Saturday, 13 March 2010

Musical adapations that were meant to be

Every now and then you come across a piece of music that has been transfered to a different instrument or body of instruments to the ones it was originally written for. Often such translations are painful. Grieg's piano concerto rendered on a kazoo, say. Or to be less facetious, a brass band rendition of a string quartet.

However occasionally, just one in a thousand of these perversions produces something better than the original. I can think of two examples. Purists might not agree, but I think that Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is better than the composer's original piano version. Even more dramatic is Samuel Barber's transformation of his Adagio for Strings into the vocal Agnus Dei. The Adagio is a striking and wonderful work, but when Barber transfered it to voices it was given a haunting, gut-wrenching quality that isn't there in the original, making it quite possibly the most emotionally power piece of music ever written.

So here's your challenge, if you choose to accept it. Can you name other pieces that have been improved by being moved away from the composer's instruments of choice?


  1. So Verklarte Nacht doesn't count, then?

  2. Not sure what you mean, Roger.

    If you think the orchestral arrangement is better than the original, then yes, that's exactly the sort of think I'm looking for - and the more the merrier.

    If, on the other hand, you are offering a brass band arrangement, I think I would have to decline.

  3. A brass band arrangement? Now, there's an idea!! No, I just think the string orchestra version is lusher than the original sextet, but that's not exactly a proper re-orchestration. Can't think of anything else at present.

  4. J. S. Bach's 'The Art of Fugue' was probably conceived as 'pure music', not intended for performance on any particular instrument. The first recording I heard of this was on a church organ, and it sounded like a pointless dirge, the voices indistinct. Then I got a string-quartet version and it made much more sense.

  5. I would suggest, Henry, that was down to poor choice of registration on the part of the organist - a good organist can really make the Art of Fugue sing. As you say, quite a few Bach pieces don't really have a natural home, but as such can't really qualify in my search for pieces that are better elsewhere than where the composer first evisaged them.

  6. I am an organist currently battling my way through one of J.S.Bach's trio sonatas - BWV529 in C major. I love this music, but I recently heard it played on two violins and a cello with harpsichord continuo. It was absolutely brilliant!

    Peter Main