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Adapting to Changing Situations

Jason Stell
Vol 1 No 1 (Jan 2022)

If the last 20 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). Back then, 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 Sergei 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 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 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 sheer melodrama. 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.

Last summer the Festival featured several intriguing arrangements, including a world-premiere version of Gershwin's Overture to An American in Paris by Zachary Wadsworth and Klaus Simon's compelling version of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 for just 15 musicians. We had chamber arrangements of Strauss and Mahler's Wayfarer Songs, new arrangements of original music by J. P. Jofre, and a Mozart piano concerto pared down, beautifully, by the composer himself to just keyboard and five strings. The effort to envision familiar music in new ways continues in August 2022.


A featured work this summer will be Beethoven's monumental "Eroica" Symphony (Contrasts, August 16) in an arrangement for piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, and cello) made by someone intimately familiar with the man and the work. Ferdinand Ries was Beethoven's friend and personal secretary, perhaps best known today for his colorful reminiscences of the great master, though he also created dozens of original works in most classical genres. It is no meager feat, to be sure, to have taken the massive "Eroica" score - which called for the largest orchestra of its day - and distilled it down to an ensemble small enough to fit in a living room. But like Liszt's piano solo versions of the Beethoven symphonies, Ries' arrangement could provide a new domestic market for this music outside of Vienna's ballrooms and concert halls.

Claude Debussy's music falls under the spotlight, too.  At a noon concert (Summer Sounds, August 18) we will present Vladimir Mendelssohn's transcription of dance music by the French composer.  Earlier in the festival Debussy's La mer will be heard in its entirety in a skillful adaptation for piano trio by Sally Beamish (Water Music, August 13).  Beamish is now composer-in-residence at the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and has twice been featured as BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week. 

Staunton composer-in-residence Wadsworth will also return to the arrangement game, preparing new takes on Tchaikovsky's beloved Nutcracker (Scenes from Childhood, August 15), Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (Memories and Roses, August 20) and the jazz standard Take Five.  Brubeck's signature tune will be re-scored for baroque ensemble by Wadsworth for the Take Five concert, August 17.  And for a deeper exploration of musical re-imagining, listeners are urged to hear Wadsworth's Palaces of Memories, a contemporary work for the exact same instrumental forces as Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which follows on the same program ((Neo)-Baroque, August 18). On that concert audiences can enjoy brilliant transcriptions of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas played on the harp by virtuoso Sivan Magen.

Hearing these arrangements may open entirely new perspectives on familiar masterworks. And yes, it is entirely possible the performances will leave you longing to hear the original, larger scores in their full glory. But either way, we hope the experience of hearing new scorings enriches your understanding of the work itself, of how notes on a page can come to life with manifold timbres, alongside other musical voices of both traditional and innovative allure.

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