we go to the world of Protestant hymnody, and specifically the hymn known as The Old Hundredth. This nickname derives from the fact that the text is a poetic reworking of the text of Psalm 100 from the Bible. The melody appeared in the Genevan Psalter of 1551, and it’s often attributed to the French composer Louis Bourgeois. The familiar English words (beginning, “All people that on earth do dwell”) are by William Kethe, who died in 1594. [listen]

A number of composers have made use of this glorious tune in their works. One of the most unusual was in 1936, when the German composer (and violist) Paul Hindemith was in London. He was getting ready to broadcast a concert for the BBC when the death of George V was announced. He hurriedly wrote a small work for viola and strings called Trauermusik (Music of Mourning) which was performed in a broadcast later the same day; Hindemith played the solo viola part himself. The final section is a moving re-use of the Old Hundredth hymn tune, although Hindemith knew it as a Lutheran chorale setting the words “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (I now appear before thy throne). Hindemith thought the reference to a throne was appropriate for a king, and he would also have known that according to legend JS Bach’s final composition - dictated on his death bed - was based on this chorale. He only later discovered it was well-known in England as The Old Hundredth. In the brief final section, the melody is in the first violins, re-harmonised rather beautifully, with the solo viola providing heartfelt outbursts between the phrases. [listen]

Paul Hindemith (1923)

Numerous English composers have made use of the tune, of course. One of the most famous is at the mid-point of Britten’s 1942 cantata Saint Nicolas, a moment which never fails to stir and audience and bring a tear to the eye. [listen]

But I want to finish this post with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1953, for the coronation of Elizabeth II, Vaughan Williams wrote a glorious setting of Psalm 100 which incorporated the Old Hundredth melody in its texture. The composer, at the time elder statesman of English music, suggested to the young queen that at her coronation the congregation might be permitted to sing a hymn, something unprecedented at a British coronation. Many thought the idea outrageous but the queen approved the idea, and Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of The Old Hundredth is one of the most stirring arrangement of any hymn. You can’t keep a good tune down! [listen]

May your life be full of great tunes, no matter how they’re dressed.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2008.

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