Six of the finest classical music arrangements

Byvu lita

Nov 22, 2023

Acis and Galetea, arr. Mozart

This ‘pastoral opera’ is a work I’ve loved since my early teens, and to come across a rescoring by Mozart a few years ago was fascinating. Like Mahler’s delicate changes to the Schumann symphonies, Mozart alters little of the work’s fabric, but his subtle rescoring lends this early work of Handel’s a refined and classical sense of poise, in contrast to the earthiness of the original. Clarinets and flutes are added, at times taking the role of the oboes, and bassoons add depth. It won’t be to all tastes, but is well worth a listen.

Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orch. Ravel

So imaginative is Ravel’s scoring that this arrangement sounds like it could only ever have been conceived for orchestra. Musorgsky’s original piano pieces are, however, equally remarkable and original, foreshadowing the mercurial, percussive sound world of ProkofievStravinsky and Bartók by some 40 years, with sudden shifts in texture and mood. Ravel deploys his full technical armoury to cast dazzling new light on the work, conjuring a vast range of colours to jaw-dropping effect. The result is riveting, and remains one of the greatest orchestrations in the repertoire and a mainstay of the concert hall.

Bach’s Ricercar from The Musical Offering, arr. Anton Webern

It is hard to imagine a more personal tribute from one composer to another. This particular arrangement fuses Bach’s and Webern’s inimitable voices across several centuries. The way Bach’s counterpoint is fragmented using an array of rapidly changing textures – a solitary muted trumpet note here, a disembodied clarinet phrase there – creates a kind of musical ‘pointillism’ unique to Webern, with dabs of colour creating constantly shifting perspectives, rather like a slow tracking shot.

Steven Stucky’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell)

Steven Stucky’s own compositional voice is blended hauntingly with Purcell in his celebrated funeral music, composed shortly before his own death in 1695. Stucky’s music emerges effortlessly out of the Purcell: his unique sound world, to coin Beethoven’s phrase, seeming at once ‘surprising yet inevitable’.

Stucky’s mastery of harmony and orchestration are beautifully encapsulated in this short piece, which serves as a good introduction to other works by this remarkable composer (such as the Grammy-nominated August 4, 1964), who died at the height of his powers in 2016.

Joseph Phibbs’s Cantus, after Bach

This duet is one of my favourite pieces by Bach. In this arrangement for string quartet, the violins take the part of the two voices, with the continuo bass divided between the viola and cello, both played with pizzicato to add resonance and lightness.

The entire cantata is built around a single ‘cantus firmus’, which is reconfigured in endlessly inventive ways that only Bach could pull off. If this modest arrangement introduces a single listener to the sublime Cantata BWV4 from which it’s taken, I’ll consider myself forgiven for including it here.

The Star Spangled Banner, arr. Jimi Hendrix

In what is perhaps the most visceral arrangement ever made, the best-known tune in the American psyche was mangled and skewed into a ferocious anti-war statement at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix starts conventionally enough, before taking us on an unforgettable tour of destruction, the guitar sliding and careering, soaring and plummeting, leaving the USA national anthem (The Star Spangled Banner) straining to be heard among the screams of war.

A new upcoming arrangement by Joseph Phibbs…

Last year I was commissioned by Britten Pears Arts to make an arrangement of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers (1936), a 30-minute work for soprano and orchestra written when the composer was just 22. It’s a remarkable piece, unlike anything else he wrote, and also represents Britten’s first large-scale expression of the pacifist beliefs he held so firmly throughout his life.

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