Recently I found myself lured for the second time in as many years to what is surely one of the most alluring music festivals in the world, the Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany, which has survived — nay, flourished — for more than 80 years now, come hell, high water and Hitler. It’s alluring in the first place because of Handel, of course. No music makes one feel more glad to exist than Handel’s, and that, let me assure you from personal experience, comes in handy at difficult times. But it’s also alluring because one really does feel that one is present at a festival, an occasion for celebratory feasting, musically and otherwise. The ancient university town, which claims to have been associated with more Nobel prize winners than any other, is small enough for the collision of musicians and audiences to be an inevitability, and with someone as effervescent and gregarious as Nicholas McGegan serving as its artistic director, as he’s done with outstanding success since the early 1990s, a good time is guaranteed for one and all.
But I come neither to praise by extolling virtues self-evident nor indeed to bury with a grand ‘however’. Instead my purpose is to attempt some sort of answer to a big musical question that Göttingen’s programme quite deliberately put to those among us who like to look out for these things rather than just absorb. This being the Mozart quarter-millennial year, the festival found itself more or less obliged to include some acknowledgment of the finest composer in the age succeeding that of Handel. And, like us, Mozart thought Handel was pretty hot stuff. Hot enough, in fact, to make his own arrangements of several of Handel’s works, Messiah and Alexander’s Feast included, with German librettos provided by the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Though to be honest he was motivated to undertake these tasks more by worldly concerns than through wanting to pay homage. It was van Swieten’s association of aristocratic patrons, the Associierte, which commissioned the arrangements from him. Both Messiah and Alexander’s Feast, duly Mozartised, were heard in Göttingen this year. And their performances set me to thinking about this whole business of arranging things.
For nowadays we tend to think of arrangements as rather naughty. I recall a journalist friend recounting a brief conversation he had with the late Stanley Sadie, editor of the sixth and quite a lot of the seventh edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music (now known as The New Grove). My friend was, as am I, an admirer of the work of Hans Werner Henze. Henze was in the process of arranging Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in his own, inimitably rich style, and had told my friend, with some relish, that there would be in it ‘much percussion’. When this information was relayed by my friend to Dr Sadie, a proponent of period-style performance practice and, one suspects, a perennial seeker after the urtext, he is reported to have replied, with disarming bluntness, ‘How disgusting!’
Of course, Sadie might well have been engaging in a mischievous piece of self-caricature with his riposte. But much percussion there certainly was, and much Henze there certainly was in the realisation, just as much Mozart there is in his arrangements of Handel. Yet does such treatment compromise the original or enhance it? In my view, that depends. And not upon how much or little is added but the intent with which it is added. In Mozart’s case the alterations involve a much fuller orchestration, often with entirely new lines interwoven into the fabric in order to enrich the texture and make it sound more like something from the late-18th century than the mid-18th century. The music remains Handel’s, but simply seen through a Mozartian refraction. The same applies to Henze and Monteverdi, despite the fact that more or less four centuries, rather than a mere half-century, separate the two composers. Henze certainly has a handle on the spirit of the age and upon the ageless power of Homer’s story.
But consider a different case, that of arrangements of Bach for large orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, or for piano by Busoni. I would argue that in each of those instances, as in others, something different is happening. In the case of Stokowski, the intention is to turn admittedly already fairly theatrical organ music of the high baroque into spectacular orchestral music. The result is music of high camp, inflating beyond bursting point, as it were, what was already inflated as much as it could be. It sounds, at least to me, a tad pompous, although I would never deny that it is also huge fun. The diametric opposite of such treatment of Bach is Webern’s arrangement of the ‘Ricercar à 6’ from A Musical Offering, a delicately managed translation to a more modern idiom, with its subtle but consistent changes of sound-colour, that clarifies rather than clouds the issue. And then Busoni, with his thickening of Bach’s keyboard textures, his turning into Romantic piano music baroque keyboard music. It sounds magnificent, but in my view it is, somehow, radically changed. The intention (intentionally or not) seems not to be to enhance a particular aesthetic stance, but to ignore that stance and adopt another altogether.
But that does not mean that this kind of arrangement is therefore tantamount to heresy. Whether arrangement enhances or illuminates its model, offering interesting, new angles — as in Bach/Webern — or takes that model and changes it into something else entirely — as in Bach/ Stokowski — it remains a valid form of expression, to be judged only on the basis of the skill and understanding with which it has been accomplished. And such understanding does not preclude a sea change in aesthetic as well as instrumentation, for it is an arranger’s prerogative to enhance, distort or transform, according to conscious choice or indeed unconscious instinct. It should also be his prerogative to be able to choose freely what to arrange, whether his model be a 14th-century motet or (albeit with due monies paid for permission and due opportunity given for the original composer to disapprove, or otherwise) Mark-Anthony Turnage’s latest. For in spite of today’s stringent copyright laws and our sometimes rather prissy emphasis on the definitive musical text — there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Mahler’s reorchestrations of Schumann, just as there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Schumann’s originals — nothing should be sacred to the point of untouchability. Everything, like a Mandelbrot set, has theoretically infinite ramifications. And let the thinking listener decide whether or not an atrocity has been committed.