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Lost in translation?

January 15, 2016

Music must be the leader among the arts when it comes to what one might call high-quality spin-offs. By that I mean many compositions exist not only in their original version, but also in what might be called…well, what does one call them? We have different words for our industry of remoulding originals—transcriptions, orchestrations, paraphrases, arrangements—but the end products all seem to blend happily together as being from the same creative stable. This week’s blog spotlights some of these ’translations’ that may not be familiar to you—this is Naxos, after all!

Arnold Schoenberg
Photo: Man Ray
Johannes Brahms
Source: Wikimedia

It’s not only musicians with limited talent for creating original masterpieces who enjoy indulging in a bit of makeover. Arnold Schoenberg, whose serial music may put a frisson up some peoples’ auditory channels, also produced much more accessible tones and was clearly having a ball when he arranged Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor for orchestra (8.557524). But why should a great musical revolutionary bother himself with such a seemingly trifling exercise? Here’s part of the answer from the master himself,  in an extract from a letter written to the press in 1939 outlining his reasons behind the transcription:

My reasons:
I like the piece.
It is seldom played.
It is always very badly played because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted [for] once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

My intentions:
To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself he would have gone if he had lived today.

Mmm. One may be inclined to query that last statement in light of the finale’s xylophone and glockenspiel parts, trombone glissandos and double-tongued presto passages, muted trumpets, divisi strings and numerous cymbal crashes. Here’s an excerpt from that movement.

Edward Elgar
Source: Wikimedia
JS Bach
Painting: Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Elgar began his transcription of J.S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 (8.572741) sixteen years earlier. The composer had similar notions to Schoenberg’s when he said that the purpose behind the transcription was ’to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant he [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had had our means’. Organists especially should now prepare for their eyebrows to rise, possibly in unison with a few suppressed giggles during this clip from the fugue.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Painting: Valentin Serov
Nikolai Tcherepnin
Source: Wikimedia

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition (8.110105) did much to give the work a kiss of life as well as cosmetic surgery: Mussorgsky’s original score for piano wasn’t published until 1886, five years after his death, following which there was a rash of composers who were seized by the inspiration to orchestrate it. The Ravel version was the result of a commission by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1922 which carried a fee of 10,000 francs (and a canny 5 years of exclusive performance rights!). Here’s Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony in a live 1943 performance of the work, so there’s probably a deal of authority in his reading. The clip is from Baba Yaga (The Hut on Hen’s Legs).

Maurice Ravel
Source: Wikimedia
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Source: Wikimedia

Time now for a couple of paraphrases, “a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness”, which seems a strange thing to do to a model of simplicity like Chopsticks (yes, the very same tune we possibly all cut our teeth on at the piano). The Russian composers Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov enthusiastically collaborated on a set of piano variations on the short tune for Borodin’s daughter. It’s been passed from arranger to arranger ever since. I’m sure you’ll have no difficulty spotting the melody in this arrangement by Nikolai Tcherepnin of Rimsky-Korsakov’s original paraphrase, if you follow me…It’s titled Tarantella (9.80607). The work’s full title: Tati-Tati (arr. of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Parafrazi, “Chopsticks”).

William Vincent Wallace
Source: Wikimedia
Wallace’s Maritana
Source: National Library of Ireland

I couldn’t resist choosing a piece by William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865) as the second example of a paraphrase, as much for the composer’s extraordinary life as for the music. Born in Ireland, where he married, he emigrated to Australia in 1835. Five years later, he abandoned his family in Sydney and is said to have complemented his earnings from music with stints at sheep farming and whale hunting. There are also tales of how he narrowly escaped being eaten by cannibals, was mauled by a tiger in India and caught in an earthquake in the South Seas. He returned to Europe for a period of composing, including the completion of the music for his opera Maritana (8.660308-09) but, threatened by blindness, he was sent by his doctor back to South America for treatment. Whence to New York where, in 1850, he became an American citizen and, in the same year, bigamously married the 23-year-old pianist Helen Stoepel. Returning again to Britain he settled in London before ill health forced him to head for the Pyrenees, where he died in 1865. And while you’re digesting all that, plus a pinch of salt maybe, we end with an extract from his own paraphrase for piano (8.572774) of music from his opera Maritana.

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