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Transposing

Bradley Lehman
wrote (February 10, 2005):
< Incidentally, other composers wrote works with instruments of the wrong pitch. Beethoven, in his Pastoral Symphony (#6. I think), uses a Baroque trumpet that is not in the basic key of the music. Within the treble clef, the Baroque trumpet could not play the chromatic scale (nor the diatonic scale). Beethoven solves that problem by composing the symphony so that the notes the trumpet can play, and is asked to play (in the wrong key), turn out to be legitimate notes in the concert key. Only if you read the score as originally written, can you detect this stroke of genius. When it is transposed for a modern Bb valved trumpet, the ingenuity goes unnoticed. >
Strokes of genius? Bach and Beethoven were geniuses, to be sure; but the proper deployment of transposing instruments is just practical musicians doing their job well, isn't it?

Dale Gedcke wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Well, yes. I would say it is practical composers doing their job VERY well. Normally, the composer has to know what every instrument he uses is capable of performing. And, he has to know what quality of sound it will produce. And he has to know how various combinations of instruments will sound together.

Then he has to come up with a melody and accompaniment that is unique and interesting enough for musicians to want to play it, and audiences to want to hear it, over and over again for several centuries.

Then, for the Baroque trumpet, he has to find notes for it to play that it can play, and that also sound good in the overall composition. On top of that he has to find notes for the trumpet pitched in the wrong key that line up with the concert key he has chosen, and still make those notes contribute in a positive and cohesive way for the overall composition. "Whoops, I can't have the rest of the orchestra play a D on the next note. The next note has to be a C, because that is what the trumpet can play. Now how do I make the sequence of notes sound good using a C instead of a D. I guess I will have to make up a different melody line."

A modern composer doesn't have to worry about that restriction because every instrument is able to play the chromatic scale. (except drums, of course.)

Maybe Beethoven faced this task so often that it became intuitive for him.

Doug Cowling wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] I think also of Händel in the da capo chorus "Gloria to God" in "Joshua" which has trumpets, horns and timpani (the latter in the predictable D-A tuning.) In the middle section in B minor which depicts the falling of the walls of Jericho, Händel has the timpani play sustained rolls and full schlags on the mediant D with tremendous effect. Great composers are never restricted by the physical limitations of their orchestras.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Douf Cowling] Yup. Good example. Another one is the Gigue of Bach's orchestral suite #3 in D. In the last couple of bars before the repeat we're cadencing into A major (the dominant) but he only has D and A timps. So he uses the D as a fake-substitute E, against the bass player who really has an E. It passes so quickly, and the harmony is so clear elsewhere in the band, that it's hardly noticeable our timpanist and the third trumpeter are both playing the 7th degree and not resolving it stepwise! Then, five bars into the second half, he's in B minor and using his D timp as a mediant. And of course he's also used the D timp all the way through the suite hitting dominant whenever he's got the music into G major.

IIRC there are also some long timp rolls on the mediant in the Sibelius violin concerto....

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (February 13, 2005):
Dale Gedcke wrote: < A modern composer doesn't have to worry about that restriction because every instrument is able to play the chromatic scale. (except drums, of course.) >
Not every instrument. In May 2001 I witnessed the world premiere of the Gamelan Symphony by the innovating Dutch composer Peter Schat. He made use of a chromatic gamelan, especially built by a famous Indonesian gamelan builder who managed to get the bells and gongs tuned for western symphony orchestra by using pitch forks sent over from Holland. The gamelan was commissioned by the Dutch pianist-composer Sinta Wullur, who gives regular concerts with her Ensemble Multifoon and the Odyssey String Quartet. Her site is: http://www.xs4all.nl/~swjr/flashEng/gamele.html.

Peter Schat died too young in 2003 without being able to add a second and third movement to his symphony, as he planned to. Those interested in tonality, jazz and improvised music should read about his tone clock at: http://www.hoogstins.com/toonklok/index.html.


Bach and Beauty: Transpositions are Not Inherently Wrong

Continue of discussion from: Viola da Gamba in Bach's Vocal Works [General Topics]

Vladimir Skavysh wrote (May 14, 2005):
Ludwig wrote: < Bach wrote a large body of work for solo Gamba which these days has been taken over by the Cello (YoYo Ma plays these in one of his recordings) which is like playing harpsichord pieces on the piano---no excuse when Gambas and Harpsichords are still being made. Ok Glenn Gould fans I hear your yelling but sorry Bach never saw nor heard a Piano until he was almost dead and buried at Potsdam and even then he did not write for the Piano. >
Salutations, Bach lovers!

I sometimes find myself contemplating, which of my most beloved composers - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin - contributed the most to music. Usually, those discourses with myself end in a deadlock - that is, unless I am concurrently listening to a composition by one of them, as then I tend to give (a temporary) preference to that composer.

However, for as long as I can remember, I regard Bach as the most capable of the four to discover the true Beauty (capital "B"), the quintessence, of any instrument. For example, the quintessence of the harpsichord is revealed in such compositions as the Italian Concerto and the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Yet, I would not say that this is sufficient reason to claim that Bach's musical pieces for one instrument must not or should not be played on other instruments. Bach himself frequently transposed his own compositions - perhaps because he wanted to find greater Beauty or because he sought to explore all ideas pertaining to a given melody that cannot be realized on only one instrument.

Accordingly, it is not inherently incorrect to try to play compositions for the viola de gamba and the harpsichord on the cello and the pianoforte, respectively. This is especially so for the harpsichord-pianoforte pair, because of the greater similarity between the two instruments. In addition, the piano is a significantly better instrument than the harpsichord in that it has greater technical and dynamical capabilities.

That said, the above does not mean that greater Beauty will necessarily be attained once the piano entirely supplants the harpsichord. Quite the opposite! For example, I would not replace the harpsichord for any other instrument in the Italian Concerto. However, from my personal experience of a non-professional musician, when Goldberg Variations are concerned, Beauty is spelled "the pianoforte."

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (May 14, 2005):
Vladimir Skavysh wrote: < from my personal experience of a non-professional musician, when Goldberg Variations are concerned, Beauty is spelled "the pianoforte." >
and Beauty, my friend, is in the ear of the beholder.

Matt (who now goes back to lurking...)

Vladimir Skavysh wrote (May 15, 2005):
Matthew Neugebauer wrote: < and Beauty, my friend, is in the ear of the
beholder. >
Well, it is not as simple as that. In fact, if I remember correctly, Beauty is a philosophical concept that is meant to refer to something that transcends the observer - the listener, in this case. Regardless, let me offer a short argument why a transcendent qis necessary to fully describe Beauty:

Admittedly, it is true that almost any kind of cacophony will find its followers. In fact, there will always be someone who will claim that something is Beautiful because it is ugly (I had such a debate once). Yet, amid this seeming chaos, is it not true that Bach's music withstood centuries and is regarded by throngs of people as better than music of thousands of other composers? Does this not mean, in turn, that there is something in the music, and not in the listener alone, which makes it eternal? This line of thinking leads to my conclusion.

I believe that Bach experimented with his compositions exactly because he wanted to discover and formulate the laws of transcendence - of eternity - in music. In the present time, by transcribing compositions or supplanting one instrument for another, we embark on the very same search for Beauty. However, modern composers and musicians lack the compositional understanding and experience of Bach, as well as his genius (I apologize in advance - I do not intend to offend anyone). Therefore, it is likely that the product of such an operation will be worse than the original. Yet, why expect that each and every such attempts will be a failure?

In fact, I recently heard a success of transcription of one of Bach's cantatas. When perusing my local library's collection of Bach's recordings, I noticed that one recording features Janet Baker - a mezzo-soprano - singing BWV 82 ("Ich habe genug") (see: <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Marriner-C4.htm> for more information about and a brief summary of the recording), which is a cantata for a bass singer! Bewitching! After listening to it once, I had no difficulty concluding that I enjoy the orchestration and the vocal performance more than those in the other recording of BWV 82, which I heard before (and borrowed again for comparison) - Rifkin, 1989; soloist: Jan Opalach (see: <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV82-Rec5.htm> for more information). I do not like the very last movement, however; more legato approach of Rifkin is more convincing (as is not ascending by an octave on the few last notes of the soloist).

It is entirely possible, of course, that I am simply partial to a voice of a woman. I cannot falsify this theory, unfortunately, because it is rare to have a mezzo-soprano and a bass sing the same composition; hence, I cannot make any sort of controlled study of my preferences. Therefore, I hope that some of you can come to my avail. Do you also think that Baker's performance is more appealing (with the exception of the last movement) than that of, say, Rifkin, or would you rather say that Baker has everlastingly desecrated Bach's "Ich habe genug," which causes Bach to turn in
his grave to this very day?

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 15, 2005):
Vladimir Skavysh wrote: >>It is entirely possible, of course, that I am simply partial to a voice of a woman. I cannot falsify this theory, unfortunately, because it is rare to have a mezzo-soprano and a bass sing the same composition;<<
As you may already know, Bach conceived this cantata, BWV 82, for solo bass voice in 1727, then performed in in 1731 (perhpas 1730) as a solo cantata for soprano; then, probably in 1735 it was transposed lower for a performance (or two?) for mezzo soprano, but then circa 1745-1748 again as a solo cantata for bass.

There are some wonderful recordings of this cantata for bass. See Aryeh's Bach Cantata Website for more information on this.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 15, 2005):
Vladimir Skavysh writes: "Admittedly, it is true that almost any kind of cacophony will find its followers."
Whether or nor something is a cacophony is entirely subjective.

"However, modern composers and musicians lack the compositional understanding and experience of Bach,"
How do you know?

Ludwig wrote (May 15, 2005):
[To Vladimir Skavysh] One of the problems with transposign scores of orchestral nature is that when one does one always risks making what was an easy passage for a particular instrument difficult or impossible because it is out of range or near so. For instance the upper ranges of the Oboe are seldom used. A score transposed upward a few keys can make a piece totally unplayable except for the lower parts.

Same for the French Horn whose highest note untransposed is F. Transpose up 5 keys and the passage becomes impossible to play. Transpose too low and one again runs into problems of clarity.

For a simply score of vocalist and keyboard---this is usally no problem.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 15, 2005):
Vladimir Skavysh wrote: < In fact, I recently heard a success of transcription of one of Bach's cantatas. When perusing my local library's collection of Bach's recordings, I noticed that one recording features Janet Baker - a mezzo-soprano - singing BWV 82 ("Ich habe genug") (....) It is entirely possible, of course, that I am simply partial to a voice of a woman. I cannot falsify this theory, unfortunately, because it is rare to have a mezzo-soprano and a bass sing the same composition; hence, I cannot make any sort of controlled study of my preferences. Therefore, I hope that some of you can come to my avail. Do you also think that Baker's performance is more appealing (with the exception of the last movement) than that of, say, Rifkin, or would you rather say that Baker has everlastingly desecrated Bach's "Ich habe genug," which causes Bach to turn in his grave to this very day? >
There's a version of it arranged for woman's voice in Anna Magdalena's book. What's the problem? I don't see one.

There's also a gorgeous recording of that version, but sung by a tenor, in the Tragicomedia disc of excerpts from the Anna Magdalena books. That's on Teldec.

John Pike wrote (May 16, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] I think I am right in saying that a version of it for soprano appears in the AMB notebook (?which one).

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Last update: ýMay 16, 2005 ý22:55:36