About transcriptions -


      In Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" it was, I believe, the Mad Hatter who famously said "When I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less." This attitude of control of one's expressions, and especially of what others make of them, is sometimes found in composers (Arnold Schoenberg is an example), and it is common for classical musicians to try to perform music as closely as possible to what the composer intended (or at least to what they think the composer intended!). At the other end of the musical spectrum, however, a popular tune may have hundreds of different arrangements and interpretations. One might well ask "Does a transcription violate the composer's intentions?", or "When is a transcription justified?"

      First, a transcription is a careful rearrangement of music composed for one instrument (or ensemble), so that it can be played by a different instrument, and the transcriber is almost always someone other than the original composer. In baroque times the original music often worked quite well on a variety of different instruments; for example Bach's two-part inventions for keyboard are quite successful with one voice played on an oboe and the other on a guitar. The organ - then as now - could make a variety of interesting sounds, many imitative of orchestral instruments, especially brass and flutes, and it was only natural that some music intended for instrumental ensembles got transcribed for organ. Bach himself was not above this, and some of his best known works are transcriptions of various concerti by Vivaldi. These, by the way, were completed some years before Vivaldi's death in 1743, and I am not aware that Vivaldi made any objection. There also probably were transcriptions of organ works for instrumental ensembles, but that kind of transcription became more common in the 20th century.

      Just as transcriptions of ensemble music for organs was effective in Baroque times, transcriptions of orchestral compositions (symphonies, overtures, etc) in Romantic times were effective, although Romantic transcriptions work best when played on Romantic organs. These became more popular around the beginning of the 20th century, and served two purposes: first, to give the organist something new to play, or at least a familiar work in a new setting. Second, America was largely rural in those days, and the opportunity to hear a symphonic work played by a full orchestra was limited to those living in large cities. Small towns did often have piano and voice teachers and organists, and their citizens could hear some works played on the piano, and more effectively on the organ when that instrument was available. By mid-century, radio broadcasts (think Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons) and recordings were ways in which this cultural gap was closed further.

      Organ music is sometimes transcribed for orchestras and other instrumental ensembles. Some of these are more faithful to the spirit of the original than others. One of the most popular ones is the transcription by Leopold Stowkowski for orchestra of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor. Stowkowski was himself an organist in his early days, but - in my view, at least - really missed the boat in this piece, using - in some places - rubato so extreme as to destroy the rhythmic integrity of the original. On the other hand, Arnold Schoenberg really hit the mark in his transcription for orchestra of another Bach piece - the Prelude and Fugue (St. Anne) in E flat. We tend to remember Schoenberg only for his twelve-tone system, which is not very accessible even to the modern ear, and we often forget that he was a consummate musician who embraced tonal music with great affection.

      To return to the original questions, the act of transcribing does not necessarily violate the intention of the composer, but the transcriber must be careful. It is probably easier to capture the spirit of the original if the transcription is done by a contemporary (as with Bach and Vivaldi) than when it is done a century or two later, (Bach and Stowkowski), but it can be done (Bach and Schoenberg). A transcription (ensemble to organ, or vice versa) is justified when it can enrich a program, but also it must be workable. Some pieces are just not meant to be transcribed (think the Widor Toccata)!

- Glenn A. Gentry, Editor
  The Continuo Online