“Stolen Songs” RPC Music Notes, Sunday 8 Sep 2019

Bulgarian cellist Lachezar Kostov and Japanese pianist Ai Shimizu perform J.S. Bach’s Adagio from Organ Toccata BWV 564. 2009 Sakura Hall, Tokyo.

Beginning in September 2019 RPC’s weekly “Music Notes” may also be found on the Ideas About Music website, online at http://ideasaboutmusic.ca

My introduction to classical music (indeed, to most music) was at home, through my father’s record collection, some of which I have inherited and still enjoy to this day. An amateur musician and poster-boy for the Golden age of the audiophile, my dad made a point of gathering into our home a decent stereo system, and a diverse and standard repertoire of symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, keyboard literature (including that of the organ) and so on, as well as musics of all other sorts.

But one unique feature of dad’s collection was his fascination with Bach transcriptions – compositions of the great master re-written to be played by a different instrument or instruments than intended. Bach was by no means the only composer in history to have been honoured – or perhaps robbed – by the ‘stealing’ of his music for new uses: but he is likely the composer whose oeuvre has most often been raided, indeed many times by himself, but also by his contemporaries and those who have followed to this day. The middle movement of one of Bach’s great organ works, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564, is a lyrical song of such surpassing beauty that it has been transcribed many times, most famously by Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (you will find a link to another fine performance I have selected if you visit http://ideasaboutmusic.ca online).

There has been much punditry spent on just what it is about Bach’s music – now exuberant, now touchingly sombre, now gloriously majestic or strikingly simple, that lends itself so well to transcription for an astonishing range of musical forces ranging from jazz quartet to modern symphony orchestra, to percussion and other ensembles – even choral voices singing instrumental parts. But speaking as one who has engaged in this art – or sin – of transcription of music, both to and from my instrument, the organ, as well as other ensembles I have a simple answer: love. Transcription is no simple theft – it is painstaking effort and reimagination, often encountering technical problems and sometimes lacking in hoped-for success. But it always originates from the transcriber’s love of the original piece, and that love is the product truly being shared. There is much interest today as ever in ‘who owns what’ in music, but how is that frank discussion of property affected when the ‘thief’ stole one’s song out of love and the will to share?

Wes’ sermon today interrogates Jesus’ proposition of a child-like faith: perhaps we can find a useful metaphor by ignoring the musical properties and legal questions that make a given transcription project possible, or even advisable – instead honing in on the fact of sincere love for the original, and the wish to share it?


“The robb’d that smiles, steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.”
― William Shakespeare, ‘Othello’

One thought on ““Stolen Songs” RPC Music Notes, Sunday 8 Sep 2019

  1. Thank you Christopher. This makes me recall the day I attended a performance and then was later chided for my lack of analytical critique. Instead, I simply enjoyed the concert.

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