Adapting to Changing Situations

(April 1, 2020 - Vol. 1, No. 1)

If the last 12 months have taught us anything, we hopefully understand better how to adapt our lives--in some cases, from top to bottom--in order to meet new challenges and opportunities. Now, that is hardly a novel observation, but perhaps the severity of the pandemic has made it feel more real, more immediate. There have been things we could retain and things that needed to be let go; there have been constraints imposed that, surprisingly, opened doors to new perspectives.

In very small ways, this kind of adaptation has always been natural to music. Centuries ago music was often written with no direct, specific connection to an instrument or group of instruments. To be sure, If you were writing music for a sacred setting in the year 1250, you did know that it would be performed vocally (and by male voices, at that); instrumental music was either forbidden or so completely marginalized that it might only emerge in spontaneous settings. But apart from such traditions, music generally took shape in the Renaissance and Baroque with a more catholic nonchalance: a piece worked out at the organ will often work just fine on a harpsichord or, eventually, a fortepiano; a sonata for two treble parts with continuo support can easily be played by violins or oboes or perhaps even trumpets (depending on the key). 


Bach, for example, was not at all averse to making changes in order to suit his circumstances. Early in his career, Bach himself transcribed a handful of Italian (mostly violin) concertos to be performable by one player at a keyboard. These arrangements served at least two purposes: pedagogical and practical. Pedagogical needs were important to Bach, who often had his own children and a few boarders to instruct in the basic principles of composition, extemporization, and tasteful interpretation. And in a practical sense, how better to experience the latest developments in Italian writing than by getting it "under one's fingers." Of course, Bach's keyboards arrangements lack the textural brilliance of the full string ensemble and the dynamic interplay between soloist and the larger group. But these were tradeoffs worth making at the time.


Similarly, Bach would recycle music written for entirely different situations in order to create chamber works for the Collegium Musicum of Leipzig, a standing gig that he organized for several years at Zimmermann's Kaffeehaus. At these cozy events, music by Bach and others was performed by the forces available at the moment. Hence, Bach had no qualms about rescoring a violin concerto for keyboard or sacred arias for oboe, violin, and continuo. Bach may have had a temper that got him into trouble, but he seems not to have been a stickler over instrumentation when live music making called for flexibility.   


Gradually things began to change in this respect. The concept of "the work of art" (a broad topic for philosophical discussion that cannot detain us here) emerged in which more and more aspects of the creation came to be regarded as sacrosanct. At the same time, copyright rules hardened, so that the fairly free "borrowing" of someone else's melody now meant possible legal action. I'm not arguing that copyright rules are a bad thing, of course. My point is to note, briefly, that what we now think of as a "work of art" is a more fixed "thing" than would have been recognized before, say, 1800. 

Just limiting our consideration to music, the lingering hold of interpretation allowed performers some license--albeit tasteful and well-reasoned, we hope--to ornament, decorate, elaborate, insert and "revise" elements of someone else's composition well into the 18th century. One can debate the historical validity of a certain mordent here or a lavish upper-voice trill figure there in the works of Couperin or Froberger, but there is little debating that such works benefit from these audio effects. However, how many pianists, for instance, are bold enough to introduce a turn figure in Mozart where one is not indicated? Harder still, would anyone risk their career (I exaggerate a bit, perhaps) to throw a spontaneous trill or cadenza into Beethoven where he did not write one? What about arranging his "Pastoral" Piano Sonata, Op. 28, for guitar duo or wind quartet? You have perhaps heard Rachmaninoff's lovely "Vocalise" wordless song performed on theremin?


Of course, performers can continue to do such things and take such risks. It is one way they continue to make great works from the past continue to feel vital and alive. But in general, from Beethoven's day onward each musical work has had a more concrete association with the instrument(s) the composer had in mind at the time of creating. An important caveat is that composers have sometimes dramatically changed the instrumentation themselves after hearing an initial performance. 


At Staunton Music Festival, arrangements and transcriptions are one more piece in an elaborate musical puzzle that takes shape each summer. In each case the arrangement needs to make very good musical sense, on its own, before we look at its suitability for the makeup of players we have on hand. For example, a few years ago we offered the world premiere of a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture. This excellent version for piano and string sextet was created by violist and composer Vladimir Mendelssohn, who was himself among the performers at the August 2015 premiere. For me, what sets this arrangement concept apart is how reducing the number of players actually makes the Fantasy even more powerful. As an orchestral work, it is grand and sweeping but borders at times on becoming melodramatic. As the entire backdrop of the work centers on ill-fated love between just two people, framed within the open enmity of several hot-headed Veronese youths, the chamber arrangement can capture the individual voices so much more effectively than the symphonic original. While Mendelssohn's version cannot fill a 1,500 seat concert hall as impressively as Tchaikovsky's original, it does gain expressive power by tapping into what unites the poetry and the instrumentation: intimacy.


Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture, arranged by Vladimir Mendelssohn

Performed at the Staunton Music Festival Saturday, August 22, 2015, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia

Video by Stewart Searle of Bravi Films

Performers: Heini Kärkkäinen, piano
Kyu-Young Kim, violin
Diane Pascal, violin
Vladimir Mendelssohn, viola
Pitnarry Shin, cello
Carl Donakowski, cello
Anthony Manzo, double bass


In 2021 the Festival will feature several intriguing arrangements. Several cases involve familiar versions of larger, orchestral masterworks. Composer-in-residence Zachary Wadsworth, who has created numerous arrangements in past seasons, brings a world-premiere version of Gershwin's Overture to An American in Paris for opening night (Friday Aug 13). That same program also includes the great Kaiserwalzer by Strauss, as arranged for chamber ensemble by Arnold Schoenberg. The latter's name often elicits a certain raised-eyebrow glance from music lovers (quite apart from what Schoenberg actually achieved in his own music). But as an arranger, Schoenberg is incredibly creative and faithful to the original; his "Emperor" is by turns grandiloquent and tender. Additional evidence can be heard in his arrangement of Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) on Thursday Aug 19 at noon. 

Mozart lived at a transition time between the eras of free borrowing/adaptation and the 19th-century move toward greater authorial control by composers. Explain why his arr were written


Certainly a highlight of the August 2021 Festival will be the penultimate evening concert, Gateway to Heaven (Saturday Aug 21). The lone work on the program is Mahler's Symphony No. 9 as arranged for chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon.  More about Simon...