Australian composer James Ledger

Strauss: Four Last Songs
2005
20mins
fl(=picc).ob(=corA).cl(=bcl).bsn-hn-pft-2vln.2vla.2vcl.db.

Premiere: 17 December 2005
Wigmore Hall, London
Felicity Lott, soprano
Nash Ensemble
Bernard Haitink, conductor

PLEASE NOTE: This arrangement may only be performed in territories where Strauss is out of copyright. Please contact Boosey and Hawkes in London for hire details.

Arranging or transcribing music of others was commonplace during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The arrival of the piano in the nineteenth century as a readily available and very versatile means to produce music meant that works of the great masters, such as symphonies and overtures, could be transcribed for the piano and heard in salons or domestically. In fact it was THE means of disseminating music during this era. However, the rise of the recording medium during the twentieth century meant that people could now hear the original versions (more or less as the composer intended them) in their own homes. This combined with the instigation of copyright laws has made arranging a dying and sometimes illegal art. So it begs the question: Why make an arrangement of Vier letzte Lieder?  

As most of us would agree, there is an indescribable and perhaps intangible quality that comes from a live performance. As advanced as modern technology is, there is still nothing that captures this. Recording technology simply captures the sound waves. An arrangement for smaller forces allows a work like Vier lezte Lieder, to continue to be heard live and makes it eminently more portable and allows it to be programmed in a greater variety of settings. It also leads to a further artistic avenue to be explored: it allows the songs to be heard in the context of chamber music. As most concertgoers are aware, chamber music offers a sense of intimacy that orchestral concerts physically can’t provide. Although these songs weren’t originally envisaged this way, a new chamber version has the opportunity to present Vier letzte Lieder in new light. Hopefully too, it will generate discussion and debate on the merits or otherwise of the songs being heard in a chamber music setting.

My philosophy in arranging these songs was to create an honest representation of the original as chamber music. There exists already an arrangement of Vier letzte Lieder for piano and voice. It could be argued that this version already constitutes chamber music. However, the piano only goes so far in capturing the breadth of the original (it is after all, played by only one person) and it leaves the songs firmly in a monochrome world and therefore offers no insight into the translucent instrumental world that Strauss occupies in the original.  

For this new arrangement, a combination of thirteen players (plus soprano) was decided upon, the instrumentation being: flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and piano. From this list it can be seen that the woodwind section is represented quite healthily, whilst the horn is the sole representative for the brass. Celesta, harp and timpani are also omitted in this version, but there is the inclusion of piano. The reduced number of strings firmly places this arrangement in an entirely different sound world from the original. For example, the lush opening of the fourth song, Im Abendrot, might typically have fifty or more string players in the orchestra and this physically can’t be re-created in this reduced version. Importantly, it shouldn’t try to do so. This leads to an interesting perception of arrangements as they are often regarded as poor cousins of the original. An arrangement shouldn’t be regarded as trying to improve on the original – although there are undoubtedly instances where this has been the case. An arrangement should be seen as a separate version in its own right.

There are several reasons for remaining as true to the original instrumentation as possible with this arrangement. Firstly, Strauss writes so idiosyncratically for orchestral instruments it seemed fallacious to go against this. For example, I couldn’t imagine the horn solo that concludes September or the violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen on any other instrument. Secondly, these songs are so well known and well loved that to tamper with instrumentation too much could be seen as desecration of the original.  

I do hope that this chamber version presents the songs in a fresh way and at the same time remain as faithful as possible to the intentions of Richard Strauss.




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