Looking into the realm of musical transcription (setting music written for one instrument or combination of instruments for a different instrument or combination, sometimes taking on new stylistic attributes) it is not long before one notices the prominence among the works chosen of baroque music in general, and the works of J.S. Bach in particular.
Baroque music is known for many characteristics that may have contributed to its favourability as a target for transcribers – but addressing the question must begin not with the music, but with the act of transcription. Why transcribe, when the composer bequeaths to us a perfectly authentic and successful version with instruments and style attributes he/she actually knew and chose? The answer originates in love: we don’t transcribe works we dislike: we transcribe out of a wish to play or hear a work on our instrument or ensemble (organists, having an enormous authentic repertoire for their instrument, are implicated here, perhaps second only to pianists). Baroque music is often the very first music we encounter when beginning our music lessons; Bach and Handel’s names, the first we come to know, and their hugely popular melodies the first to become stuck, welcome or otherwise, in our heads. The Baroque era’s interest in ornamentation offers a particular benefit as a tool for learning: it has a perfectly viable (if inaunthentic) “easy-play” form omitting ornaments.
If we learn by playing and singing Baroque music we are perhaps predisposed to like and transcribe it – but what makes it work so well? Let’s consider this 1989 MCA release by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, a compilation of Bach orchestral and keyboard works, including one meta-transcription, a Concerto Bach himself first transcribed (from Vivaldi) for organ, now ending up for a quartet of instruments that didn’t exist until about a century after Bach’s death.
Here’s the program (you can hear the whole album or read the liner notes online): Badinerie – Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067; Overture No. 6 in G minor BWV 1070; Art Of The Fugue, BWV 1080 (excerpts); Fantasia & Fugue in C minor BWV 537; Suite No 1 in C major (excerpts) BWV 1066; Fugue In G major BWV 577; Concerto after Vivaldi No. 1 BWV 592. A quick ‘needle-drop’ listen (that’s a vinyl reference for you young-‘uns!) anywhere in the program reveals a range of styles spanning the exuberance of orchestral suites, the academy of fugues, the freedom of an organ fantasia and the trademark tunefulness and general simplicity of Vivaldi. Bach may have brought Baroque music to its ultimate flowering, but his range of styles can be found across his 18th century colleagues, and from around Europe.
A range of styles? You can find that in any era, and while Bach is one of history’s most prolific composers (perhaps giving him a statistical advantage) one doesn’t find arbitrary modern classical quartets wildly transcribing Mozart, Beethoven, or even other Baroque composers to the same degree. Nor does one find the same degree of interest in transcribing these giants among groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hooked on Classics or the Swingle Singers (all of which wrested Bach from its classical gatekeepers in the 1970s).
Perhaps the answer comes in the person of Bach, who was himself not just a musical genius, but a great transcriber in his own right. He admired Vivaldi’s music and so respectfully transcribed it for his own use. He had an open enough view of, for example, his solo violin Partitas to transcribe parts of them for keyboard and even orchestras and choirs. Father to twenty children, he also had enough of a sense of humour to compose works like the secular Coffee Cantata. These attributes were by no means unique to Bach, in his own age or in the ages that have followed – but perhaps they aligned in a rare, proto-planetary way, giving us this remarkable legacy of transcribed gems.
When my old university friend Dave Kutz, now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, contacted me early in COVID-19 quarantine about a virtual collaboration there was no need to ask what might be on the menu. And the ethical concerns expressed at times earlier in my own career about the act of transcription from a composer’s “original intent” now seem quaint and even ridiculous. The world already owned Bach’s music – blessings upon him for having given it us!