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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S. / PURCELL / HANDEL: Stokowski Transcriptions
It was as a young church organist that Leopold Stokowski grew to love the music of Bach. Later, he arranged a number of Bach’s organ works for full symphonic forces. The results were a spectacular success and through Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions music lovers heard baroque music in a new guise. Some of Stokowski’s finest Bach arrangements are newly recorded here in highly enjoyable performances by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. As one of the Leopold Stokowski Society’s chief aims is to encourage performances of Stokowski’s Symphonic Transcriptions we welcome his new Bach-Stokowski selection as a brilliant successor to the disc of Stokowski’s transcriptions of music by Mussorgsky (8.557645). – The Leopold Stokowski Society
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
Long before Stokowski, there was a tradition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of transcribing the harpsichord and organ works of Bach for the modern symphony orchestra. Mahler, Elgar and von Bülow, among others, orchestrated Bach's works. Busoni's Bach transcriptions for the modern piano became staples of the repertoire. In the nineteenth century Liszt was constantly transcribing other composers' works for the piano, even entire operas, of which he constructed paraphrases. All composers often transcribe their own works for different ensembles. Schoenberg, in his early years, made orchestral versions of chamber music works by late Romantic composers. I myself have orchestrated works by Tchaikovsky (Andante Cantabile), a set of fourteen Grieg songs, and, commissioned by the Gershwin family, the Three Piano Preludes and the Lullaby. I have also made symphonic syntheses of Bizet's Carmen (Carmen Symphony) and Janáček's Makropoulos Case.
I feel very comfortable with Stokowski's Bach transcriptions, not only because I grew up with them, working with Stokowski, but because they are so sincere and heart-felt. There is no reason to apologize for these extraordinary orchestrations, which brought this music to a much larger audience than had previously heard Bach.
In Stokowski's early days at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra Bach was seldom heard in orchestral concerts. When Mendelssohn re-introduced the music of Bach almost a century after his death, Bach had been almost forgotten. Mendelssohn started a constantly growing process of re-discovery, and Busoni - and later Stokowski - continued to fuel this process. In a recent series of concerts I conducted in Israel, it was their idea that we perform original Bach in the first part, including Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, followed by modern orchestrations by Mitropoulos and Stokowski. It worked wonderfully, side by side. Stokowski did a magnificent job of portraying in his orchestral versions the organ works he played in his youthful church appointments in London and New York, thus enlarging the orchestral repertoire as Liszt had done with the piano, and bringing this magnificent music to new, much larger audiences.
Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 has a second movement for strings, one of his most poetic, evocative creations. It took on a life of its own after the violinist August Wilhelmj, in 1871, made an arrangement under the title Air on the G String. In that and similar arrangements it was recorded numerous times in the early twentieth century, attaining a pop-culture status. In the original the melodic line is always carried by the first violins, and each of the two segments is performed twice, identically. Stokowski made sure that each repeat was different, changing very cleverly the voicing, and giving the melody most often to the cellos. The result is magical. Stokowski wrote: "After Bach's time, the first performance was conducted by Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1838. During the 88 years since Bach's death, as far as we know, no one had publicly played this masterpiece. Yet today almost everyone interested in music knows and loves this melody." I often programme both versions, and each has its own merits. In my concert in Israel we also offered Stokowski's arrangement of the Air as an encore.
The secular Cantata No. 208, Was mir behagt, was composed for the birthday of Bach's employer. Stokowski's arrangement uses minimal instrumental forces: just two flutes, two oboes and strings. Sheep may safely graze is the best known and popular part of the original cantata.
Stokowski used to call the 'Little' Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 "one of Bach's greatest creations," and indeed the simple, remarkable tune is hard to erase from the memory. What Bach does with this tune in the organ version remains original to this day. The transcription is faithful to the sound of the organ, starting with the oboe, followed by the English horn and then piling up new instrumental combinations to reach a brilliant climax. In Stokowski's own words: "In its orchestral form, it begins with the single voice of wind instruments. As each instrument enters, the complex weaving of the counterpoint becomes always richer, and the fugue ends with all the instruments sounding like a triumphant chorus."
Of Komm' süßer Tod, BWV 478, Stokowski says: "This poignant and soul-searching melody was composed by Bach around 1736. It is one of the melodies published by Schemelli in his book of sacred songs 'Musicalisches Gesangbuch'. Schemelli was Cantor at the Castle of Zeitz and he engaged Bach to edit his song book. Bach also provided several compositions of his own and added the figured bass to others. In giving this sublime melody orchestral expression, I have tried to imagine what Bach would do had he had the rich resources of the orchestra of today at his disposal."
Soon after Bach was named Cantor at St Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, he began work on his Easter Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden or Cantata No. 4. Stokowski chose to orchestrate the tenor aria "Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn", a jubilation which ends with the words "Death has lost its sting. Hallelujah." Stokowski wrote: "In this music, Bach has expressed the exultation and uplifted state of our feelings at Easter. Against the deep solemn tones of the chorale we hear the rapid counter-themes which contrast with it and add to the excitement. For a brief moment near the end, the music is hushed and tranquil, like a prayer. Then it gradually mounts up from low tones to the highest and ends in ecstasy."
Es ist vollbracht! is an alto aria from the second part of the St John Passion. The meaningful words are: "It is accomplished; what comfort for the suffering human souls. I can see the end of the night of sorrow." The music speeds up with the words "The hero from Judah ends his victorious fight". At this point, the Stokowski orchestration changes character as well, fully echoing the effect of the original version.
Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV680, (We all believe in one God), also known as the Giant Fugue, is a Chorale-Prelude of majestic proportions, attaining enormous impact in spite of its short duration. It is best described by Stokowski himself: "This music is not easy to perform, even with today's modern technique. In Bach's time it must have been very difficult. In transcribing it for large symphony orchestra, I have tried to imagine what Bach would have done if he had the vast resources of the modern orchestra. Bach often improvised at the organ, taking as his themes the chorales of Luther. In some great moment of improvisational inspiration probably came the concept of this unmatched composition, combining highly-evolved characteristics of the fugue and choral-prelude with the free counter-theme in the pedals, giving the world a new form, as unique today as it was in Bach's time." Vaughan Williams also made a remarkable transcription for string orchestra, seldom heard these days.
Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599, (Come Thou Redeemer of our Race), previously arranged by Busoni for solo piano as one of his numerous Bach transcriptions, was also orchestrated by Otto Klemperer in a version for woodwind and strings which he often performed. It was part of a collection of Eighteen Chorales and is sublimely realised in Stokowski's transcription.
Stokowski's Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies, hymn-tunes which he had known from his early church days, provided him with the raw materials to make his own orchestral version in 1934. The ninth-century Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire) unfolds seamlessly into the medieval Veni Emmanuel. The two tunes are separated by chimes in typical Stokowski fashion. Respighi used Veni Emmanuel in his Three Botticelli Pictures.
The Pastoral Symphony from Handel's Messiah is, apart from the opening Overture (Symphony), the only purely orchestral movement in the oratorio. The music depicts the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields and in Stokowski's arrangement has a celestial, otherworldly quality. His version uses the simplest of orchestral elements, sometimes giving solo winds the melodic line originally played only by the violins. Stokowski conducted the entire oratorio during his first season in Cincinnati in 1909, never returning to the complete score again.
In 1949, shortly after Stokowski conducted the New York Philharmonic in a Purcell Suite put together by Sir Henry Wood, he compiled his own and conducted it the same year. Stokowski's suite included a harpsichord gavotte, movements from The Fairy Queen, and Dido's Lament arranged for strings. Dido and Aeneas, first performed in 1689, ends with this powerful, sobbing music, the Queen of Carthage's musical cry. Stokowski's version adds to the pathos of the music, making it one of his most inspired transcriptions.
Originally composed for harpsichord and later transcribed by Bach for organ, the monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, often played by Stokowski during his early days as organist in London and New York, provided a perfect vehicle for a transcription for large orchestra. The passacaglia was originally a slow dance, eventually evolving into a set of variations over a ground bass, as in Dido's Lament. The theme is followed by twenty variations. This magnificent double fugue, one of Stokowski's earlier Bach orchestrations, was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1922. For the occasion Stokowski wrote the following notes: "Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue is in music what a great Gothic Cathedral is in architecture - the same vast conception - the same soaring mysticism given eternal form. Whether played on the organ, or on the greatest of all instruments - the orchestra - it is one of the most divinely-inspired contrapuntal works ever conceived." Stokowski recorded it six times. Ottorino Respighi's orchestration, as grandiose as Stokowski's but less organ-like, was written at the request of Arturo Toscanini.
© 2006 José Serebrier
Stokowski and Bach
Leopold Stokowski's musical career began in the church and it was as a young organist that he grew to love the music of J. S. Bach. Later, during the 1920s as the celebrated conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he began to arrange a number of Bach's organ works for modern symphony orchestra, bringing to the general public music which he had played in his early church appointments in London and New York. The results were a spectacular success and inspired Stokowski to orchestrate many other works by Bach. Through these transcriptions, music lovers of the time heard unfamiliar music in a new but brilliantly eloquent guise. When Stokowski was criticised for making them he countered that Bach himself was one of the greatest transcribers of all, freely arranging the works of Buxtehude, Corelli, Vivaldi, Telemann and many others.
Stokowski recorded many of his Bach arrangements several times, often varying his readings considerably. It was this variety of interpretation which inspired José Serebrier to approach his own selection with entirely fresh ears. Some of Stokowski's finest Bach arrangements, such as the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue, are heard here alongside popular favourites and a few lesser-known items fully worthy of revival. As appropriate encores, José Serebrier has selected three non-Bach pieces from olden times, and a warm welcome is particularly extended to the first recording in over seventy years of the Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies.
It remains only to note how much the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra enjoyed playing this music. It is to be hoped that their enjoyment transmits itself to the listener. Nowadays Bach's originals are readily available for those who wish to hear them, but there is also much to delight the ear in Stokowski's sonorous realisations.
The Leopold Stokowski Society
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