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REVERSE TRANSCRIPTION - a matter of black and white?

by Arthur Butterworth

Although a term well-known to bio-scientists, the expression has its own very different musical meaning. It was remarked in this column a few years ago - July 2001 - that, throughout musical history, much original music has been subject to all manner of re-arrangement and transcription according to the whim of later musicians. Purists, of course, generally object to this, believing that an original work of art is sacrosanct and ought never to be tampered with. The point was made that transcriptions nevertheless serve a useful purpose in making a work more widely available when the original might not have been, orchestrating for a variety of other combinations of instruments music perhaps originally intended for the piano. This generally implies expanding the texture of music that otherwise had to be confined to what one pair of hands might conveniently manage to play at the keyboard. It offers all sorts of imaginative opportunities to explore timbre, increasing the sheer volume of sound and perhaps most of all to give many others the satisfaction of taking part in a performance which would otherwise be the exclusive preserve of just a privileged few.

To an arranger or transcriber (the two functions are not exactly alike) the prospects of expanding some other composerís original ideas are full of exciting and challenging possibilities, and in a sense easier than having to think up something of oneís own. The material is already there, its structure, melody, harmony and overall texture ready-made; like the childís black and white, outline picture book; all it needs is to colour the blank spaces between the outlines provided ... but this is hardly original art. However transcription, and perhaps even more so Ďarrangingí (which usually implies being free to do something different than remaining faithful to the original design) is never quite so straightforward; some invention is required to fill out a slender original, expand and convert it into a more colourful piece of musical architecture. No matter how much it might be objected to in principle, the idea and the practice of taking someone elseís creation and altering it - defacing it in the puristís opinion - has been almost universal.

One kind of transcription has been of particular practical use: that of making piano versions of large-scale vocal works: opera, oratorio, and such music that originally called for a large orchestra to accompany singers or instrumental soloists. In order to get to know their solo roles solo performers have always needed to have a piano reduction of the full score so that they can have an accompaniment in the early stages of learning their part. These workaday piano reductions, by their very nature, are generally only an outline of the essentials of the accompaniment. It is not practicable to cram into the space that can accommodate two hands at the keyboard all the richness and multifarious subtle detail that the full orchestra is able to provide. A compromise has to be made: this is the very opposite situation of transcribing a keyboard work for a large orchestra or band, where the requirement is to expand - and maybe enrich - the original. Now the requirement is to condense a fulsome score to the slimmed-down essentials of melody, harmony and rhythm. Very often subsidiary themes: counterpoints, which might be quite interesting in themselves have to be omitted; there is no room for them within the scope of one pair of hands.

There is a better chance with four hands at the keyboard instead of two. Slimming-down a score becomes considerably more a problem than expanding it. It is a simple parallel with moving into a bigger house: there is more room for the multitude of oneís possessions, nothing need be discarded, this is akin to orchestration; there are enough instruments to take care of every strand of the original score. On the other hand moving into a smaller house requires one to be selective and throw out things that are not absolutely essential; in the same way reducing the full score to the piano means that some of the less essential counter-melodies have to be left out.

Most traditional vocal scores, the publications that are meant to assist vocalist in learning their parts, have generally been in the prosaic phrase: "workmanlike"; in other words they serve a purpose if not always a very artistic one in terms of keyboard idiom. Concert pianists familiar with performing the great solo works of Schumann, Brahms or Chopin can hardly expect to find much of satisfying idiomatic keyboard style in a vocal score of Wagner or Verdi. Before the development of recording and the availability of well-nigh perfect CDs, it used to be the common way of getting to know the classical symphonies by playing them in piano transcriptions, either for one player or for two playing as duettists, perhaps less frequently in transcriptions for two pianos, where of course much more variety of texture could be put in. Purists did not object to the piano being used to make the classics better known in this way. The objection has really been on idealistic grounds. Why make a transcription when performances of the original are now widely available ?

The ethics of making transcriptions from orchestral scores for brass or wind band has been much debated. Making orchestral transcriptions from an original brass band work has only rarely been considered worthwhile, but there have been some notable exceptions: Elgarís original brass band work, "The Severn Suite" has been re-scored for wind band, and for large orchestra, and is also known as the composerís "2nd Organ Sonata". Holstís "A Moorside Suite" is also available as a wind band piece as well as in a full orchestral version. Holstís "Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo" originally written in the 1930s for the then BBC Wireless Military Band became far more familiar in its full orchestral guise.

What of transcribing such works for the piano?

The same kind of problems arise as in re-casting an orchestral score: Can the brass idiom be satisfactorily re-cast in terms of the keyboard, or is it inevitable that something has to be omitted to make it playable?

The problem is vividly demonstrated in the case of the solo piano version of the Brahms "Academic Festival Overture". It is interesting to compare two widely differing situations regarding this major orchestral work. When it was transcribed by Denis Wright in 1937 for a major brass band contest, there were severe limitations as to what the brass band was capable of representing: the enormously exciting, flamboyant string passages had to be jettisoned completely since there were just not enough instruments - 24 brass players - to accommodate all of Brahmsí complex counter-melodies originally shared-out between an orchestra of over seventy players, including the basic string band, a large wood-wind ensemble and a complement of horns, trumpets and trombones along with a percussion section. The brass band of 1937 was not allowed to use any percussion at contests so that Brahmsís essential timpani part had to be fudged on the E-flat bass - hardly a satisfactory arrangement.

The two-handed piano version made in 1882 by Robert Keller, Brahmsís regular copyist, in the employ of Simrock the publisher, caused some misgivings on Brahmsí part: ........ "Keller is a splendid man and does everything so diligently and properly that he cannot be faulted. But I do need to tell you that a two-hand arrangement by him reveals the philistine, and that it could be of no interest to a player with any sophistication" ... The implication being that Kellerís transcription was too awkward and likely to put off those who might like to try it at the keyboard. Kellerís two-handed piano score is well-nigh impractical even to a virtuoso pianist, let alone the Ďaverageí accomplished amateur. It tries to include every instrumental nuance and inessential decoration in the string parts, is not pianistic and attempts to play it sound laboured and crude. It could have been much simplified and would thus sound far more effective as a representation of Brahmsí original score.

These two widely different realisations of a major orchestral work demonstrate just how difficult it is to make a convincing and wholly satisfactory "transcription in reverse": reducing rather than expanding a composerís original creation.

© Arthur Butterworth

October 2004


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