Whither the Transcription?

An absolutely delightful compact disc that was issued recently made me wonder whatever happened to the transcription. The disc (Naxos 8.572050) is José Serebrier's second CD with the Bournemouth Symphony of Bach transcriptions, and half of it consists of transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski of music by other composers: Palestrina, Byrd, Boccherini, Haydn, Jeremiah Clarke, and Johann Mattheson.
Why have we become such purists? What went wrong in our musical world that it is practically forbidden (I'm not sure by whom, but believe me, it is nonetheless forbidden) to perform Bach transcriptions--not to mention a Pavane and Gigue by William Byrd--in a concert hall today.

Listening to this recording caused me to realize what the purists have inflicted on the rest of us. First of all, organ recitals are rare things. In fact, even good organs are rare things. The transcription offers us a way of hearing great organ music that we might not ever encounter in a live performance. But the transcription is more than that. It is an alternative version, decked out in different colors. (Some of Stokowski's transcriptions of music other than Bach's are not of organ or even keyboard music.) Just as a play or movie derived from a book is a perfectly valid other way of experiencing the book, so a transcription is a perfectly valid way, in and of itself, of experiencing music that is based on an original that sounds different.  

Listening to different transcriptions--there are wonderful Bach transcriptions by John Barbirolli, Ottorino Respighi, Lucien Caillet, Edward Elgar, Walter Damrosch, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and many others--is not meant to be a substitute or replacement for the original. But it should be a valid, alternative artistic experience, and that was the case back in the first half of the twentieth century. A look at concert programs from the 1930s and 40s, and even into the 1950s, shows a reasonably regular appearance of a range of transcriptions.

Then, from the 1960s on, it drops precipitously, clearly a result of the purist movement that seemed to say we can only perform music in the way it was written--an aesthetic that would be shocking to Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, and others. I hope we lose this puritanical streak soon, and can once again bathe ourselves in the bold colors of a good transcription. Until then, our gratitude to José Serebrier for producing two wonderful CDs.

August 21, 2009 3:04 PM | | Comments (9)



I don't even know where to start. The last flak (in a less than polite manner) I received was from Fanfare - where the writer "could not understand" why would anyone do a transcription. [By the way, Henry, I was hoping you would write that review :-)]

After writing probably hundreds of transcriptions I found myself in a very strange position of "that guy" doing something less than serious. Not enough space here to write about this.

Let's face it, one of the great but complicating facts of musical life is that there are many opinions on just about every subject. I found gratifying the number of people who did write to agree about the validity of transcriptions.

The "sacrilege" many purists seem to contend about transcriptions of certain masterworks is limited to certain composers they revere, J.S. Bach being the primary one in the present case. Why not extend the same attitude upon other composers, such as George Gershwin and his "Porgy and Bess"? Robert Russell Bennett produced two wonderful transcriptions/arrangements, one orchestral, and another with chorus and soloists, the latter of which I had the joy of participating in a performance this past spring. No one raises any protest over the various arrangements/transcriptions made of this American masterpiece. Legendary feared conductor Fritz Reiner made a recording of the Bennett orchestral transcription while music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Bottom line, as Mr. Fogel has said, many works might not ever be heard if it weren't for transcriptions. If they are done tastefully, then let them be heard!

I absolutely concur with Henry Fogel.

And there are so many J.S. Bach orchstral transcriptions.
There is a truly abundant library of those.
A few names to mention: Sir Henry Wood, Leonid Leonardi, Fabien Sevitzky, Rene Leibowitz, Alois Melichar, Leopold Damrosch, Herman Boessenroth, Jeno Hubay, Willem Kes, Deszo D'Antalffy, Henri Verbrugghen, Leo Weiner, Johann Joseph Abert, Alexander Goedicke, Theodore Thomas, Archer Gibson, Heinrich Esser, Otto Klemperer, Vittorio Gui, Frederick Stock, Alaxander Tansman, Robert Leech Bedell, Maurice Durufle, etc...

I'm with you too.
The most obvious example of one of those formerly-often-played transcriptions is the Handel/Harty Water Music.
Leonard Slatkin recorded two excellent CDs of Bach transcriptions, one by composers and the other by conductors. Many of them are fabulous, my favorites being Raff's Chaconne in d(available from Kalmus), and Mitropoulos' Fantasia and Fugue in g. There is another Chaconne, a transcription of Busoni's piano arrangement by Maximilian Steinberg. N. Jarvi has performed it to acclaim with the NJSO and Kalmus has the score, but I'm not sure if it's been recorded.
EMI has a wonderful recording of Beecham's potpourri of Handel, 'Love in Bath', with lots of clarinets, trombones and harp. Scores are evidently held up by Beecham's estate.
It's not just the purists to blame. These pieces have also gotten pushed to the sidelines by the valid interests of contemporary music; the genres fight for opening spot on programs.

You are absolutely right!
Happily some kin types of transcription remais alive! Playing harpchicord and organ works on the piano, the ressurection of paraphrases like Godowsky's or Pabst (long live Marc-André Hamelin, Piers Lane and Carlo Grante).
By the way, try to hear the "Concert Version" of the Goldberg Variations by Busoni, recorded by Klaus Tansky on MDG (the Busoni ausgabe from Breitkof contains both the original and the transcribed versions) it's a delitful glimpse in a composer e pianist mind

Re transcriptions: the Philadelphia Classical Symphony is presenting a program on Friday, November 13 in conjunction with the American Musicological Society convention in Philadelphia that includes my own arrangement for string orchestra of the Mendelssohn Octet. I am hoping that the larger string complement can elucidate some of the stylistic alternations of solo, chamber and symphonic styles latent in the music. Accordingly, the arrangement will furnish many alternations between soloists and tutti after the manner of a Bach concerto grosso.Any work such as the Mendelssohn that involves the frequent reiteration of a motif over time seems to me to involve a process of continuing variation. The repeated theme is heard differently with every iteration. The larger challenge for interpreters is not necessarily to change the texture just for the sake of variety, but to imaginatively elucidate the evolution of the music over its timespan.The means to do so can be many.Our predecessors in the 19th Century were closer to the mark than we are. Every performance is a transcription. We would never expect to see identical picture frames surrounding every painting in a museum. Nor should we expect to contain instrumental works within the same fixed performing forces.

For many, transcriptions are eye openers. Some listeners revel in the larger than life sound, based on simpler material. That is ok for many. My Vivaldi 'Four Seasons' (released in June, Naxos) is a different case. Rather than violin and strings, it is for solo piano. This goes the opposite way, in creating a transcription from a larger force to a smaller force. However, in hearing and playing it this way, one can immediately hear the influence of Vivaldi on future composers such as Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms. Yes, there are definite quotes in the Vivaldi found in the later composers. Sometimes when we take a work and put it in another context, we can hear these references.

Dear Readers

The art of transcription is still very much alive! I would urge you to explore the wonderful transcriptions by violinist/conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky - two notable examples include the Bach Goldberg Variations which he has transcribed for both string orchestra (Nonesuch label) and string trio (Orfeo label) and also Dohnanyi's Serenade and Brahms Sextet for string orchestra (Nonesuch). A new recording of the Goldberg Variations for string trio along with string trio transcriptions of Bach's Symphonias and Partitas will be released in mid 2010.

I'm with you, Henry. I've been taking flak on my own blog for having made a transcription of an improvised piano piece - to be played, on the *same* instrument, by a different performer. It must be that there's so much music around these days that people can afford to define their comfort zones about one inch wide and damn everything that deviates from it. I'd be happy to hear my own music tastefully transcribed.


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