There are certain musical pieces that we personally love, and that our whole culture seems to love. Sometimes I like to consider what it is that is so lovable, then make my own arrangements with ideas from what I find.
Here’s a really clear one as an example! Today I was talking with a student about how to arrange the old Shaker tune ‘Simple Gifts,’ and I mentioned how Aaron Copland had made a theme and variations from it in section seven of his very popular orchestral Appalachian Spring Suite. (Many folks from my generation and older remember one part of it as the theme music for the weekly TV news show The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite.)
Well, I actually even made my own version of this on the hammered dulcimer using some of his ideas for inspiration, and I recorded it on a holiday album (I’m not sure why people associate this with Christmas, but they seem to), Hope from on High.
One immediate disclaimer: This is not to be considered plagiarism! It’s an echo of an idea, and it’s a direct tribute with credit where it’s due. Period.
Well, I liked doing the straightforward simple melody as a start, and as I introduced harmony I did it in the relatively stark fourths and fifths intervals that Copland so effectively used in places for his American themes. Also, I made sure to include some places where there were answering parts and overlaps, a couple of my favorite aspects of Classical (and other) music. And near the end I chose to play the melody at half speed, with lots of arpeggiated notes in between. Although I didn’t change keys as Copland did and I didn’t use his great variation of instrumentation (of course) or of masterful Classical arranging, and many other aspects that differ, I think this still was one of my more intriguing arrangements on record.
This concept doesn’t have to be used only with the same tune, of course! One can refer to a respected source at any time, for any kind of new application. For example, perhaps I would want to use some of these concepts when arranging the children’s tune ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody,’ or the Celtic melody ‘The Water Is Wide,’ or a brand new composition.
Here are links to both Copland’s piece, played by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (my favorite recording of this), and my own: