Classical Composers to leave alone?

Discussion in 'Off-Topic Chat' started by MRSH, May 29, 2014.

  1. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    Am I alone in thinking there are some classical music composers that should just be left alone in respect of arranging for band - any band?

    At this particular time I'm thinking of Mahler. One of the greatest composers ever (IMHO). He was a master at orchestral writing - with all the tonal differences an orchestra can offer he more often than not exploited every sound possible.

    Having heard arrangements of (some of) Mahler's symphony's 2 and 3 for brass (and wind) band I despair at how and why arrangers think they can credibly recreate the sound and passion these symphonies provide. Without the strings, woodwind, harps etc it just sounds like a band of brass players blowing the backside out of, and ruining, a piece of magical music.

    Why don't arrangers leave such complex composers alone and realise there is no musical pleasure to be gained?

    <rant over>
  2. Pauli Walnuts

    Pauli Walnuts Moderator Staff Member

    Totally agree with you there especially Mahler.
    Another thing, when a good arrangement does exist, and I have in mind here the Firebird, why do we have to tun it into brass band sound? The opening of the final hymn is French Horns, not a wide vib Euph sound as one band recorded it. That one simple change spoilt the feel for me.
  3. trumpetmike

    trumpetmike Active Member


    Any composer who used (uses) the vast variety of colours that an orchestra is capable of producing should be best left alone, in my opinion. I have played and heard a number of arrangements which have left me very cold because a lot of the music was in the orchestral colours and regardless of how good a band might be, it cannot hope to reproduce the timbral palette of a full symphony orchestra.

    In the same way, when I hear great brass band pieces re-orchestrated (for wind band, or orchestra) there often feels to be something missing because the very thing that is missing from the above paragraph (the variety of timbre) is lost. What should sound like a band of similar instruments sounds like something rather disjointed.
  4. Pauli Walnuts

    Pauli Walnuts Moderator Staff Member

    That's also a good point Mike about the other way around - I did one of Phil Sparke's works with a wind band and whilst I know he did the arrangement himself, it doesn't have the same feel played by a wind band.
  5. Laserbeam bass

    Laserbeam bass Active Member

    There are lots of items of classical music that I would like to play, but don't honestly think that a group of musicians playing the same sort of instruments can do it justice. Apologies to anyone who may have arranged any of the following, but please don't.

    Symphonic metamorphosis on a theme of Carl Maria Von Weber - Any and/or all of the movements
    Anything from The Bartered Bride - Smetana, but specifically Overture, Dance of the Comedians and the finale
    The Music Makers - Elgar
    Is this classical, and apologies to a well respected musician who has already done this, Gethsemane from JCS by ALW for Sop! Any of the top Euphonium players around the country including the super G, would imho be a better choice. But still, no.
    Brahms Deutsche Requiem - Certain movements, VI for example, would be prime, but the sound would not be right.

    In essence, don't. We had enough of this at the start of the brass band movement to last ten generations, so the idea of doing it again is a definite no-no from me.
  6. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    Where is that [like]?

    Could we also add to this a number of rock anthems, which bands generally just take to mean you can blow your instrument straight until your throat collapses?
  7. Bob Sherunkle

    Bob Sherunkle Member

    I like these 3

    1. Egmont by Beethoven/Eric Ball

    2. 49th Parallel by R Vaughan Williams (arr can't remember)

    3. Love Changes Everything by A Lloyd Webber (arr Bulla?)

    No 3 being the crowd pleaser that never stops giving.
  8. euphymike

    euphymike Member

    since becoming a grand parent im afraid the only tune is the Peppa Pig theme. The sad thing is ive learnt it off the TV so I can play it to my grand kids.

    I tried them on a Diadem of Gold but it didn't happen.
  9. tromboneyone

    tromboneyone Member

    Perhaps it is the playing of these arrangements that is the problem, not the arrangements themselves.
  10. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    It doesn't matter how well an arrangement is played if there is no chance of capturing the heart and soul of the music, let alone the timbre of tonal sounds, the arrangement just shouldn't be attempted.

    I've heard and seen an arrangement of some of the Finale to Mahler 2 that includes a marimba!?!? When did Mahler write for marimba and what sound was the arranger hoping to recreate? It just sounded wrong on all levels.
  11. tromboneyone

    tromboneyone Member

    Don't get me wrong, I completely agree with you in such cases where it's clear that it is being done badly. Although as a more general point, changes in instrumentation for arrangements are not neccessarily a bad thing. Certainly there are many fine arrangements of great works for chamber groups that provide a different access point to the music. I not sure I like the idea of any music being off limits for reinterpretation, it's a bit too much of a sentimental reaction for me (and I speak as someone who owns several recordings of all of the Mahler Symphonies and is very attached to these works).

    However, I feel that a much bigger problem with brass bands is the lack of sympathetic reading of many arrangements. This is equally true of modern pop or big band arrangements as for classical. I think this stems from the fact that, in my experience, many brass banders (especially those in the centre of the band - horns, euphs, baris, basses) have little experience of playing in other ensembles and/or don't even listen to the types of music they are supposed to be emulating. It doesn't matter what an arranger does if banders insist on playing everything in the same style regardless, because it is the only one they know. I'm more experienced with big band playing so this is where I feel it most acutely. Of course there are examples of simply awful arrangements of big band (or big band style) pieces for band, but I think there are more cases of good arrangements played badly by people who don't have any appreciation for the style required.
  12. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    I take a more liberal line on this. The job of an arranger can be to simply try to pretend that the ensemble they are arranging for is the ensemble that they are arranging from. Such an approach can work well, but is inherently limited in scope. It also can be to reimagine the work as it would have sounded had the composer written for the arranged-for ensemble in the first place. Of course, this requires more deft and flexible senses of musicality and scoring craftsmanship than the former option.

    What I'm saying is that a well done arrangement of a piece that depends on the original texture brings new ideas of musical texture to the table, woven into the different fabric of the ensemble that it is arranged for. Without commenting on the particular M2 arrangement referenced here, the idea of using what percussion is available as extra tonal contrast is a sound one, albeit one that one has to be a bit mindful to avoid careless use of. After all, Mahler 2 doesn't include three Eb tenor horns either, but they are (presumably) also in the arrangement MRSH refers to, and offended his ear less. Assuming that one is listening to a decently-crafted bit of scoring, one should ask oneself while listening: "Am I letting my memory of the original of this piece spoil my enjoyment of this version to the extent that I am dismissing valid musical expression here?".

    As tromboneyone points out, a major problem in our performances of arranged repertoire is a lack of sympathy with the original style - ironically arising from British brass bands having originally learned to play in sympathy with a particular foreign style all too well! We make Verdi sound like Verdi. But we also tend to make Mahler sound like Verdi. And Stravinsky, etc. etc. Some bands even go so far as to deliver big band arrangements with a Verdant tinge... A sympathetic reading can do wonders for the musicality available from even a duff piece of scoring.
    Last edited: May 30, 2014
  13. tromboneyone

    tromboneyone Member

  14. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    The point here is that Mahler uses 'horns' - although the rather weak thin toned sound of the tenor horn can never get anywhere close to the glorious sound of eight French horns in full flight in a Mahler symphony - so it wasn't as offensive as hearing a marimba!!!!
  15. tromboneyone

    tromboneyone Member

    I bet these guys wouldn't get on your Christmas card list...
  16. Anno Draconis

    Anno Draconis Well-Known Member

    Cool, an intelligent thread on tMP :)

    I have some sympathy with this, having played and conducted some rubbish transcriptions in my time. I may even have made a few... :oops:. Certainly the old argument in favour of transcriptions - that they provide access to music that the average working class bander wouldn't otherwise be exposed to - hasn't held water for many decades, and certainly now that several versions of the original music are readily available free of charge in your own home from Spotify or Youtube there is no reason to suppose that the "educational" remit has any validity any more.


    It's not that simple, surely? While I'm often the first to take the purist high ground, if Ravel had done the same we would never have heard his masterful orchestration of 'Pictures at an Exhibition', which is a solo piano work. When Elgar Howarth produced his band arrangement of the same thing, he went back to the underlying musical material in the original piano work and produced a very different version. Both valid, and interesting, and enjoyable, but neither of them in any way what old Modest originally intended when he wrote it. In a similar vein, some of the Stokowski orchestrations of Bach are great; but early music purists hate them, and they're certainly a long way from Bach's original vision. In fact, anyone who performs any music much more than 100 years old is taking, at best, a well-educated guess at what the composer wanted based on the somewhat limited vocabulary that musical notation provides. It's extremely unlikely that even Mahler, for example, had the timbre of modern brass or strings in his head when writing the first drafts of his 1st Symphony in the 1880s. Stravinsky himself made piano transcription of his great Diaghilev ballets, including a version of The Rite of Spring for 4 hands, which certainly lacks the technicolour variety of the original but, when played well, contains all the rhythmic and harmonic vitality. So there are certainly new and interesting perspectives on the existing music to be had by reconstructing it for different instruments than the composer originally intended, and these often give additional insight into the music.

    For me, a really good transcription does just that - offers another perspective on the underlying music, Howard Snell being the obvious master of this. Eric Ball's version of the 'Enigma Variations' is another very clever reworking. Sadly many of the band movement's classic favourites - particularly those by Frank Wright and Denis Wright - are not good transcriptions. I have secret, dark ambitions to tackle precisely what LBB doesn't want anyone to touch - the march from Hindemith's 'Symphonic Metamorphoses'. I actually think that it could sound great for brass band. Not better, by any means, but different. I'm aware Keith Wilkinson's already done it but it's only in m/s as far as I know. I would certainly agree that the "Default Brass Band Operatic" style in which many works are (inappropriately) performed which is the issue. This is my main problem with pop/jazz/swing arrangements, which are of even more variable quality, rarely good, and very rarely played sympathetically in my experience.

    At the risk of derailing the thread entirely, I'd also be interested to know what the prevailing opinion on re-using other composer's material is. It's the post-modern fashion for band testpieces to feature quotes or even extensive reworkings - for examples see almost every successful Wilby work, Titan's Progress, On the Shoulders of Giants, Spiriti, Audivi Media Nocte, REM-scapes, that Scheherezade thing at the Open last year, etc, etc. Titan's in particular features a number of pretty much direct lifts from Mahler 1.
  17. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Ah, now you're just being provocative! Or at least, so I hope... Different instruments, different strengths and different weaknesses.

    Sound post, nicely done.

    I can see why it is currently a popular tack to create band pieces by reworking old music. Familiar-sounding music will always go down well with a banding audience, and it lets a composer write in an unabashedly old-fashioned manner without making them feel that they are dragging their feet stylistically. It also gives the composer the opportunity to save effort by using already existing material to hang on their compositional framework. But the (potentially substantial) downside is that if the writer does not make at least as good use of the original material as the original writer, then it suffers badly in comparison. For me, this was a huge problem for Arabian Nights - while it was happily listenable, it quotes so liberally from Scheherazade that before too long with it on I want to turn it off and listen to the Rimsky instead, where the music is in a happier order and hasn't been stuffed with gratuitous brass difficulty for the sake of it.
  18. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    Hahaha :tup Good find. And no, they are way off my Christmas list - grated on the ear after two minutes, I'm afraid.
  19. Mello

    Mello Member

    Cat amongst the pigeons time.
    Alex Mortimer when introducing arrangements of Classical works, used to say he was not going to apologise for playing them, as he firmly believed that it was better to hear great classics in any form , than never to hear them at all.

    TBH Brass Bands introduced me to classical music ( for which I am eternally grateful ). My background as a youngster was such that classics were for the elite and the wealthy.

    From being completely ignorant regarding the classics, I fortunately grew to not only love them & becoming a regular in the audience at the LSO and Covent Garden ROH , I experienced the joy of playing them ....the highlight playing Prokofievs masterpiece Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution in the RFH. one of Prokofievs biggest works in every way, Directed by Neeme Jarvi , the sound could never be equalled by any Brass Band...but that fact was furthest from my mind when playing it. I would love to hear it performed by one though - specially if arranged by Howard Snell who in my opinion has few equals when transcribing/arranging orchestral works for BB. So the bottom line is I still agree with Alex Mortimer and hope the practice continues . Sorry - I hate to segregate and ring fence music into specific categories , for the reasons above. ( and before anyone criticises my opinion as restricted I wish to point out I also played with a Radio Band for 3yrs. a completely different experience but still enjoyable)
    Last edited: May 30, 2014
  20. Brian Bowen

    Brian Bowen Active Member

    The initiator of this thread has a valid point. As someone who has transcribed for brass band a number "classical" works and had them published and recorded, I accept I may have caused offence.

    But there's an angle to this I think worth considering. Essential to a vibrant musical experience are three factors: the composer, the performer and the listener. For many, the opportunity to be a performer of good music in its original form is denied (e.g., not a proficient string or woodwind player). Yet the opportunity to be be a player (e.g., brass band musician) in the live recreation process has its rewards when the transcription is worthy of the original and the interpretation is musicianly. It's not simply about being able to hear recordings of the original version.

    But I would agree, some compositions may be best left untouched by brass bands where indefinable "good taste" is involved.

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