Continuing the tradition of Bach's transcriptions

April 29, 2017, 7:41 AM · 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.

Johann Sebastian 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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April 30, 2017 at 04:15 PM · I'm so glad that this topic is continuing to get some serious consideration!

I enjoyed your post, and just thought I'd proffer one small suggestion: do give some thought to transposing your transcriptions occasionally. As you acknowledge, Bach himself had no compunction about changing keys when transferring music between a keyboard and violin, and doing this can help make transcribed music even more idiomatic. I recently performed Bach's E-minor Flute Sonata on violin, and found that bumping it down a notch to D minor made it more playable, more resonant, and more fun! The same works for the Flute Partita in A minor, which lays even better on the violin when transposed to G minor. This is in keeping with Bach's practices, which usually involved transposing to adjacent keys (D minor - C minor, D major - E major, F major - G major, A minor - G minor are all transpositions that can be found in JSB's oeuvre.)

So, perhaps the next step is for a group of us to attempt a violin version of the WTC?! The Orchestral Suites could also be fun -- Roman Kim has already done the Air from Suite 3!

May 1, 2017 at 12:20 PM · ...I know, this is a good question, thank you Dorian. I have some very simple answers, hopefully making clear that there is no "only one" correct answer to it.

The main and perhaps most obvious would be, having perfect pitch.

I think, probably most of us believe that having this ability, means that we simply recognize the pitch of any stable sound but it is far more complex than that.

Working in many countries, the first real shock I had when we moved to Canada, from Germany. Since the official pitch in all of North America is "A"=440, for me it was almost painful to move down from 443 or higher. My main problem was, that my instruments sounded suddenly completely different. I don't say for better or worse, but different, (possibly the string tension also played a role), because the colour of sound changed. I am serious!

My musical education began with the Kodaly method, and later I had one of the greatest solfeggio professors at the Franz Liszt Academy (now University) in Budapest, who always gave the most interesting colours to notes, chords, keys. Since then, aside from the colours, I believe that certain keys, and chords have even their own image, feeling, air, scent, world, - I'm not sure how else to explain, but there is surely something behind that which makes the character so wonderful, sweet, lovely, or even bitter, sad or ugly.

I am not able to tell you how this concept works with people without perfect pitch, but I am pretty sure that it must work to a certain level. I am convinced that the character of a key creates a subconscious effect, even for people who are not aware of the cause.

However, because this is an existing "mystery" I have the strong opinion to try to keep original keys, - especially with a kind suggestion to the singer community not to change keys for technical reasons, - because otherwise we are losing the original character of the music. Even just a semitone makes a huge difference, such as a piece in e flat minor changed to d minor. Why did Beethoven write his last string quartet in C sharp major and not in D flat major - wouldn't it be so much easier to read five flats?

Of course, there are many Bach original transposed transcriptions, maybe even he purposefully wanted a different character; I am sorry, but I don't like them as much as I like the originals.

I think, this is not even a really good subject for discussion because the aspects are so different. Naturally, if you have perfect pitch and still like to transpose, or you want really a different character, or you really need to transpose for technical reasons, please, go ahead, I am sure many, especially who don't know the original, will like it!

May 3, 2017 at 11:17 PM · hello-

I also have the joy of playing lots of Bach string music on my wind instruments.

With the availability and affordability of wonderful notation software, (i use Finale but there are several comparable ones out there), and notation sharing sites, transcribing/transposing is something anyone can do.

As a wind player, I have taken the opportunity to go the other direction. Now i get great pleasure playing all the bwv 1014-1020 sonatas without octave jumps, and in the most convenient keys. I play using a midi synth wind instrument, so i can play in the most convenient key and have the sound happen in the original key. (People who play real instruments can still be accompanied by keyboard players who use an electronic keyboard that has a transpose button, so new transcriptions for the piano parts are not needed.) I have also transcribed the gamba sonatas 1027-1029 and the violin concertos, and the # part inventions and the Organ trios.

Current technology has its plus side! Most of this music is available at a public domain website MuseScore where people share their transcriptions.

May 3, 2017 at 11:21 PM · Great post, Nandor - You should be a lot better known over in UK than you are. Indeed, you should be a household word.

Everybody else: I thought I saw a video of the BWV847 Fugue played violin solo by a younger man (uploaded, perhaps, by Christian Lesniak) on this site, but I haven't been able to locate it again. Was I dreaming, or does it exist?

May 4, 2017 at 08:43 PM · Very cleverly interesting, however having privately studied /retraced and delved deeply into the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas for Violin with Nathan Milstein, my violin mentor of over 3 & 1/2 years at his Chester Square home in London, I can attest to Mr. Milstein's feelings re transcription/s in general, and know he felt strongly that Bach's Solo Sonatas & Partitas for Violin should Not be tampered with nor specific other works of Bach ~ Period. A Life span studying/ performing the "Bible of Violin Playing" is limitless boding a question: Are Bach's Solo Violin Masterpieces not enough??? Perhaps the Sistine Chapel isn't enough for Michaelangelo lover's, but no one in the World of Art has, to my knowledge, uttered like frustration re the Sistine Chapel not being enough to satisfy less inspire non stop viewing & study plus creative wonder at such an unspeakable feat over the course of an entire lifetime! Would one actually try 'transposing' the Sistine Chapel into a different location w/ different colours, altered portraiture's in this resplendent Work of Art to have fun? Greatness need be left alone as Master's, Bach, creator of his Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas for Violin & Michaelangelo's The Sistine Chapel, stand as Pillars of creation unequalled ... (Mr. Milstein had deeply musical respectful 'savvy' about Which music to transcribe, sharing his views with me. If not for this, I would not entertain the above response ~ ) Still revisiting J.S. Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas for Violin which seem more than enough to continue a journey of technical-musically matured growth until one's "Sell by Date", I remain ~

Seriously sincere from Chicago ~ Elisabeth Matesky*

*Carrier of the Heifetz-Milstein Legacy of Violin Playing

* Elisabeth Matesky (Profile)

*YouTube Jascha Heifetz Violin Master Classes, USC, Aram

'Khachaturian,1st mov't., JH-7, Elisabeth Matesky* Russian

version, (also used in 'God's Fiddler' + Cameo on screen w/

Jascha Heifetz & audio soundtrack from Jascha Heifetz Violin

Master Class, USC, Khachaturian, 1st mov't., JH-7, Elisabeth

Matesky performing w/ Heifetz's pianist, Brooks Smith.)

May 4, 2017 at 09:31 PM · No trace of Leonardo da Vinci in the Sistine Chapel, I'm afraid. On the other hand, I gather that quite a well known pianist used to perform there, someone called something like Michelangeli, I think.

It's like that story (as remembered by me) about the autograph hunter who asked Schweitzer, "Have I the pleasure of meeting Mr Albert Einstein? Can I please have your autograph?"

- No, I am not he, but I know him quite well. Would you like me to sign on his behalf?

- Yes please.

The autograph read: Albert Einstein, signed on his behalf by his friend Albert Schweitzer.

May 4, 2017 at 11:12 PM · Dear Mr. Rokos!

Hearty gratitude for kindly reminding me of my grave mistake and in so doing, telling the

wonderful story of mistaken identity, the fan of Schweitzer thinking Albert Einstein was Albert

Schweitzer, but offered to sign for his great friend, Albert Schweitzer, posted by you above!!

Thank you and what a marvellous way to correct a musician worked overtime!!

Kind good wishes to you ~ Elisabeth Matesky

May 5, 2017 at 12:43 PM · The way I heard the story, Elizabeth, it was the other way round, but your version could be correct - such stories get frequently changed in the telling, e.g., so many different versions of the story of the wartime and post-war UK Labour politician Ernie Bevin, overhearing someone say about Herbert Morrison (another Labour politician), "He's his own worst enemy" and booming out "Not while I'M alive, he's not".

May 5, 2017 at 04:11 PM · Dear John!

Having lived in Inner London nearly 8 years - firstly going on the Fulbright Fellowship to the

Royal College of Music for advanced studies of British born composer's of the violin literature,

then making one's official London debut in the Violin Concerto of Brahms, invited & conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, I came to know Michael Foot, who ascended to Head of the Labour Party & loving Music, used to allow me to listen in on his involved discussions re the politics of the day w/ a family member, amid his political headaches!! Your story about Ernie Bevin ( well known in the UK) & his utterance re Herbert Morrison & Alive comment, would have delighted Michael Foot, I'm sure!!! Most probably, the young Michael Foot came into direct contact with Ernie Bevin & Co.!!! Are you a UK guy?? I've got many friends & colleagues in London 'proper', throughout the UK, & even some in Eire!! How fun to make your acquaintance! With Best Wishes on Cinco de Mayo! Elisabeth Matesky in America ~

*Hope I spelled today's holiday correctly!

May 5, 2017 at 09:17 PM · Dear Elizabeth, I'm puzzled about "today's holiday" - have you edited out the bit this refers to?

Michael Foot would have entered Parliament at about the time of Morrison's intrigues to displace Clement Attlee as Prime Minister Elect (having previously been defeated by him in the ballot(s) for leadership of the party), so I think he'd have known the story well, if not also the story of what Winston Churchill had to say about him (told uncensored by Tam Dalyell, MP in - My late parents had heard a censored version of it years previously, told it us, and later forgotten about it) - Morrison quite clearly had cross-party unpopularity! That Michael Foot was a music lover is not generally known - I'm tempted to put it on Wikipedia, quoting your post here as evidence!

You performed the Brahms with the conductor who, from recordings, would appear to have outshone his contemporaries - His Brahms 4 remains, I think, the greatest ever. However, this may be because his earlier contemporaries may not have been considered by the record companies to be disciplined enough to be allowed to conduct their own recordings, which were instead conducted by an appointed understudy who had studied their interpretation, but could be trusted to keep within the time limit imposed by the expensive and limited recording media available at the time - so I have been told by a son of one of these understudies.

My late father, Kurt Rokos was a member of ESTA. Bosworth published some of his arrangements, and also one or two books (e.g., "Violin Teaching on a Shoestring" and "Ambitious Amateurs". I think it was also Bosworth that published my late mother Dr Kitty Rokos's translation of Werner Hauck's book on Vibrato. Would you have come across either of my parents?

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