I write a lot about transcriptions possibly because they’re so much fun. Sometimes I can manage to play them, sometimes they’re too difficult but still fascinating to explore. One plays a piano piece while imagining an original from another context, perhaps a Walter Mitty exercise, but sometimes magic.
I remember a conversational exchange I had once with Professor Carl Morey many years ago. I told him I was transcribing a piece of music by Janacek, reducing it to a version for keyboards.
He simply asked “why would you want to do that? The original is fine as it is”.
The question has haunted me. I think it could spawn a dissertation or two, a profound question. Some people might say “why do it” in the spirit of wishing that the original be left alone and seeing little or no value in the exercise of transcription.
Of course that gets really funny when the transcribing goes in the opposite direction. This week I believe there will be two performances of Debussy’s Petite Suite on the very same night, Tuesday July 31st.
- One is an orchestral version and likely the one most people know: even though it’s actually a transcription.
- One is piano four-hands: the original from which that well-known orchestral piece comes.
I’ll be going to the piano concert, as most times I prefer the original. Fascinated as I’ve been with the two great piano transcriptions of the Chaconne from Bach’s violin partita –one by Busoni, one by Brahms—I still understand the unadorned Bach as the ideal from which the others come, adaptations that paraphrase, and in so doing hint at that other word “parody”. Adaptations sometimes honour an original, and sometimes may seem to clothe it in funny shoes & clown make-up. While the Ravel transcription of Mussorgskii’s Pictures at an Exhibition is probably far more popular than the piano original, I find that in places it distorts rather than illuminates.
I was dumbstruck by Carl’s question, so many years ago, and answer it differently now than I would have then.
I find myself thinking about a related field, namely translation, both as illustration and perhaps to help me understand my feelings. Suppose you’ve heard of a wonderful play in Germany but don’t speak German. What can you do to explore this text? Oh sure, someone might give you a capsule plot summary. But that’s surely no substitute, any more than reading the Wikipedia entry really tells you what a piece of music or a play is really like.
I’m reminded in passing of a friendly argument I had while trying to get control of the TV once very long ago. “Why” she asked “do you need to watch the baseball game, when you can read about it later in the newspaper, to find out who won?”
I didn’t immediately come up with the smart-ass response that I later gave. “But you can read the synopsis in the TV guide and know how the movie comes out”.
In other words, we don’t watch a movie to see who wins at the end. We’re there for the journey, to see how they get from beginning to end. Ditto for the baseball game, and also for the transcription. If I can’t play it for myself as I see the music on a page, I don’t get the same sense of it as when I simply hear it performed.
Now of course that analogy I made with the translation –where you can’t encounter it without the help of a translator—applies also to a transcription, although not so much now in the era of A-V media and youtube. But imagine you’re living in 1850. You’re aware of Beethoven’s symphonies or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. But how precisely were you supposed to hear them in the era before the phonograph? Or if the work was a difficult rarity such as a Wagner opera, and not being programmed?
That’s where Franz Liszt came in. He made piano transcriptions of those works, helping people discover them who otherwise would never have been able to hear them.
Now of course Liszt was one of the greatest pianists in history, using these compositions as vehicles, impressive display pieces if nothing else. In passing he was also a champion of Berlioz, Beethoven, Wagner and so many others.
Scores have value even to those of us who can’t play them.
I’m working with a rather unique transcription of Liszt’s, his piano + viola version of Harold in Italy. Concerti can be huge fun to play at the piano, because the orchestral reduction is usually an easy thing to play. Beethoven’s concerti for instance are available in two piano versions, where the soloist version is of course meant for a virtuoso, while the orchestral part is much easier. The normal pattern in a concerto is that the reduced version of the orchestral part is much simpler than the soloist’s part.
But Liszt’s Harold in Italy is different. The piano part is phenomenally challenging, almost unplayable in places.
So while in the past I have usually teamed up with a soloist while sight-reading the orchestral part, this is a different scenario entirely. I have to practice: because it’s so difficult. And only then would I approach a viola player. I was thinking that for now it’s music minus one, but indeed, even if I never look for a viola player it’s wonderful stuff. The two inner movements are much easier than the outer ones, which have all the virtuoso challenges one expects from a Liszt piano score.
You see in the picture that the score hints at the original, in telling us the orchestral instruments that would be playing in the usual version at this moment in the score.
Might one play this, seeking to imitate the original, at least aware of that overpowering orchestra surrounding the viola soloist?
But any transcription is an invitation to the imagination, inviting you to see & hear beyond what’s on the page. We’re in the realm of virtual reality, as the score points back to that other world.