I have a bone to pick.
I’m leveling this at you. You who dare call yourselves music transcribers and so-called arrangers.I’m running across this with a bit more frequency than one should become accustomed.
Those of you who read my column might recall this story. Be patient. A few years back I had occasion to play a guitar piece of Heitor Villa-Lobos entitled Choros 1. This was played during a master guitar class in front of Maestro Joao Luiz. At one point during my presentation he stopped me and advised I had played a passage incorrectly. How could I have argued with him? After all he was the master and I, a mere and lowly master class attendee. So I repeated the phrase in question and was immediately halted yet again. “No that is incorrect. Here. Let me take a look at your music.” And so I handed him the music from which I had practiced and was currently performing. He looked at the offending passage and raised his eyebrows.
“Hm. This is written incorrectly. You played it exactly as written.” And with that he took his trusty pencil from behind his right ear and marked my book with the correct notes. After having played what he had written, I must admit, it sounded better. But this thing I was playing from was pretty much a classical guitar standard. Certainly, I could not possibly be the only one playing this wrong.
One year later, at the same master class, a Brazilian guitar expert advised that the original Villa-Lobos Manuscript could and should be obtained. I did so and after having received and analyzed these transcripts, I found a substantial number of discrepancies between the originals and my modern editions.
Fast forward please.
I was sufficiently humbled to recognize that I needed some fine sanding on a few pieces upon which I was working and found it incumbent upon myself to eat a little humble pie and recognize a need for an eye with more expertise than just myself.
While there the same thing happened. Michael advised, “Would you play that passage again?” And so I did. “No. That’s wrong. Look here.” And he examined the music and lo and behold, the music was written incorrectly. He took his pencil off his dining room table and made the necessary correction. “Here.” He gesticulated with finality. “This was a transcription error.”
I glanced appreciatively at his edits. However that only lasted a second or so. I threw my right hand up in the air and looked heavenward. In actuality it was really his living room ceiling that captured my gaze. But you get the drift. My unspoken frustration was left as follows.
“You know? Here I am trying to get this thing right. I shell out the necessary coin in complete reliance upon receiving exact music and instead of getting scholarly good stuff, I get Gerald McBoing-Boing and the Three Stooges. What the hey, man?”
Michael received my unspoken soliloquy philosophically and knowingly and responded with a discrete shrug.
During our lesson, we also discussed the transcriptions of various composers who had composed with other instruments in mind. We discussed the piano to guitar transcription of the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz and of course Johannes Sebastian Bach.
Mr. Albeniz was, primarily a piano composer. However a large body of his work translates so well to classical guitar that, unless you already have had academic exposure to his works, one would consider Maestro Albeniz a guitar composer.
So you would think, and you would be right, that in transcribing from piano to guitar, there would be a certain amount of inconsistencies between the two instruments. The piano has a wider range of notes than a guitar and you can produce sounds with 10 fingers as opposed to the guitar’s limited four. And that’s ok. However, in attempting to play Albeniz’ Torre Bernejas, I was both fortunate and unfortunate enough to have several transcriptions, or arrangements if you will, of this particular piece. So different in presentation were these two transcriptions they might have actually been different compositions.
So while in Michael’s company, and at Michael’s request, we compared these two arrangements and he decided to go back to the horse’s mouth, as it were. As luck would have it, not only did he have the original piano arrangements, he was actually able to retrieve it from his extensive library. And don’t you know? Both of the guitar arrangements strayed substantially from the intent of the composer.
And with that, Michael proceeded to surgically pencil mark both of my poor defenseless transcriptions into arrangement oblivion.
He also advised to go back to the source with respect to the Bach cello suites. As you might suspect from the title of the thing, the Bach cello suites were, first of all, written by … Yes, class. Bach. And for which instrument would this be written? Right again! Very good! The cello! Yes indeed!
And so I was instructed to go obtain the cello manuscript for Bach’s cello suite.
And so I did. Or, more accurately, tried.
As it turns out, there are more cello transcripts for Bach’s cello suites than grains of sand. Which one is right? Also, and as it turns out, the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena transcribed the cello suites containing no less than 70 errors.
I did the same for the Albeniz piano transcripts. Same story. Of course Anna Magdalena probably had little to do with these errors.
So now I am faced with noble intentions, but only the narrowest of prospects of even having the ability to deliver.
So we might expect that the music played one day a hundred years hence will bear little resemblance to intent of the composer.
And to what do I attribute this torrid transgression?
That’s right!
Transcribers and arrangers!