IME PASSES and musical fashions change. Years ago, the great pianists played transcriptions on every single one of their programs. But around the year 1955, “transcription” became a dirty word. Pianists who played transcriptions were ridiculed. The new generation of pianists was unbearably pedantic, and their interpretations were boring and uninspired; in other words, transcriptions were but one casualty of the “urtext” age.
A Silly Argument: Serious musicians realize there’s nothing evil about a transcription, provided it was created by a skilled musician. The pedantic pianists (like Ruth Slenczynska)—who foolishly condemn all transcriptions—should examine Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major (BWV 1042) and his Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (BWV 1054). The reason I mention those two will be obvious to anyone who listens to a few bars of each. Ferruccio Busoni pointed out the inconsistency of those who denigrate arrangements yet praise variations as “original” compositions:
Strangely enough, the variation-form is highly esteemed by the Worshippers of the Letter. That is singular; for the variation-form when built upon a borrowed theme produces a whole series of “arrangements” which, besides, are least respectful when most ingenious. So the arrangement is not good, because it varies the original; and the variation is good, although it “arranges” the original.
Swingle Singers: Busoni was certainly correct. Yet our current zeitgeist says transcriptions are “bad” while Theme-Variations (by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Paganini, Brahms, and so forth) are “good.” On the other hand, I would never assert that every transcription ever made is valid. One group that leaves me mystified is the Swingle Singers. Their singing technique is excellent, but several of their transcriptions strike me as rather odd and unsatisfactory. The beginning of this Partita is interesting, but then it goes crazy with “scat” singing:
If you Google “Bach Swingle Singers” you’ll find tons of transcriptions. You can make up your own mind if they work.
The Passage Of Time: Speaking of how music is often a result of the zeitgeist… In 1856, the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was prescribed for the universal Church. Later on, Pope Pius XI gave it an octave and raised it to the same rank as the feasts of Christmas and Ascension. It was assigned a new Mass formula and Office by a decree of 29 January 1929. If one takes the time to examine the ALLELUIA VERSE “Tóllite Jugum,” one will see how the melismatic morae vocis are in perfect correspondence with the rhythmic markings of Dom Mocquereau. This should not surprise us, because in 1929 such plainsong adaptations were created by the Abbey of Solesmes. That is to say, the Vatican Commission ceased to exist (officially) in 1914, and from that point forward the work was given over to the Abbey of Solesmes. In other words, don’t expect to find these propers in a Graduale from 1908.