The Whys and Wherefores of Transcription

Why is a group of Juilliard Historical Performance string players preparing a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, BWV 988, one of the greatest compositions ever written for solo keyboard? If I were asked, my answer would be, “Why not?” The practice of taking music written for one medium and performing it on another has been around for centuries—and for a variety of reasons. When one instrument or instrumentalist was unavailable, whatever players and instruments were at hand were utilized. When a town possessed no opera house but its people wanted to hear the latest hit by Verdi or Wagner, they could play it on the piano in a transcription, perhaps one created by no less a composer than Franz Liszt. Or when performers simply had a hankering to play cherished music that had been written for some other instrument, they just got hold of a transcription of the piece for their own instrument.

On Feb. 27, Juilliard415 will perform a string transcription of J. S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations written by alum Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

(Photo by August Wenger)


Such is the case with faculty member Monica Huggett, who will lead the student ensemble Juilliard415 in a string orchestra transcription of the “Goldberg” Variations by Dmitry Sitkovetsky (Diploma ’79, violin) on February 27. In a YouTube interview with Huggett connected with her performance of this work in May 2012 with the Portland Baroque Orchestra she exclaimed, when asked about playing this transcription, “You get greedy, and you think, ‘I want more Bach!’” And who can blame her? We all want more Bach! Sitkovetsky certainly did. He transcribed Bach’s harpsichord masterpiece first for string trio in the mid-1980s and then, in 1990, for string orchestra and harpsichord. Both versions are highly successful in communicating the variety, complexity, and beauty of Bach’s composition.

When I was in junior high school, my piano teacher, Angela Weschler, who had emigrated from Vienna to New York just before World War II, would assign me such works as the Chopin-Liszt Maiden’s Wish (a song redone as piano solo), the Verdi-Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase (the quartet from the last act of that opera transcribed for piano), and the Bach-Busoni Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (an organ work reimagined for piano), and I remember loving these works and playing them often in recitals, with audiences loving them, too. But in my college and graduate school years, none of my piano teachers assigned me any transcriptions, and some research I did at the time led me to understand that the tradition of performing transcriptions was in decline while a stress on what was then being called “authenticity” in musical performance was just emerging. The theory went that with so much “real,” “authentic,” and “pure” piano music available, why play “bowdlerized” versions of music written for other instruments?

Yet, the pendulum of music history sometimes reaches a happy medium, and, lo and behold, today we are once again looking kindly on transcriptions and regarding them as the results of our love and respect for music of the past (and present), and not as selfish and unnecessary tampering. We know, for example, that composers such as Brahms, Busoni, Schoenberg, and Webern made wonderful transcriptions of Bach’s compositions, reworkings that have brought great pleasure to listeners and reveal the reverence and admiration that these later composers felt for their predecessor. Bach himself, we know, transcribed a wealth of his own and other people’s music. For example, his two concertos for violin (A Minor, BWV 1041, and E Major, BWV 1042) resurfaced as concertos for harpsichord (G Minor, BWV 1058, and D Major, BWV 1054), and a number of Vivaldi concertos wound up as Bach transcriptions. In fact, one of the ways in which composers honed their craft in Bach’s time was by transcribing music from one medium to another. Transcription was a way of showing admiration for the work of another composer, whether from an earlier time or a contemporary, and of bringing it to a wider audience.

Although the scription part of the word transcription comes from the Latin scribere, to write, the essence of transcribing—or arranging or paraphrasing or the like—dictates that any change of the essential timbre of a piece of music be considered a transcription. So, in this sense, when we sing the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we are transcribing it. When a soprano sings Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a cycle for tenor voice, she is transcribing it. As Busoni once preached, as soon as the written notation of a musical work is turned into a sounding performance of the piece, it has been transcribed. Busoni put it this way in his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (in Theodore Baker’s English translation of 1911): “Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form.”

All this has made me greedy for more Bach. I am going to listen to the “Goldberg” Variations on a recording with harpsichord, then on a recording with piano—and get ready to hear it in the Sharp Theater with some glorious Baroque strings!

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