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By Special Arrangement

Posted on 30 Nov 2018 by Bernard Rofe

Richard Tognetti performing on stage

In the concert program for Sonatas for Strings, our Melbourne exclusive concert playing this coming Wednesday 5 December, the ACO’s Librarian Bernard Rofe discusses the history and art of the arrangement, and how musicians can build on the intention of composers to bring new life to the original.

The below is an excerpt of the longer piece, which will be published in our free concert programs.

For an orchestra such as the ACO, the rationale for arranging is simple: there is only so much music out there composed for string orchestra, and so we must, in Richard Tognetti’s words, “pillage” from the broader repertoire.

Tognetti, who has produced more than 150 arrangements in his time as Artistic Director of the ACO, has expressed a sense of frustration that the so-called “Impressionist” composers, despite their fascination with orchestral colour, wrote very few works for strings. Debussy’s Préludes for solo piano are too evocative not to suggest orchestral colour. In “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair), the titular girl becomes a character in Tognetti’s arrangement, singing to herself as a solo violin in a field of lush strings. In “La sérénade interrompue” (The interrupted serenade), Debussy’s kaleidoscope of song, Spanish patterns and Andalusian guitars gets shared out between the members of the orchestra, highlighting the sense of exotic colour, rhythmic frenzy and dramatic interruption.

Ravel’s Deux Mélodies Hébraïques, on the other hand, becomes haunting and unbearably moving in Tognetti’s arrangement for violin and strings, such that I’ve heard this particular arrangement – which is now in demand worldwide as a concert piece – described by a fellow composer as “something very perfect”.

And so the old saying goes: “Good artists copy; great artists steal”. As you sit through this concert of quintessential works for string orchestra, ask yourself: Do you hear the earthy expanse of Peter Sculthorpe’s Australia? Does the orchestra paint the scenes in Debussy’s Préludes, or exhilarate you with its energy and power in Walton’s Sonata for Strings? Does Ravel’s Kaddish move you to tears?

If you answered “Yes”, then there isn’t any doubt that creating arrangements of music is the most poetic form of musical thievery – by which a “great artist” can take a piece of music and, as T. S. Eliot puts it, make it into something even better.

Sonatas for Strings plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre this Wednesday 5 December. Details and tickets via the link below.