I recently watched that rarest of things: a film version of an excellent novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – which surprised me by working so well. I say surprised because so often, even when the directors and actors are respectful and stick to the original text, the end result is flat and has no spirit of its own.
I was relating this to music arrangements in the following way: if you are putting a work of art into a different medium, there’s no point simply trying to copy the way it is in the original as closely as you can. You need to internalise it and use your own ideas to breathe life into it in its new form, even if that sometimes means changing things to make them effective. An extreme television example of this is the brilliantly imaginative Sherlock series currently being shown on BBC1.
At the moment Leon, Roger and I are working on a string trio version of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto which we hope to record this summer in Cambridgeshire, and the slow movement of which would be a lovely choice for the signing or reception at a wedding. The original is for two violins, string orchestra and harpsichord, so adapting it for string trio obviously involves quite a rethink, but our initial rehearsals have gone well and have even been quite exciting! How ethical is this? Well, I think Bach may well have approved. Bach and Handel were known for their excellent improvising; they encouraged their pupils to do the same and both made very free arrangements of other composers’ music, as did Rachmaninoff come to that.
The main thing is to give a creative idea vitality. Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes will only discover more fans thanks to his new television alter ego; and Bach’s music is so outstandingly wonderful that it will survive anything!JB