Thomas Stevens

Arrangements and Transcriptions (Paul Hindemith)

  • General Quotes

A few classics from Paul Hindemith, one of the twentieth century's leading critics of the arranging and transcribing of (classical) music.

“ ……..[W]ould be like putting spectacles on the Mona Lisa or arms on the Venus de Milo.”

The above metaphorical reference to musical arrangements and transcriptions has for decades been attributed to the composer Paul Hindemith, (1895-1963) one of the twentieth century’s leading and most articulate critics of the arranging and transcribing of (classical) music; however, many years ago when doing some research for a magazine article, this writer could not find a verifiable source for the quote, even after asking a number of people that either had known Hindemith or had extensive knowledge of his work. Mel Powell, then Provost at the California Institute of the Arts and former student of Hindemith’s, said he had never heard it, but that it “sure sounded like something he [Hindemith] would have said.” (Powell’s quote was used in the article.)

In Hindemith’s book, A Composer’s World, (Yale University Press, 1951) which is the transcribed and edited print version of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, (1949-50) there is similar comment in the section on performers in reference to arrangements and transcriptions: "….[T] his is an artistic procedure of about the same artistic value as providing a nice painted skirt for the Venus de Milo, or dolling up the saints of Reims or Chartres with tuxedos, mustaches, and horn-rimmed spectacles.”

A few sentences later: “In the case of orchestral arrangements it is most frequently the apparently inexhaustible source of the works of defenseless J.S. Bach, whose name, followed by a hyphen and some necessarily anticlimactic name [Bach-Smith, Bach-Jackson, Bach-Hussein] covers all kinds of Tchaikovskynized or Griegoid versions of his works.” Then, in a subsequent paragraph, the curmudgeonly Hindemith delivers an over-the-top analogous comparison of musical arrangements and transcriptions to the world's food supply: "You are not permitted to sell unsanitary macaroni or mustard, but nobody objects to your undermining the public's mental health by feeding it musical forgeries."

Finally, the coup de grâce, (at least for this writer) which is inconspicuously tucked away in the middle of the aforementioned comments: Surprise. Surprise(!): “They forget that an arrangement is artistically justified only when the arranger’s artistic effort is greater than the original composer’s.”

Say what?

To paraphrase a well-known comment from a famous American politician: He was against arrangements and transcriptions before he was for them………..