Since I very much enjoyed reading a couple of blogs here (by Jacob Niederhoffer and Dorian Bandy) about transcriptions and being an enthusiastic "transcriber" myself, having done quite a bit of serious work in the last years, I would like to share my thoughts on the subject.
Of course, I had some good reasons to try transcribing works for different instruments and of course the primary one was that we have such a huge orchestral literature that is available only for relative limited audiences, but sized down it would reach a much wider public. Well, I know, today we get everything from the internet, but I am talking about live music, for the "old fashioned" concert goers.
Another obvious reason was the instrumentation; as I am a violinist I wanted to play these works, and because I have an excellent harpist daughter, with whom I wished to play. However, that's another subject; now I would like to share my experiments, very simply with solo violin transcriptions, and that's because I love the music of Bach.
Like any violinist, I went through all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas as a young player, and developed right from beginning an extremely strong relation to them. I could play hours and hours just Bach. Already those days I felt that we don't have enough of them, only six such great works are simply not enough. Later by discovering Ysaÿe's (also) six Sonatas and the Bartok solo Sonata I was satisfied for a while, since those are a kind of continuation of Bach's in my opinion. I return to Bach again and again.
A few years ago when my harpist daughter "discovered" Bach and developed a similar love to him, first she played some of our partitas and sonatas transcribed, then various keyboard works, French Suites, Partitas, that could be played very well on the harp too. So, we started actually started almost at the same time to work on the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; I began right away with the Fugue. To me, the Fantasy was a sort of "secondary" job because of the Kodaly version for viola, however, I had a lot of fun doing it later too.
As we all know, many of Bach's magnificent works have been transcribed for various instruments by notable composers such as Busoni, Brahms, Mozart, Reger, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Stravinsky, even Jacques Loussier. Bach himself transcribed a number of his own works, and in particular he rewrote various movements of his six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin for keyboard, organ and lute. From this aspect I don't feel I'm doing anything wrong with my attempts.
Although Bach even changed the key in most of his own transcriptions perhaps making it more "suitable" for that instrument, I am strictly staying with the original key. That makes the choice of possible works for transcription even smaller, but I strongly believe that the key and work belongs together and gives certain colour, feeling, light to it.
Perhaps, I could say now that if I would have to try to make some kind of rules, the first would obviously be that I have to really like the music I am going to transcribe.
And as that certainly wouldn't be sufficient enough at all, I have now many more rules and even overrules, because it is music, and no two music pieces are the same.
Also, of course not all of Bach's keyboard works are suitable for transcribing, and actually after long listening and trying, I have found just a handful so far.
Now, what is even more important to me, is that I want to keep the musical feeling as close as possible to the original. That means, when I listen to both, I want to feel the same, or very similar emotions, however, I also would like to give at least for the average listener (who doesn't know the original) the impression that these works are written for the violin! Because, I am convinced that composers most of the time first decide what instruments they will use; this is one of the most difficult problems I have to solve.
As mentioned before, I know quite well the technique of Bach's solo violin works, and so my strongest effort goes to make it the same way he did; using mostly "conventional" chord technique, often reversed chords, but also inventing sometimes broken chords with changing fingering in the middle, possibly keeping bass and soprano in place but if that's impossible then so that it does not bother the feeling of the whole concept, and keeping melodic lines, continuing even if we aren't able to technically keep the sound.
To bring all these efforts alive, we performers have to give our own input as well, changing dynamics, phrasing, finding where the music is going, exploring every time new, and most importantly, the joy of playing music!
Perhaps one of Bach's best known works is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue
I think D minor is one of the most beautiful keys, which also works technically and sounds very well on the violin.
After the spectacular Fantasy, the Fugue is quite demanding technically, even though it should not be played in the same tempo as on keyboard instruments, but in my opinion this slower tempo brings out even more detailed the beauty of this great fugue. Hans von Bülow writes in his book "Studien" that the fugue should begin without much expression and very tranquil "Die Fuge beginne man affectlos und sehr ruhig."
After a short introduction, the Toccata in E minor BWV 914 has a beautiful legato section with a lovely theme using imitations, followed by a slightly sad, but more and more uplifting Adagio. The final Fugue is again quite demanding technically, short, fast, with typically great Bach fireworks.
There are two Fantasies in G minor, which is one of the most natural keys on the violin. Both of these works are very close to each other in the BWV list, but very different musically. The Fantasy in G minor BWV 917 is short, slow, starts with a fast scale down, and continues on almost like a cadenza; it's like a wonderful dream, ending in a bright major chord.
In the other Fantasy in G minor BWV 920, Bach gives us the opportunity for some improvisations. Soon after the beginning, there are a series of chords written simply, with the text "arpeggio" notated above, which comes back 5 more times. This is a wonderful way to give the performer a chance to show some of his/her (in this case the transcriber's) "own" interpretive fantasy, which allowed me to use a lot of new ideas here. A vigorous Fugue in D minor gives some sparkling spirits to the work, before moving into the next "dreamy" Adagio section in F minor! Also in this very interesting colored F minor part, is the next "back to Earth" section, with wonderful straightforward "Bach-engine", leading us back to G minor in the final arpeggio section.
Preludium in B minor BWV 923 is a real example for the art of arpeggios.
Hardly any thematical elements, the chords just move on and on with great joy of an extremely beautiful harmonic world.
This piece would work very well, combined directly with the E minor Toccata.
I have now prepared sheet music - with bowings and fingerings - for these works, available here.
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