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Chamber music with friends

Often, when you’re at an Astraios concert, we’ll mention that chamber music comes from a tradition of friends gathering to play music together. In the Baroque period music was often written simply for soprano or bass instruments, so a line written for violin could just as well be played on oboe or flute.

This is a tradition that we heartily believe in. Great music is great music, and all musicians want to play great music! In a standard situation, you might expect this transfer of instrumentation to go something like this:

Here’s a Bach organ trio sonata, BMV 530.

(Sidenote no. 1: Why do I keep referring to Bach? Read this blog post on why Bach is so great.)

(Sidenote no. 2: BMV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or literally, “Bach Works Catalogue.” The catalogue was published in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmeider and is the standard record for how we categorize all of Bach's music.)

(Sidenote no. 3: I know I said “trio sonata,” and this is one person performing on organ. The short answer is that it’s three (or more) melodic lines being performed by one person. The long answer is that a “trio sonata” is actually a work for four people and that’s a post for another day.)

Let’s just enjoy this hugely complicated work for organ right now, shall we?

(Sidenote no. 4: I love all these recordings of musicians and their socks!)

A more traditional approach to rearranging a great piece of music like this would be to take each line individually and put them on different instruments. How about violin, Baroque oboe, cello, and then add in harpsichord to fill out the lines?

Wildly different sound, but still great, right? With multiple performers, the piece comes together in an entirely different way. You have four musicians having to communicate with one another, plus the oboist has to breathe, so the phrases naturally have to be shaped differently. I would actually say that it has more reckless abandon (can you really say that about Bach?) than the original organ arrangement which is very precisely controlled (albeit beautifully) by one performer.

Okay, let’s go one more step away with the instruments. What about an arrangement of the same piece for cello, double bass, and…mandolin?!?!?!

The wildly talented Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile team up for a pretty unexpected performance.

Purists would argue that this performance is not historically accurate. Other purists would argue this is exactly why music was written, for people to come together and perform.

We’re not all Yo-Yo Ma, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore great music. I’m not saying every arrangement will work. Baroque flutes and oboes had roughly the same range, but that’s not true of modern instruments. We can still get clever! The August Winds did an arrangement of an entire orchestral piece. The Cirrus Quartet (flute, violin, viola, and bassoon) have niftily handled a Shostakovich string quartet. Heck our programming director even arranged Take 5 for flute, trumpet, bassoon, and piano!

You may have a favorite instrument (or one that you strongly dislike!) but that doesn’t mean you’re tied only to that. Listen past the instrument to the music itself.

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