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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


TRANSCRIPTIONS - A CHANGE OF COLOUR?
by Arthur Butterworth

How does a composer first imagine what his music should sound like? Young children happily playing with their toys and crooning away contentedly make up all sorts of little tunes to sing and hum; most mothers will have recognised this. We cannot know what children have in mind when doing so; maybe they think of battles with toy soldiers, so that the tunes they make up might be trumpet fanfares. Or maybe little girls softly crooning lullabies perhaps imagine some kind of delicate fairy pipes. Of course the question is often asked of composers how they get ideas in the first place; what kind of melody enters the head, and even more so what kind of harmony or form they think of. Carrying the notion a bit further, some people are curious to know whether a composer also thinks of instrumental timbre at the outset. Does melody come to the imagination already clothed in a particular instrumental or vocal colour?

Perhaps every composer would answer such a question in his own way, but I seems not improbable that the timbre of a melody comes along with initial idea itself. However, in the 1600's it was not infrequently a matter of a composer offering "musicke apt for voyces or viols" implying that it would sound equally effective whether played or sung, though later music would be specifically designed for one performing medium or another: keyboard style being quite different from that suitable to string or wind instruments, In spite of this one can think of a lot of baroque music - perhaps Bach more than any other composer - that sounds effective no matter on what instrument it is heard. The all-too-simple reason for this of course, is that the texture of baroque music, especially its intricate counterpoint, is what matters rather than the timbre. The most superficial glance at a page of a Bach cantata, or the B-minor Mass, will demonstrate that there is hardly much difference in the actual texture of the vocal parts from that of the strings, or the wind instruments. On the other hand even the most casual glimpse of the scores of - say - Richard Strauss or Shostakovich, will reveal the marked differences between what the composer demands from the voices compared with that required of the strings, the wind or the percussion.

The subtleties of instrumental colour that have increasingly come about since the early nineteenth century, pose the question as to how much an essential part of the composer's original conception timbre is, and whether projecting the music in a different way from that originally intended by its creator demeans or invalidates it. In earlier times this seems to have presented no particular technical or ethical concern. Bach transcribed quite an amount of earlier music - Vivaldi string music for the organ, for example. Much later Liszt was an enthusiastic re-modeller of operatic music in the shape of dazzling, virtuosic displays for the piano. Stravinsky turned to Pergolesi and to Tschaikowski - and even Bach - to create, or rather re-create something different from an established original.

There needs to be a clear idea of precisely what 'transcription' really can mean. Perhaps it ought to mean literally the transferring of a whole piece of music, lock-stock-and-barrel as it were from one medium to another, keeping every note, harmony, rhythm and the shape of the original intact: Bach's organ transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto for Strings in A minor demonstrates this. So does Rubbra's orchestral transcription of Brahms' 'Variations on a theme of Handel' Op. 24 - originally for the piano - or Ravel's celebrated orchestration of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition'. On the other hand the many "transcriptions" by Liszt ought perhaps to be more accurately-designated "arrangements" rather than "transcriptions" since they amount to complete - although undeniably imaginative - re-arrangements, or re-creations of another composer's original intentions.

Purists certainly have a point when they suggest that a composer's original conception of a piece should remain sacrosanct. It is even now quite widely felt that even Mozart was not blameless in adding those famous "additional accompaniments" to Handel's 'Messiah'. It would seem that he did so becausee performing customs had changed sonce Handel's day and that a fuller-sounding orchestral scoring would be more suitable to the prevailing practice. However, composers and other musicians have always been intrigued by the notion of altering (whether one calls it "transcription" or arranging" is neither here nor there) existing music. Dance band music of the early 1930's regarded it as almost de rigueur that new and up-to-date versions of well-known popular tunes of the day should be offered to radio listeners. It was almost unthinkable to keep on playing the same old, tired versions month-in, month-out; there was always a call for slick, newly-polished orchestrations, so that the dance band "arranger" was quite a figure in his own right.

Perhaps the most justifiable reason for making transcriptions - if a little less so for making mere arrangements - is that in doing so it opens up the way for a wider dissemination than the music in its original form could have achieved. This has been especially true of wind band music, at one time traditionally played outdoors. Many of the great operas of the nineteenth century became widely known largely through popular arrangements of selected favourite tunes from them. This not only applied to opera, but to symphonic music as well. The disadvantage of course, was that many listeners got the wrong idea about the import of the music and perhaps never realised what the composers' original intentions really were. But it cannot be denied that many who now claim to know the classics, first came to know great music through listening to a band in the park on a fine summer's afernoon; often watered-down versions it has to be said, but encouraging the listener later to seek out the real thing as it were.

Alexander Owen (1851-1920) was one of the most prestigious brass band conductors and arrangers of his day. His arrangements of Beethoven, Berlioz, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and many other composers brought such music to vast audiences that would never otherwise have known about such masterpieces. A selection from Mendelssohn's "Elijah" is a case in point. Perhaps it is considered nowadays, with the present-day dissemination of every kind of music so readily to be heard, that such arrangements are no longer appropriate. However, there still seems to be a good case, if not for slick, unrepresentative 'arrangements' of great music, for 'transcriptions' well-made and authentic in detail.


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