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    Piano Rearrangement and Liszt’s Idea of Piano music


    How does Liszt’s idea of superiority of instrumental music influence the status of musical rearrangment in the history of music? And how does this idea influence Romantic and Modern composer’s compositional attitude? The above two questions are worthy of exploration. The follow article attempts to search for an answers. And let us know more about the development of the new musical genre from the 19th century onward — The Piano Rarrangement.


    Arrangement’ is applied to any kinds of music based on or incorporating pre-existing material: variation form, the contrafactum, the parody mass, the pasticcio, and liturgical works. In the history of music, ‘arrangement’ can be firstly found in the medieval trope and clausula as well as motets, however, vocal arrangement was more popular than instrumental arrangement at that time. Starting from 1600, the practice of transforming vocal music into keyboard music boosted and in 19th century, piano arrangment was widely accepted only after the release of the Franz Liszt’s piano arragement. Franz Liszt was the most important arranger to establish the state of ‘arrangement’. He divided arrangement into two categories: (1) paraphrases in which the arranger can alter the original freely and add his own fantasy around it; (2) transciptions in which the arranger must recreate the original faithfully.

    Liszt’s paraphrases include the operas by Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, in which Liszt fully presents his talent of music, like adding an entire act in a 15-minute concert piece and combining the original themes in it. The most famous paraphrase is Bellini’s Norma, which got a coda with a combination of two main opera’s themes —- ‘Deh! Non volerli’ and ‘Ite sul colle’. On the other hand, Liszt’s transcriptions are so faithful that they are called ‘gramophone records of the 19th century’. The greatness of Liszt’s transcriptions are his inventiveness as he can find out all individual piansitic solutions when he encountered various problems in translating mucis from one medium to another. After examining Liszt’s transfer of the Beethoven symphonies, Tovey remarked him that ‘they prove conclusively that Liszt was by far the most wonderful interpreter of orchestral scores on the pianoforte the world is ever likely to see’ Therefore, Liszt helped establish the status of arrangement in the history of music in 19th century.

    In the 19th century, after Liszt establishing the ‘arrangement’, more arrangers joined this queue. For instnace, Brahms’ orchestration of his Variations for two pianos on a theme of Haydn (1873); Joachim’s orchestral version of Schubert’s Sonata in C for piano duet d812 (‘Grand Duo’) Even in 20th century, ‘arrangement’ is still important, but new elements are added. For example, in Ravel’s orchestral version (1922) of Pictures at an Exhilbition, he enriched the black-and-while originals of Musorgsky by colours. Then composer-arrangers increasingly appear and they often cross the stylish divide between their own work and that of the past. Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet op.25 (1937), gets even more than his earlier ones of pieces by Monn, resulting that Bach and Handel seems to constitute a conscious act of identification with the past. The interpretation of music also affects the ‘arrangement’ of previous work, like Webern’s orchestral version of the six-part ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering (1935), sets out with the opposite intention of adapting the past to the language of the present. However, Schoenberg uses a slightly expanded Brahmsian orchestra in a more or less Brahmsian way.

    In fact, by the turn of the 20th century, people put less respect on the ‘arrangement’. There was a growing insistence on ‘authentic’ performance and a new emphasis on scholarly objectivity embodied by the Urtext. Arrangements in general came to be regarded as second-class music. During the two world wars, few pianists ventured to play the arranged repertories in public. An inimitable treasury of piano music was ignored and forgotten. It is Brahms that declared Liszt’s operatic paraphrases lay ;the true classicism of the piano’, then the spirit of ‘arrangement’ can be kept afterwards.

    The influence of Liszt on ‘arrangement’ can also be noticed in today’s commerical world. There are a lot of old popular songs are rearranged to become the latest popular songs, like in Hong Kong ‘分分鐘需要你’ by 林子祥 is rearranged to become a song of a TV programme and is sung by林子祥; ‘Amazing Grace’ is a religious song but is arranged and sung by 容祖兒。 Consequently, although ‘arrangement’ appeared by thousands of years, it has caught people attention largely after Liszt’s arrangement of previous works, and it becomes important since then.

    David Leung (theorydavid)

    2012-03-22 (published)

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