Music And Spells: Borrowing The Glamour Of Classical Music, Part 2

In my first post on this topic I mentioned the qualities of “glamour,” “atmosphere,” and “immediacy” as important to music’s successful use in the theater. In order to talk about one of the ways composers achieve glamour and atmosphere in classical music, we need to momentarily attempt to separate the sound of a piece from its content. But as soon as we try, we immediately discover that the performance sounds are crucial to the effect of the whole.

I’ll turn for a moment to popular music to make this point clear. Below is Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” in a 1956 rock movie. (A wilder performance from 1995 can be heard here, though Little Richard's effort to maintain a youthful appearance is slightly scary.)

Pat Boone’s sanitized cover of the same piece actually climbed higher in the 1950s charts than Little Richard’s.  (You can hear Elvis Presley’s version of “Tutti Frutti” here. Incidentally, the text of Little Richard’s recording of Tutti Frutti” was incredibly sanitized from his initial version. I doubt if it could be recorded even today.)

Another interesting comparison is Little Richard’s recording of “Long Tall Sally” with Pat Boone’s remarkably insipid cover. Unfortunately, I could not find an online version of the latter. The Beatles did a version that reflects Little Richard’s vocal styling more closely. Both recordings are exciting, but it is easy to hear why Jimi Hendrix said, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”

 These various versions of these popular songs often feel surprisingly different, sometimes because of tempo differences, but also because different instruments and different singers have different qualities of sound. Thus, even though in some ways the content of different versions of a song might be said to be the same, the effect of a song changes when the sounds used to perform it change.

Classical composers write out in some detail specifically how they want their works performed. So if a composer writes a work for orchestra, he specifies which instruments will play what parts and how. These details seldom get significantly changed by anyone other than the composer.

However, individual works sometimes get transcribed from one medium to another. A famous example is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, some parts of the work are fiendishly difficult, and it is used as a show piece by virtuoso pianists. Here is Victor Merzhanov performing the opening section. (I chose this version because the piano is recorded from the hall, rather than from a close microphone. It’s only the first 1'35" that I will use for comparison.)

This work has been transcribed for orchestra several times. The most famous version is by Maurice Ravel, who transcribed many of his own piano pieces for orchestra. Here is the opening promenade conducted by Tomomi Nishimoto. (I choose this version partly because I felt the both hall and Ms. Nishimoto are visually glamorous.)

Notice how different the orchestral version feels from the piano version. A grand piano is a remarkably beautiful instrument, and a great pianist can create subtle differences of color. But these are limited when compared to all color possibilities offered by the orchestra. And as I will discuss in part 3, using these color possibilities theatrically is one way composers can, if they choose to, add glamour and atmosphere.