On Transcription and Adaptation

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When I was solely a violinist, I looked down upon transcriptions and “arrangements.”  Reflecting on it right now, I must say that this had to do with negative experience at the Suzuki school where I took violin lessons from second to sixth grade.  Starting in fourth grade, I became a huge fan of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and various other classical masterpieces.  Meanwhile, many of my fellow students in the Suzuki program were learning simplified versions of these pieces; these arrangements were so watered down to the point that the “meat” of the pieces was practically lost.  Hence, I developed a negative impression that all “arrangements” were dumbed-down versions of the original pieces.

However, these prejudices were dispelled when I began taking classical guitar lessons. I learned that there is very little original repertoire for classical guitar, and that, to make up for this deficiency, classical guitarists transcribe works for other instruments for the classical guitar. Unlike the watered-down versions of The Four Seasons and other classical masterpieces that I had been exposed to in Suzuki school, I found these transcriptions to be perfectly faithful to the original, preserving the “meat” of the piece as well as the technical difficulty.

Now delving into historically informed performance, I have discovered in my readings that musicians ofPhilippe_Mercier_-_The_Sense_of_Hearing_-_Google_Art_Project the Baroque era did exactly what the classical guitar community has been doing for the past century or so.  In her outstanding book The Weapons of Rhetoric:  A Guide for Musicians and Audiences, Baroque violinist and historically informed performance expert Judy Tarling speaks of how musicians frequently adapted the instrumentation of any given piece to the situation at hand.  For example, a piece could be written for two flutes, but if only violinists were available, then the piece could be played by two violins instead.  In the same way in the early 17th century, vocal music was often interchangeably played on instruments.  Composers were fully aware of this practice, so they deliberately wrote pieces such that they could be interchangeably played on several instruments beside the “designated” one.  For example, much flute music was often played on the violin and also written in a manner such that it could be transposed up a minor third, making it suitable to play on the recorder.  All in all, it appears that the Baroque masters were not as particular about instrumentation as modern musicians are, and I am totally awed by this ingenuity.  So much for “originals”!

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