Saturday, 21 January 2012

The art of arranging Titanic's music

There is an art to arranging music, and it is an interesting topic to touch on considering Titanic's repertoire was entirely arranged. Basically, music intended for one instrument or ensemble is re-written to suit the characteristics of a different instrument or ensemble. The pianist and string players on board likely did not grow up practicing much of this music.

A good portion of the songbook had originally been written for voice (the opera, sacred and popular songs). The vocal line would have been written into the first violin or piano part. It is possible that Titanic's pianist had learned to play Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No.2, as it is a staple in the piano repertoire, but it is unlikely any of the string players would have played this as students. And even the piano part would have been adjusted, as the music was remixed for the five instruments.

For some numbers an arranger had taken works written for larger ensembles, like Grieg's Anitra's Dance for theatre orchestra, and boiled down the elements for a piano quintet and string trio. Although the music would have been familiar to the performers in the same way it was to the public, by its nature the arranged music would have been new, as it paraphrased the originals.

My interest in Titanic has led me to arrange music from the voyage for piano. When I chose titles to arrange for my books, two levels of TITANIC A Voyage in Piano Music , I was looking for music that would translate to graded piano pieces, that would fall easily under the hands, that reflected the story of the voyage and the three classes on board, and catchy tunes. Several of my choices reflect the era’s popular music. As an arranger, I can tell you that I had to take the raw material and work it up a fair bit. The first task was to shorten the music for particular piano levels.

In The Shadows was identified as a number that was played as Titanic was sinking, and I wanted to include it in my book. To be honest, it is a bland little piece. I had to work hard to find the interest in the student part, and finally had to add parts to the teacher’s duet, like an echo, in order to create more interest. Here is my arrangement for elementary piano duet. (Admittedly, the recorded tempo is too slow.)

Songe d'automne is a beautiful waltz in a minor key. However, in the original version, at the second theme the harmonic pace loses steam despite the increase in tempo because it is written over a pedal tone (one repeated note). In my piano arrangement I rewrote that bass line for the left hand to form a kind of counter melody to the right hand, which improves the section. Listen here.




Valse Septembre has a pretty tune and I like it. Again, I played with the rhythms of the left hand part, in the first section leaving a perky little rest on beat three (rather than settling for the usual boom-chuck-chuck that is written in waltzes). In the middle section I changed the texture with legato broken chords. I also enhanced the harmonic progression to suit my ear. Listen here.

As an arranger I found it a challenge to maintain musical interest while keeping the music within an easy piano level. When I arranged music by Elgar or Berlin, two of the better writers, my job was made much easier by the high quality of the original music.
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Related Posts
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - Who made the list?
Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians
Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?

Links
TITANIC A Voyage in Piano Music, two piano books by Rebekah Maxner
RED: Beginner to Elementary Piano solos with optional duets
GOLD: Early Intermediate to Intermediate piano solos
Notekidds YouTube channel to hear Rebekah Maxner's original and Titanic music.

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