Examples abound throughout music history of composers paying homage to their musical predecessors. Think of Brahms’s imaginative use of a Bach chaconne in the finale of his Fourth Symphony, or Chopin’s dazzling arrangement of the duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Even in the 20th century, as Western music fractured into a dizzying array of styles and schools of thought, many composers couldn’t resist glancing towards the past. This playlist highlights five different works—four from the 20th century and one from the 21st century—by composers who all broke musical ground in their own rights but still conveyed their love for the music of an earlier age.
Ragtime (Well-Tempered) – Paul Hindemith
Music for a Puppet Court – Oliver KnussenIn 1972 the brilliantly-imaginative British composer Oliver Knussen (1952-2018) arranged two pieces of very old music—specifically, two 16th century puzzle canons that date back to the reign of Henry VIII. (A puzzle canon is basically a musical “brainteaser” in which the composer provides one melodic line, and it is up to the performer to decipher the other parts.) Eleven years later, Knussen expanded his arrangements into a larger piece. Scored for two spatially-separated chamber orchestras, Music for a Puppet Court is set across four short movements. The outer two movements feature Knussen’s arrangements of the puzzle canons while the inner two present his own variations on the 16th-century material. (The second movement is particularly delightful, evoking a mysterious toyshop. Be sure to listen for the alarm clock in the percussion section!) As for the title, Knussen said that it “refers less to the historical origin of the puzzle-canons than to the intended character of these instrumental settings, miniature in size, but fanciful—perhaps extravagant—in effect.” However one interprets it, this piece is a wonder from start to finish, welding the past and present into a delicious, “bite-sized” morsel.
Rendering – Luciano Berio
La vallée des cloches (The Valley of Bells) – Maurice Ravel (arranged by Percy Grainger)Percy Grainger (1882-1961), who could easily be a contender for a “quirkiest composer” award, was fascinated with percussion instruments. He was especially fond of “tuneful percussion” instruments, as he called them—xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones, and chimes—making ample use of them throughout his compositions. This was an uncommon gesture in the early part of the 20th century, as these instruments were often relegated to theaters and dance halls, only appearing in classical orchestras as an occasional novelty. (Grainger railed against this oversight in a 1929 manifesto, stating, “Salvation Army Booth objected to the devil having all the good tunes. I object to jazz and vaudeville having all the best instruments!”) In 1944, while teaching at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, Grainger produced a string orchestra and percussion arrangement of La vallée des cloches, a 1914 piano work by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Though well-received upon its first performance, it was not published until well after Grainger’s death. It’s a shame really, as this arrangement is stunningly gorgeous, calling to mind the Javanese gamelan Ravel encountered at Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle. (Do yourself a favor: set aside five minutes to sit down and just listen to this work, maybe even with a beverage at hand. Trust me, you won’t regret it.)
To the Hands – Caroline Shaw
Sources: John Bird. Percy Grainger, 1982. https://www.fabermusic.com/music/music-for-a-puppet-court-877 Callum MacDonald. Liner notes for Berio: Realizations (Chandos, 2012). https://nyphil.org/~/media/pdfs/program-notes/1920/HindemithRagtimeWellTempered.pdf https://carolineshaw.com/tothehands/