Music: Transcriptions

Bach, Busoni, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Ravel. Transcriptions are often misunderstood (different from arrangements in that they are supposed to be faithful) and regarded with distaste (condensing orchestral works, expanding fragile solo works, etc.). I find them fascinating, though, because they have the rare ability to connect points of time in music. They connect genres and composers across centuries and they somehow thrive in a barrage of constant creation—there’s something beautiful in how these works adapt to the modern age and are recycled through the hands of loving musicians that breathe life back into old melodies to simultaneously preserve history and break ground.

The original works are the roots, the base ideas, the platforms, and from the seeds of those ideas, branches of the transcriber’s personality bloom into view, infused with the original composer’s soul. Transcriptions, I think, are the hardest for musicians to tackle (much like in literature—there is the inherent difficulty of balancing several things at once: fluctuations of language, the essence of the work, the translator’s own interpretation).

In essence, transcriptions are translations.

For example, take the Beethoven symphonies transcribed by Liszt. Here, you have these alarmingly grand and fiery works translated into the compacted realm of 88 keys. Some say that condensing an orchestral work into a solo piece is blasphemy. How on earth can you retain the feeling of sweeping, breathtaking grandeur? Well, to be fair, you can’t compress the volume of an entire orchestra into that of a grand piano. But the energy, or the essence of the piece, can still be retained. The breathtaking-ness of the symphony comes from the sheer volume of sound filling and expanding in the hall; for the solo pianist, it is the mind-boggling physical and mental stamina needed to last through an intense forty-five minute piece.

The orchestral work and the solo work are not the same—that is the simple thing that people forget! They may share melodies, but once a piece is transcribed, you can’t think of it as the original piece—it is born anew. Bach’s Partita no. 2 for violin is not Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne, and vice versa. It is up to the musician to determine how to balance the two works. Regardless, however, I think there’s one thing that remains indisputable: to perform a piece that has crossed boundaries of instruments, that has stretched through the ragged decades and centuries, is quite the spellbinding sensation.


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