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Franz Liszt, Mixmaster, and J.S. Bach, Klepto


“Time was when the art of arrangement” — the creative reinterpretation of songs — “occupied an honored place in musical composition.”

“Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Ravel,” writes Liszt biographer Alan Walker in the New York Times, “were among the many composers who lavished their talents on this important activity, fitting out their own works or those of others for different forces, usually larger or smaller.”

Walker’s article is an elegant reminder that rip-mix-burn art long preceded the Net, transcends pop culture, and reflects good taste as well as sound policy. Best of all is how Walker (unwittingly?) echoes a Jeffersonian wisdom about creative “property.”

Here are a few of the more striking passages (though you really should read the whole piece, even if, like me, you’re largely ignorant of classical music):

. . . The most familiar criticism of arrangements is that they harm the originals. An analogy is sometimes drawn with painting. If you put a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” it is argued, a masterpiece has been destroyed. Likewise with music. Tamper with the original, and something has been lost forever. But this analogy is surely false. If you deface a canvas, something has indeed been destroyed. But a musical arrangement destroys nothing; it merely creates an alternative. The original is still there, unharmed, waiting to be played. . . .

. . . So complete was Liszt’s mastery of the art of transferring music from one medium to another that his arrangements have often eclipsed the models that gave them life. Consider his piano arrangements of six of Chopin’s “Polish Songs,” especially “The Maiden’s Wish” and “My Joys,” which are still in the standard repertory. Liszt elevates these pieces to a new level and makes them sound as if they were born on the keyboard. In fact, they have made their way around the world as piano pieces, while Chopin’s songs are known and appreciated only by aficionados. This is more than transcription: it is translation. . . .

. . . But what of the moral argument? Isn’t a composer’s music his or her personal property? And isn’t it a form of theft to appropriate it? If that were the case, many of the greatest composers in history would be guilty of grand larceny. And as for those artful dodgers Bach and Handel, we would have to dismiss them as musical kleptomaniacs. They and others never took the slightest interest in the “moral” point of view. Music, for them, was there to be recycled, time and again if necessary. For the rest, since all good arrangers put in more than they take out, and since nothing is destroyed, the whole of music benefits. What kind of kleptomaniac gives more than he takes? . . .

. . . In an arrangement, music talks about music; music communicates with music; the language turns in on itself and, in the greatest examples, produces a critical commentary on the original, a closed world par excellence. What a wonderful phenomenon that is. . . .

Posted 16 March 2003