Song-inspired pianism: thinking about piano transcriptions of songs again, this time not just for 2-hands but also 4-hands


In the run up to our December concerts – where pianists Warren Lee and Sylvia Chan join forces to perform some of the most loved pieces in the piano repertoire that also happen to be transcriptions* – we have been thinking again a little about this art called transcribing, especially of piano works from songs and vocal works.

(* More specifically, of the seven pieces on the concert programme, two are 2-hands transcriptions of a Bach piece [one for the violin the other for the organ], one is a 4-hands transcription of a Bach [chamber] piece, and one is a 4-hands piano transcription of a Brahms organ piece, while a fifth is a transcription for the piano of a piece that was originally written for the harmonium and piano and with an organ-only original version also.) 

While in 2018, we did a few Schubert-Liszt song-piano pairings (in our “Hear the song in the music” series, see also “Schubert’s songs and Liszt’s tears”), this time we focus on “romantic dreams of the counterpoint” especially Busoni’s re-imaginations of the Bachian counterpoint as he excelled in producing transcriptions of Bach’s works, a body of work that have stood the test of time.

In this programme – “Beethoven, Franck and romantic dreams of the counterpoint” – Warren will be playing the longer Bach-Busoni, i.e. the Chaconne in D minor, while Sylvia will interpret the Bauer transcription of the Franck Prelude, Fugue & Variation as well as the shorter Bach-Busoni, i.e. Ich ruf zu dir, and they will team up for two 4-hands pieces which are transcriptions also!

Busoni is the figure that really needs to be talked about, and perhaps he comes closest to Liszt in terms of the % of his compositional output devoted to transcriptions (and indeed Busoni also transcribed some of Liszt’s transcriptions, usually of Bach’s works!), but it is his relationship with Bach’s works that he is most remembered for.  In fact his transcriptions of Bach’s works took place over the course of more than 30 years of his life, and encompass works that Bach wrote for the organ, cembalo, violin, and so on, and these were collectively known as the Bach-Busoni Editions, numbering over 30 volumes.

His transcription especially of Bach’s organ music for piano is really notable for bringing out all of the unique qualities of the piano while remaining faithful to the core of Bach’s compositions, and he has attributed to the piano the comparable virtues of “rhythmic precision [and] greater impetuosity”.  During his time, Busoni’s transcriptions were popular and controversial in equal parts, but his enduring success is manifest in the fact that today, his name has become inextricably linked with Bach.

Busoni’s most iconic work of transcription is without doubt the Chaconne from the Partita for violin solo in D minor, one of his most famous works, and a standard warhorse of many a piano virtuoso.  Transcriptions of this Bach piece have emerged for nearly every instrument from the organ to the flute to the marimba to two cellos, but the Bach-Busoni Chaconne for the piano has remained in high currency, so famous that someone once called Busoni himself “Mrs. Busoni”, thinking that Bach was her maiden name!

A side note: there are many octaves in this piece as well as a number of other Busoni transcriptions, reminding us of the story about Busoni who commissioned the creation of the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano, which has 97 keys, 9 more than the standard piano’s 88.  Apparently, he needed those extra keys to play his transcriptions of Bach organ works!

Turning to transcription for piano 4-hands, perhaps one of the more well-known works were Liszt’s transcriptions for 4-hands of his own orchestral works (e.g. his symphonic poems Les Préludes and Prometheus, amongst others), with the extra 2 hands allowing the piano to become even more orchestral and in fact Liszt’s transcriptions for the piano helped popularize or at least speed up the knowledge of quite a number of orchestral works including Beethoven’s symphonies.

But ones does have to come back to Bach, and here even contemporary composers found fresh Bachian materials to transcribe for the piano: György Kurtág, a contemporary Hungarian composer especially known for icy miniatures and well described by his aphorism that “one note is almost enough”, made a series of 4 hands transcriptions of Bach’s works to play with his wife, including 13 Bach transcriptions in the set of 27 published in 1991 and the transcriptions of 7 Bach chorales in the collection published in 2010.  (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit [“God’s time is the best time of all”] is in the earlier set.)

We were also surprised to find that Brahms wrote some organ works, and further that there are 4-hands transcription of these chorale preludes.  We are referring here to Op.122, the very final compositions that Brahms made.  Clearly, pianists like to find ways to make beautiful music amenable to their instruments!  While there is evidence that Brahms intended to prepare them for publication, there is also a recorded statement that they could be seen as more private companion pieces to his Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121.  Like those songs, the preludes are “settings” (albeit wordless) of religious texts -Lutheran hymns and their associated chorale melodies.  The sublimely beautiful No 8 in the set – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (“Behold, a rose is blooming”) – is by far the most well-known as well as being perhaps the most artful in its near-complete concealment (with the constant use of expressive appoggiaturas) of the original and rather familiar chorale melody.  The chorale texts appear printed above the melodies in all early editions of the preludes.  (Interestingly also, Busoni also transcribed 6 of these 11 chorale preludes but only for piano 2-hands.)

P.S. You may know that Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms played 4-hands together, or that Frederic Chopin and Pauline Viardot also played duets together, but did you know that Saint-Saëns and Liszt also made 4-hands public performances together?

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