Songs Without Words: A Brief History of Musical Reuse

Our Lost in Translation concert features two works that started life as vocal material before being adapted for instrumental ensemble. Instrumental adaptations have been undertaken countless times by some of the most famous composers in history, in a long tradition dating back to the origins of instrumental music. The ‘reuse’ and adaptation of music has come about from a range of considerations. In each case, the newly arranged work must compel the listener on its musical merits, without the text in the original.

Felix Mendelssohn


Felix Mendelssohn wrote a number of his so-called Songs Without Words. These were explicitly meant as musical abstraction. As Mendelssohn explained, with his own italics:

What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

A Heavy Workload

In the Baroque era (c. 1580 – c. 1750), there was no independent career path for a musician.  A musician’s success was dependent on gaining a post to serve an aristocrat, a government official, or a church, earned through personal diplomacy and sustained through the benevolence of one’s employer. Unlike contemporary concerts, new works were the expected norm at performances, which created the need for composers to generate a steady flow of new material to satisfy their patrons. Many Baroque composers, including J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, G.F. Handel, and G.P. Telemann, would frequently rework vocal material into instrumental pieces to meet this demand.

Mozart and Beethoven

The Entrepreneurship of an Independent Artist

By Beethoven’s time, it had become possible for a well-known musician to remain independent of the protection of a single source of patronage. The independent artist could rely on entrepreneurship and public opinion to maintain a career.

The young Beethoven seized an opportunity to elevate his independent career shortly after arriving in Vienna in 1792. Eager to make a name for himself and in need of money to support himself in his newly adopted city, Beethoven published 12 Variations for Violin and Piano on “Se vuol ballare” (“If you would dance”) from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It was an unmistakable move by Beethoven to capitalize on the strength of Mozart’s popularity, just a year after the older composer’s death in 1791. Mozart’s name and melody would stimulate sheet music sales and promote Beethoven’s commercial success. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original text proved not to be integral to the musical effectiveness of the new work.

Similarly motivated, Beethoven would go on to publish two variation sets for cello and piano based on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1798, 1802), one set based on music from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus (1796), and other variations sets on popular themes of the day.

Franz Schubert

Deeply Personal Expression

Franz Schubert, the undisputed master of art song, used adaptations of his songs within some of his most profound instrumental works, including the Trout Quintet D. 667, the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” D. 810, “Wanderer Fantasy” for solo piano D. 489, and the Fantasie in C Major for violin and piano D. 934. “Wanderer Fantasy” was the only one of the four published in the composer’s lifetime. The origins of these examples of reuse aren’t always clear, but Schubert wrote over 600 art songs and seems to have been most comfortable in the medium. The profoundly intimate nature of Schubert’s songs, in both their original and recast versions, bear testimony to a profoundly personal expressive impulse in his music, independent of their vocal contexts.

Closing Argument

Johannes Brahms published over 190 songs, seemingly choosing the texts based on his connection to the sentiments they expressed rather than out of literary admiration. In this way, one might regard Brahms’ songs as more explicitly autobiographical than his other works. The same autobiographical light applies to Brahms’ adaptations of his vocal material. Toward the end of his life, Brahms published the 49 Deutsche Volkslieder. Brahms wrote to his closest confidante Clara Schumann about a theme from the last of the songs, Verstohlen geht der Mond auf, that had come from the slow movement of his Op. 1 Piano Sonata: “It was in fact designed to say something, intended to represent the snake that bites its own tail, and thus to express symbolically the idea that the tale is over, the circle completed.”

The last of Brahms’ Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896) is a setting of “O Welt ich muss dich lassen” (“O world I must leave thee”). These are the last notes that Brahms wrote.

A Society for Private Musical Performances

Following World War I, Arnold Schoenberg established the Vienna Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen), for the presentation of music by contemporary composers. Concert attendance was limited to a carefully curated audience – only organization members were admitted, and critics were forbidden entry. Orchestral works were arranged for smaller ensembles that could fit in the Society’s performance space. Schoenberg regarded the reduced scoring of arrangements as beneficial to “a clarity of presentation and a simplicity of formal enunciation often not possible in a rendition obscured by the richness of orchestration.”

Deteriorating economic conditions forced the Society out of business in December 1921, midway through its fourth season, but not before the presentation of 353 performances of 154 works in a total of 117 weekly concerts.

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg in the New World

In 1922, NY Philharmonic conductor Josef Stransky commissioned Schoenberg to create two symphonic arrangements of J.S. Bach’s chorale preludes, BWV 654 “Schmucke Dich o liebe Seele” (“Adorn yourself, o dear soul”), and “Komm, Gott, Schopfer, heiliger Geist” (“Come, God, Creator, Holy Ghost”). These would be the first U.S. premieres of Schoenberg’s music and were well-received enough to have enhanced the composer’s visibility in America and the gravitas of the New York Philharmonic as an institution on the same level as its European counterparts.

Coda: Lost Words = New Expression

All of these works lost their texts through adaptation. But one might argue that in becoming abstract music, the adaptations gained something as well. The adapted forms direct attention to the musical language and away from the words. As Mendelssohn said so well, sometimes music is not too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite!

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