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Turning a keyboard work into an orchestral showpiece

Rick Rogers Published: May 9, 2013

The orchestral repertoire is filled with works that made their debuts as solo keyboard compositions. Think of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Yet while the basic musical structure remains the same, the process of transcribing a keyboard work for orchestra often allows for greater depth, texture and, especially, color.

When Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” he, in essence, created an entirely new work. Though still recognizable to those who knew the original, Ravel’s version featured some novel orchestrational touches: the use of saxophone in “The Old Castle” or a tenor tuba in “Bydlo.” Of course, Ravel was a remarkable colorist, whether working with someone else’s scores or his own. The French impressionist transformed his own “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Valses nobles et sentimentales” with equal deftness.

Both Dvorak and Brahms experimented with a larger color palette in their “Slavonic Dances” and “Hungarian Dances,” respectively. With some, I prefer the four-hand piano originals; others seem conceived orchestrally. Alexander Gauk took Tchaikovsky’s piano suite known as “The Seasons” and handily arranged it for orchestra. The results frequently sound as if Tchaikovsky had done his own orchestrations.

Another noted example is Howard Hanson’s “For the First Time.” If we view the piano suite as being two-dimensional, these brief movements emerge anew when “colorized” with Hanson’s vivid orchestral palette. Percy Grainger qualifies as one of music’s most prolific meddlers, typically arranging his own works for multiple combinations of instruments. He even invented the term “elastic scoring” to describe his approach.

Grainger’s “The Immovable Do,” for example, has found its way into multiple published versions, including arrangements for band or mixed chorus (with or without organ); full orchestra; string orchestra or wind choir; pipe, electronic or reed organ; clarinet choir (saxophones at will) and woodwind choir. In cases such as these, keyboard works illustrate their versatility and adaptability to many different treatments; think of them as variations on an original theme. The result is a musical transformation whose myriad colors often cast the original in a flattering new light.


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