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The Art of Transcription

Over the years I have made many transcriptions. Some projects have been very ambitious – like trying to realize Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for Violin, Horn, Piano and Voice. Sometimes I have been paid quite well for my work – for instance when I made the wind quintet version of Dvorak's A flat Major Sting Quartet op. 105. Mostly, though, I have found some music that I loved dearly, yet wasn't avialable for me to perform in its current form, and adapted it for practical use.

Recently I performed Francaix' arrangement of Mozart's k452, I gave a little introductory speech to the audience where I speculated on the arranger's motivation.* I came up with four different, and I believe, valid motivations: 1) The arranger wants to improve on a specific piece of music, or at least unlock some hidden potential in the music. 2) The arranger wants to learn from the master composer by walking in his footsteps. 3) The arranger wants to make a piece of music usable for the instrumentation that is available at hand. 4) The arranger is paid enough money to not need any particular artistic justification for his actions.

The first motivation would apply to such examples as orchestrations of Bach's organ works, or even Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' g-minor quartet. In these cases one could argue that the musical ideas were simply too big for the chosen medium. I believe that the opposite argument could apply to Schoenberg and his circle pairing large orchestral works down to small chamber versions: In the case of Mahler's symphonies; they are of course glorious in their original settings and Mahler himself was striving to have his works be all-encompassing like life itself. I can see, however, how a sensitive musician could feel that the purely musical idea could be obscured in over-editing and instrumental effects, and by stripping such a work of all its bombast one can distill the musical essence and create a valid "improvement".

To return to Schoenberg, who of course was a supreme musical thinker and a true master of the craft: He himself made many transcriptions and he encouraged his pupils to do the same. He must have seen this pursuit as a great learning experience. My impression is that he chose great masterpieces for his adaptations, and even when the above motivation (#1) was present, his desire to take on the persona of a greatly admired colleague (past or present) was primary.

The third motivation might also have played a part for Schoenberg and his circle. As money got tight at the beginning of the 20th century, we see many composers turning to smaller ensembles as got difficult to pay for full orchestral realizations. Setting Strauss waltzes for string quartet (sometimes with a few added winds and the ever-favored harmonium) could have made live performances practical when a full orchestra was simply to expensive.

In the conclusion of my introductory remarks for the Mozart/Francaix concert, I made some cheap jokes about the financial motivation. I got some laughs and think perhaps I might have had a point: Mozart's k452 is really a perfect piece of music as is! Each instrument is treated in the most idiomatic manner and while one obviously could learn something from copying down Mozart's score, Francaix always seemed too technically facile and too light-hearted for such pursuits. The third motivation is off the table, as I can see no concievable situation where you have a string quintet on hand, but not a piano? The problem with option 4 is that whoever is paying the money has to have his or her own motivations, but as this person need not be a musician, or even an artist, maybe we can't search for these motivations with artistic criteria?

I will return to my own transcriptions: Numerous transcriptions for brass quintet will eventually be made available through my store. These typically fall into the third category: When putting on a brass quintet concert I just wanted to play the music I wanted to play, and if it didn't exist in brass quintet setting, I made my own version. This makes for a truly eclectic body of work ranging from Medieval/Renaissance church music to most recent pop-tunes. I've also made several transcriptions for wind quintet. Somehow my motivation here is more of the second category – my own learning. I think this has to do with the inherent difficulty of the distinctive timbres of the wind quintet, which means that I have more reservations and feel I need to be more careful in selecting repertoire for adaptation.

My latest transcription is of Edvard Grieg's "Aften på Højfjeldet" for violin, horn and piano. It is a very simple transcription made specifically for a concert in April which will present music inspired by, or imitating nature (another interesting topic for another post?). Obviously the pianist could have just played the original solo piano version by herself, so I must have felt that there was something to gain? The first half of this work is just a single melodic line – I think it will benefit from being presented on the horn with its immediate allusion to the great outdoors and the possibility of growing during a single held note. At the same time it allows me to play some music by Grieg – a rare opportunity as a horn player (of course there are beautiful solos in both the piano concerto and the music to Peer Gynt, but nothing outside of these few orchestra works.) My transcription fits with the three first motivations – truly I believe that only ONE is necessary, but all three: that makes me happy!

The video on top is from a live performance of Kraftwerk's "We are the robots" that I set for two flutes, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. (Earlier I've also made a version for horn and piano..) I love the original and always wanted to make a version for accoustic instruments. Proabably only category 3 is in play here. I hope this is good enough reason to tinker with someone else's art, but will await your comments... (due to a little technical difficulty, you'll have to fast forward to app. 1'20" to hear the performance...)

*I was ever so slightly reprimanded by the artistic director of this particular concert series for opening up the possibility of the "cheapening" of the piece to the audience. In principle I agree wholeheartedly that when performing one should manage to get behind whichever work is to be presented without reservation, and that analysis and comparison does not belong on the concert-stage.


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