Ear Supply: The Borrowers

Stealing--oops, paying homage--to other composers' work.

For centuries, composers in the Western tradition based music on other people's music without thinking anything of it—all the way back to the medieval church musicians who built Masses atop borrowed folk tunes used as bass lines. But among classical composers in recent decades, the practice of paying homage to others' work has gone out of fashion (resurfacing, however, in genres like hip-hop and dance music, where sampling and remixing are standard procedures). Which is what makes UW faculty pianist Robin McCabe's recital program next week interesting: It focuses on the lost art of music that rethinks other music. Ferruccio Busoni, for example, took a Bach piece for solo violin, his severe Chaconne, and expanded it into a clangorous piano showpiece, while Franz Liszt added notes by the thousands to the tuneful quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, turning it into an opera-house opium dream. His arrangements of songs by Robert Schumann are soberer (in general, Liszt treated German music more circumspectly, really going nuts only with French or Italian music). Busoni and Liszt made these transformations partly out of love, but also to show off their monster keyboard technique—audiences would be all the more amazed at the flying fistfuls of notes if they already had the comparatively unassuming originals in their heads. 

 
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