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Composers’ originals amended by conductors


Arthur Butterworth

In the 1930s it was a commonplace for fashionable dance-band leaders to announce on radio that "the next ‘little number’ is a smart new arrangement we are now to play for the first time". This was common practice: popular dance tunes that might have been familiar for several years were given a face-lift to bring them up to date, since the craze was always for the latest sound. To play things, as we would say nowadays, that were past their sell-by date, was just not the done thing. Like women’s fashion, popular music had to be bang up to date; if not it was looked upon with faint contempt - "last season’s tunes" as one might put it.

This attitude is the very antithesis of the "precious" reverence we feel for the classic arts. It would be unthinkable to touch up masterpiece paintings, sacrilege in fact. Great literature, when modernised by script-writers for film and television production, or opera which has aspects of its original plot or its scenic details modernised by contemporary producers is disdainfully, even angrily, ridiculed by critics who invariably pour forth their wrath and contempt on the insensitive, uncultured way that philistine producers molest great classics.

Serious concert music - the classics - have been far less liable to such tampering by later generations of musicians. Listeners to a recital or concert of the classics are generally quite unaware of the familiar things they are listening to having been in any way ‘doctored’ in the same manner that, for example, it is often all too evident that an opera they are both hearing and seeing on stage has been drastically altered to suit the whim of a ‘clever’ producer who is arrogantly keen to make his own individual mark on artistic society. But even in concert music this does happen, despite what has been said.

How? Such refurbishing of older music comes about in a variety of ways, sometimes done so surreptitiously that the ordinary listener is generally totally oblivious to what has happened.

One of the perhaps inevitable things to have taken place as time goes on is the fact that musical instruments, the ones the older composers were familiar with, are now either obsolete or have been technically improved out of all recognition. The orchestra of Bach and Handel’s day was soon regarded as old-fashioned once the rococo, or early classical period of Haydn and Mozart arrived. An early - and very familiar - instance of this came about when Mozart decided to re-orchestrate "Messiah" - and no matter that you might think this heresy for me to say so - this was one of Mozart’s most grave and unforgivable errors of judgement. It was sheer vandalism of him to have re-written the splendid trumpet obbligato "The Trumpet shall sound" just because orchestral fashion in his day had changed and become dumbed-down from the splendid baroque elegance of Bach and Handel. I could never forgive Mozart for this wanton act of sacrilege. Examples of this kind of cavalier editing can be found in just about every period of musical history.

The argument has been put forward - and it is not always without justification - that the way in which instruments have developed makes it justifiable to update the orchestration of earlier music because "that’s how the composer would have done it" had such improvements in orchestral instruments been available to him in his own day. Does Beethoven sound better on a modern Steinway piano than ever it would have done on Beethoven’s own Broadwood? Are not modern woodwind instruments, with their exquisitely developed key-work, far, far superior to the old - crude - boxwood oboes, early clarinets and bassoons? To say nothing of the modern metal flute compared with the wooden one of tradition? Generally we accept that they are and that those composers from a past classical golden age would agree with us were they to be alive today.

However, for a couple of decades or more there has been a burgeoning re-awakening of interest in authentic instruments of the past; it is not now the done thing to perform ‘Messiah’ in Mozart’s cocked-up version complete with clarinets, horns, and even trombones; we know better than that nowadays.

What profound effect on the whole family of brass instruments did the invention of the valve have on the way composers subsequently were able to write for these new instruments? Of equal interest: what impact did the invention of the valve have on the way older brass parts might in future be performed? For one thing it implied that many of the limitations that formerly restricted what horns and trumpets could effectively do no longer applied; a result of this was that later players - perhaps encouraged by enterprising conductors - were able to make their parts more effective and satisfying to play once the severe diatonic limitations had been overcome. So how far might rewriting the older, restricted parts be allowed to go in the pursuit of making them more satisfying to play and to listen to? Could a wholesale re-editing of them be justified in this way? What about authenticity and composers’ original intention being preserved - in the same way that a classical painter’s canvas is preserved. If there is no justification for altering a visual work of art, is there any more justification for altering a musical work of art just because it is technically possible? The honest answer to this is that there is no justification at all.

There are far many more or less obvious refurbishings heard which the listener is often quite oblivious to; little things that are not noisily vaunted by conductors in the self-aggrandising manner of opera producers. Instead such alterations are done quietly, very often so that the listener is hardly aware of them.

Despite such lofty sentiments about being faithful to the composer’s original intention, is it conceivable that - perhaps - the composer would have agreed with such revisions had he been able to avail himself of the modern technological advantages we now possess? The problem is that we shall never know. So while we think he would invariably agree with us, we just do not know. Would Bach have preferred his splendid keyboard music on the modern piano, or would he still really choose the harpsichord because somehow the sound of the harpsichord is all part of the ethos of what he created whereas the piano is not. It may indeed be easy for us to say we prefer the piano, for we are familiar with so much harpsichord music long having been played on the piano, but that does not allow us so arrogantly to presume that Bach would have agreed with us.

There is another facet to all this - a slightly different one - it concerns transcriptions from one medium to another. Where, for instance, a work for a keyboard instrument is not just, as it were, updated, but is re-created into what is in effect a totally new work, using the original as no more than a starting point. There are countless examples of this: one of the more well-known being Moussorgsky’s "Pictures at an exhibition". Originally for solo piano, the version by Ravel - and there are several others - is probably even more well-known in its orchestral transcription. Wind bands, not least the brass band tradition was founded on the art of transcription. Were it not for the great corpus of classics - opera, symphony and choral music, there probably would never have arisen the brass band as we have long known it. Original brass band music is of comparatively recent times when the situation is carefully examined.

However, while it might be argued that transcriptions, by their very nature admit from the very outset to not being a composer’s original conception; therefore no deception is intended, there is this other more debatable ethic of whether we should alter a composer’s original while still pretending that it is his own. This comes about more often than is realised by the innocent concertgoer. An example of this is familiarly met with in Beethoven where the horn, and even more so the trumpet parts, are edited by enterprising players aided and abetted by consenting conductors. Beethoven’s valveless trumpets were so limited in the notes available to them that it does indeed seem irksome that they cannot take full part in the exposition of an important theme - such as that of the first movement of the "Eroica" Symphony. On the other hand with just a little touching-up they are just as capable as any other instrument in the orchestra of playing the tune in full, instead of having to leave out bits because with the trumpet of Beethoven’s day such notes were not obtainable. So, for the most part, modern conductors instruct their trumpet players to fill in the otherwise ‘classically’ missing notes. This kind of touching-up of inevitable limitations in classical scores is widely resorted to, but in general the listener is not all that aware of it. After all it is usually done discreetly; it is not comparable to the wholesale redesigning of an opera plot, or the scenery, transferring it from one period of history to another.

Some composers, Schumann, for example, were long regarded as a rather indifferent orchestrator, a bit clumsy and maybe unimaginative in the way he handled a large orchestra - although we no longer take this hyper-critical view of him. It has often meant that later composers, notably Mahler, went to the not inconsiderable time and trouble of re-orchestrating passages in Schumann’s symphonies in the light of later 19th century expertise in the way an orchestra could be used.

For purely practical and economic reasons an orchestra might slim down the instrumentation of some works: it does not always make economic good sense to engage - say - an alto flautist, merely to play a few modest notes in Debussy when the orchestra is playing in a small town where the audience capacity is limited; so the few notes intended for the alto-flute are discreetly transferred to the clarinet. Parts ideally intended by the composer for four or five percussionists can often be handled quite dexterously by two or three slick-handed players who somehow contrive to squeeze in all the notes the composer intended. Very often an opulent part for a second harp can somehow be managed by just one player. Some composers - Vaughan Williams especially so - was aware of the economics of orchestras and not infrequently wrote parts that were ad lib and could therefore without too much loss of effect be dispensed with. Conductors, notably Stokowski, were not above reinforcing some passages which were thought to be in need of strengthening: maybe the top line of the 1st violins might be doubled by the piccolo in exceedingly loud passages in order to let the line stand out more clearly.

This kind of behind-the-scenes touching up of some large-scale works is something I myself have resorted to more than once: all conductors do this from time to time.

In general we do not need to touch up the early classics, Haydn, Mozart and the early romantics - in such as Weber, Mendelssohn - and certainly not Brahms. However as already suggested, Beethoven’s trumpet parts are not infrequently deftly enhanced. Such minor alterations make them more satisfying to the player, and add significantly to the fragile balance of the whole.

So it is a delicate thing to consider. On the one hand I go along with the purists who rightly believe we should leave things as their composers originally intended, for we can never know whether they would consent to employing all the newer developments in instrumental design that we take for granted. On the other hand I admit that - done with the most careful expertise and discretion - it is sometimes justifiable to make the orchestration of a piece more effective by a very cunning adjustment here and there.

Arthur Butterworth

February 2008


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