This week on the program, our theme is Reorchestration, looking at works of music that have been called up to the symphonic big leagues. Check out this list of chamber pieces arranged for the symphony orchestra:
- Erik Satie (1866–1925), Gymnopédies Nos. 1 & 3 (arr. by Claude Debussy) – Satie never held a recognizable occupation, so he told his friends that he was a “Gymnopedist,” an obscure word which refers to an athletics competition performed by children in ancient Greece. In 1888, Satie completed his most famous composition and titled it Gymnopédies. The collection of short pieces was well received, but by 1896 Satie’s popularity and finances were starting to decline. Satie’s friend and fellow composer Claude Debussy was, at the same time, becoming somewhat of a superstar. As a favor to Satie, Debussy re-orchestrated the Gymnopédies and published them. You may have noticed that we only heard the first and third Gymnopédie. Debussy initially realized orchestrations of only these two pieces, saying that the second did not lend itself to writing beyond the piano. It wasn’t until many decades later that the entire collection was orchestrated by other composers.
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), The Musical Offering: Ricercar a 6 (arr. by Anton Webern) – Johann Sebastian Bach’s approach to composition was rigorous and methodical, almost like a science rather than an art. Take his Ricercar fugue from The Musical Offering. Bach took a complex fugue subject written by Frederick the Great and crafted it into a six-voice fugue, carefully controlling the balance between consonance and dissonance. While fugues can be like a science, orchestration is more like an art. However, the composers of the Second Viennese School—Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg—tried to turn this art into a science, controlling the structure of timbre much like they controlled pitch. Their technique was called Klangfarbenmelodie, or “tone-color melody.” Webern reorchestrated Bach’s six-voice Ricercar in 1935 using this Klangfarbenmelodie technique, using a pointillistic texture and changing the instrument colors every few notes to enhance the pitch structure. Whether or not Webern actually controlled timbre as methodically as Bach controlled pitch has been a debate among scholars for nearly a century now.
- Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Carnaval (arr. by Maurice Ravel) – During his lifetime, Maurice Ravel was known primarily as a great orchestrator, following in the footsteps of other great orchestrators like Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss. One critic wrote of Ravel, quote “he is the one man in the world who best knows the weight of a trombone-note, the harmonics of a cello or a pianissimo tam-tam in the relationships of one orchestral group to another.” Ravel considered orchestration and composition to be two distinct creative tasks, and often recast his own pieces in a variety of instrumental combinations. Ravel also reorchestrated the works of previous composers. He’s perhaps best known for his phenomenal orchestral arrangement of Pictures At An Exhibition, the piano piece by Modest Mussorgsky (which was our podcast selection this week). But Ravel also re-orchestrated the works of Emmanuel Chabrier, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Claude Debussy, as well as this piano work by Robert Schumann.
- Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 – Many people know the Slavonic Dances as a rousing orchestral piece, full of tuneful melodies and energetic percussion, but Dvorak’s original version of the work is much more modest: a piano duet. He probably modeled them after the Hungarian Dances, a piano duet by Johannes Brahms. Brahms actually played an important role in Dvorak’s life. They met when Dvorak was applying for a scholarship from an Austrian imperial committee, where Brahms was a member. Brahms was impressed by the young Czech’s music and recommended him not only for the scholarship, but also to his publisher Fritz Simrock. It was Simrock who eventually commissioned Dvorak’s first set of “Slavonic Dances” for piano 4-hands. These works were very successful, and Dvorak quickly orchestrated them. They were soon performed all throughout Europe, establishing Dvorak as the most important Czech composer of the day.
- Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”, III. (Scherzo) In ruhig fließender Bewegung – Gustav Mahler is primarily known for two types of compositions: songs and symphonies. And the line between the two genres was often blurred. In 1887, Mahler discovered a collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Wunderhorn poems permeate much of his output for the next 15 years (this is often called his “Wunderhorn Phase.”) He set twelve of the poems into a song cycle, and used these songs as the basis for parts of his second, third, and fourth symphonies. For instance, the song “Urlicht” was redesigned as the finale of his second symphony, and the music for this scherzo which we just heard was a reorchestration of the song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” or “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes.” That original song was about a priest giving a sermon to some deaf ears (namely, scores of fish swimming in a lake). Years later, this movement was re-orchestrated yet again in 1968, when composer Luciano Berio used it as the basis for the third movement of his work Sinfonia.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Rigoletto Concerto Paraphrase (arr. by Franz Liszt) – While all of these pieces we’ve looked at so far were solo and chamber works that became orchestral masterpieces, simultaneously there are also composers who have used the technique of “reverse-orchestration” (i.e., turning orchestral pieces in solo pieces). Franz Liszt is widely regarded as one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his or any age, and some of the most classic examples of reverse-orchestration were a part of his personal recital repertoire. In addition to playing his own compositions, Liszt would take popular arias of the time and improvise on them. Later, he published solo piano transcriptions of these formerly orchestral pieces which he called “concert paraphrases.” We just heard one of his paraphrases of music from Rigoletto. Liszt first performed this work at the request of the 19th century’s most influential conductor, Hans von Bülow. Bülow was himself a pianist, and shared Liszt’s enthusiasm for the expressive potential of the solo piano, even within the operatic and orchestral repertoire.
- Samuel Barber (1910–1981), Adagio For Strings – Samuel Barber did not write a great deal of chamber music. He only wrote about a dozen chamber pieces, including one violin sonata, one cello sonata, and only one string quartet. The opening movement of the string quartet is written in sonata form, with a slow adagio second movement. The finale took more time, and the premiere of the work was even delayed in 1935 because he hadn’t finished the finale. Of these three movements, Barber much preferred the second Adagio movement, so much so that he took that movement and re-orchestrated it for full string orchestra. You may now know it as Barber’s Adagio For Strings. This work’s elegiac sound has made it a staple of state funerals and other somber events. Barber even re-orchestrated the movement again in 1967, turning it into a choral arrangement using the text of the Agnus Dei.
- Antoine Busnois (c. 1430–1492), Missa L’Homme Armé – If we think of reorchestration as a kind of borrowing, in which previously composed music is recast to expand the textures and ensemble of the original music, then reorchestration has been practiced by composers as far back as the early Renaissance. One of the most significant examples is the L’homme Armé tradition. L’homme Armé, or the “Armed Man,” was a song melody that many composers used as the basis for mass and motet compositions. The origins of the tune are murky, but many think that it was written by Burgundian composer Antoine Busnois. Busnois’ own L’homme Armé mass is one of the most influential works of the 15th century. He’s credited with introducing techniques in this mass, such as pervasive imitation, that would become style hallmarks of hugely popular 16th-century composers such as Josquin Desprez and Palestrina, both of whom would also write their own L’homme Armé masses.
- Philip Glass (b. 1937), Symphony No. 4 (“Heroes”) – You may not be able to hear it clearly in this piece, but the first movement of Philip Glass’s fourth symphony is a re-orchestration (or perhaps a reimagination) of the 1977 song “Heroes” by David Bowie. Bowie’s two 1977 albums Heroes and Low were both collaborations with producer Brian Eno, and marked a shift away from glam rock towards ambient, avant-garde, and electronic music—something that many composers outside of pop were also experimenting with at the time. In the 1990s, Philip Glass re-worked aspects of these two landmark David Bowie albums as two symphonies: his Low Symphony (Symphony No. 1) and his Heroes Symphony (Symphony No. 4). The Heroes Symphony was even choreographed into a ballet by Twyla Tharp. The result is more Philip Glass than David Bowie and Brian Eno, but still marks an important crossover between pop and art music.