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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 1 (Great Pianists) (1925-1947)
By Arthur Baker
By Jed Distler
By Bryce Morrison
What is a
transcription? Use a literary analogy and you could call it a translation. You
could also call it an arrangement but whatever the name, it amounts to the same
thing - an adaptation. Fraught with difficulties though it may be, the practice
of adapting a composition from one format to another is far from new Manuscripts
from Robertsbridge Abbey, Sussex, England show that motets (short unaccompanied
choral compositions) were arranged for organ in the fourteenth century; and Intavolotura,
the sixteenth century system of scoring music on two staves rather than having
it spread out on separate parts, included Intabulierung which was the
transfer of vocal music to the keyboard or lute. Adjustments were necessary because
as the composer Sir Hubert Parry once said, "The object of arrangement
is to make that which was written in one musical language intelligible in another"
and singled out a transcription as "on adaptation more intimately suited
to the nature of the new medium, taking greater liberties with the
Composers of the
baroque era thought nothing of adapting music to suit their purposes and even borrowed
from others with impunity. Johann Gottfried Walther (1684 -1748) claimed to
have made 78 keyboard arrangements of concertos in the Italian style though
only fourteen survive Bach, a distant relative of Walther, arranged sixteen
concertos for solo clavier from the compositions of other composers, six of
which were by Vivaldi. Fascinated by the work of his southern contemporary,
Bach also arranged two more concertos for solo organ and converted the
four-violin Concerto in B minor ,Op 3, No 10, into the A minor
concerto for four harpsichords and orchestra BWV 1065. But they were
not ordinary adaptations. Bach added inner parts, and altered rhythms, keys and
melodies. He transformed the originals into compositions of his own.
It did not stop
there, of course. Bach borrowed from himself too. The Prelude from the solo
violin Partita in E major BWV 1006 (that Rachmaninov sensitively transcribed)
was used for the introduction in D major to his Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott
BWV 29; thirteen of the fourteen extant keyboard concertos are transcriptions
from other instruments; and sections of the Christmas Oratorio are based
on secular music written earlier, but skilfully recycled to suit the celebration
of a sacred occasion. It was convenient for Bach to transcribe his own music
when, as a working musician, he was often under severe pressure.
transcriptions of Bach? And why were they a nineteenth century phenomenon?
First, though, why the piano? Because artistically it largely personified
nineteenth century ideals, becoming as David Dubal has described, "a
symbol of democracy, self-reliance and personal expression". Beethoven
may have set those ideals in motion. He too was a pianist, but he was also
iconoclastic, inventive and individual ?a rebel, who triumphed over adversity
as well. There was probably no finer exemplar for the Romantic era in music that
dawned shortly after his death. The piano triumphed too. Firms like Bosendorfer,
Broadwood, Erard, Gaveau, Pleyel and Steinway eventually had models of
unprecedented power with the full range of 88 keys. The instrument had come of
age and at the right time, in time for one composer to epitomize the Romantic
musical hero, and also be considered the greatest pianist of his day - Liszt.
was potent. Liszt was, in his own words. "An artist such as you desire,
such as is required nowadays". Visions of independence did not
preclude adulation. Combine the two with another factor, a craving for the
past, and Bach came to be seen as a genius unappreciated in his day. Romantic
musicians adopted him but were not interested in historic performing practices.
This was, after all, the age of self-expression. So when Mendelssohn
resurrected Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, probably starting the
Bach revival for the nineteenth century, he presented Bach for that century by
changing the orchestration, cutting arias and putting in dynamic and expressive
markings that were in keeping with contemporary mores. He also saw fit to add a
piano accompaniment to the Chaconne of the D minor Partita for
unaccompanied violin. Not to be outdone, Schumann wrote piano parts for all the
unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, and to the unaccompanied cello
suites as well. Czerny included a host of extraneous indications in his 1837
edition of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, though he sidestepped responsibility
somewhat by claiming that they originated from his recollection of Beethoven
The piano had
begun to take centre stage. It became fashionable among a growing middle class;
and when Liszt pioneered the solo recital in 1839, its position became
unassailable Liszt played to the aristocracy but he also played to others. His
position became unassailable too. Wilfred Mellers described his impact on Europe as "indeed something for which there is no musical
parallel". He could play what he liked. He played Bach unaltered; he
also played Bach as transcribed by himself. Some of his compositions, like Weinen,
Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (based on BWV12) are, in the words of Martin Zenck, "new
works which by means of their distance from the original works, both fundamentally
change Bach's compositions and bring Liszt's compositional status to a
qualitatively different level". Within the ethos of his own day, Bach
had done something similar when he redesigned Vivaldi to suit himself.
simply redesigned Bach to suit themselves. Enhanced Bach was 'in'. What better
than the piano, the popular instrument favoured for its highly expressive
qualities, for communicating such enhancements to the widest possible audience?
The answer Bach via the piano transcription. And the composer who, more than most,
took to transcribing Bach for the piano was Ferruccio Busoni (1866 -1924), who
had been influenced by Liszt and was seen by many as the finest pianist since
Liszt. He was also a scholar who collaborated with Egon Petri (1881 -1962) in
annotated editions of all Bach's keyboard works that included transcriptions
(together with a rationale for their necessity) of a number of organ preludes,
fugues and chorales, two toccatas and the Chaconne from the D minor
Partita. In essence, Busoni wanted Bach's works for the concert hall, and
transferring organ music to the piano involved restructuring textures to
simulate organ sonorities which the iron-clad indestructibility of the music
could take - and still remain Bach. Musicians, from Liszt to Rachmaninov, knew
this only too well.
interesting point. Every nineteenth century composer mentioned was a
composer-pianist, as opposed to pianist-composers who also flourished at this
time. Artists such as Friedman, Godowsky, Lhevinne, Rosenthal, Schulz-Evler and
Tausig had a narrower creative compass and the music they transcribed was often
for the express purpose of demonstrating their transcendental keyboard techniques.
Nevertheless, many were also perceptive interpreters - as was Tausig (1841 -1871)
whose transcription of Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor, is here
played by Winifred Christie. She was a British pianist who studied in London with Oscar Beringer (a pupil of Tausig), but lived
in the United States for a number of years after she married
the composer and inventor Emanuel Mo6r. He designed what became the Bechstein-Moor
Duplex-Coupler Grand Piano, a double keyboard instrument that Christie played
exclusively after 1926 with music adapted by Moor to exploit its possibilities.
It is the only unusual piano in this compilation.
Some pianists of
the generation that followed also transcribed music but names like Harriet
Cohen and Alexander Kelberine (pupils of Busoni); George Copeland (studied with
Debussy); Olga Samaroff (born Lucy Hickenlooper and a famous teacher whose
pupils included William Kapell and Rosalyn Tureck) are virtually forgotten
today. Still they, and those who are better known, manage remarkably well to
capture Romantic flair through a style of playing that is not dated. Bach
transcriptions are, however, rarely heard because ours is largely an era of
musical sanitisation that rejects what it considers the excesses of a bygone age.
Would it be unfair to trace some of the beginnings of today's purist attitudes
to another composer-pianist, Artur Schnabel? Although he was a year younger
than Petri, Schnabel totally disapproved of recast Bach and cited Busoni's
version of the Chaconne as having "a kind of sensuousness,
impurity or bombast which seems to be absolutely foreign to Bach's essential
qualities". Which brings it all back to Bach. Would he have disapproved?
Given his own record, probably not.
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