What’s the Score?

Far from being a diluted form of the orchestral work, piano transcriptions often reveal hidden depths to old favourites

Culture & Anarchy Music

 “Job’s despair”: From the collection of Blake drawings that inspired Vaughan Williams to create “Job: A Masque For Dancing”

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that you only realise how little you know a familiar piece of orchestral music when you hear it played in transcription. In the era before the gramophone, when people (it is said) made their own entertainment, there was a huge industry in making piano transcriptions of great orchestral and operatic works. The Bach transcriptions are the daddy of them all, but later on Franz Liszt transcribed the Beethoven symphonies and, with an eager and clamouring public, the great tunes from Wagner’s operas. Even if the average provincial Victorian could not get to a concert hall or an opera house, he or she could still savour the music.

It is easy to be sniffy about transcriptions as a diluted or lesser form of the orchestral or operatic work. That, though, would be wrong. It strips a work back to its bare bones, and it reveals the composer’s mind in a way that orchestration so often partly obscures. I first realised this when about 20 years ago a friend gave me a stunning transcription of the César Franck Symphony in D Minor, a work then still emerging from a long and incomprehensible period of disregard and neglect. I had first heard the symphony about 15 years earlier, had played it almost to death on my CD player, and of course thought I knew it backwards. I did indeed know every note of it, but what the transcription taught me was why every note is what, and where, it is.

Nor was this a conventional transcription: Franck was an organist, and another of that calling, Jan Valach, transcribed the symphony for their instrument. The CD is hard to find — I have never seen it in a shop, and remain indebted to the friend who found it for me in, I think, America — but anyone who loves this symphony must try to find it and listen to it (it can be tracked down on the internet). Valach plays his transcription on the organ of Tonglero Abbey in Belgium, an hour north of Liège where Franck was born in 1822. It is the perfect representation of the symphony, and yet in this lies a paradox. It is so perfect precisely because Franck had written mostly for the organ, and all his thoughts as a composer were directed that way. When the symphony was first performed in 1888, two years before the composer’s death, it was roundly attacked for being unlike any other with which audience or critics were familiar. One of the reasons for its unfamiliarity was that it had been written as “pure music” by a man who was used to writing for the organ. That is also a reason why the work sounds so fresh and original today, out of the run of late-19th century works, and why the transcription so easily gets to the heart of the music.

My thoughts have turned to this thanks to the latest CD from Albion Records, a piano transcription of Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing. The transcription was made contemporaneously with the orchestral work by Vally Lasker, a music teacher at St Paul’s Girls’ School and a long-time assistant to Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams wanted a piano version made to assist dancers in their rehearsals. Now, 82 years later, it has been recorded, played immaculately by Iain Burnside. Those who know the orchestral original — and who like me thought they knew it backwards — will learn much from this recording. The work we were familiar with, inspired by William Blake’s drawings of scenes from the Book of Job, was one of majesty and great power. Heard on the piano, it reveals itself also as a work of great subtlety, texture and reflectiveness. The work is truly opened out, and heard as if for the first time, but with astonishing intensity.

Albion, thanks to its chairman Stephen Connock, has performed miracles with Vaughan Williams’s music by publishing transcriptions. Two years ago the label issued a real delicacy from the RVW canon, a transcription for two pianos of the Sixth Symphony, played by Adrian Sims and Alan Rowlands. Rowlands used as the basis of the transcription an arrangement for two pianos made in 1946 — two years before the symphony’s premiere — by Michael Mullinar, with certain additions by the composer, and tidied the work up himself. As with Job, a familiar, ground-breaking work is suddenly given new light by being played by unexpected forces. And happily, Job is not the last of Vaughan Williams’s orchestral works to be given this treatment. In the pipeline is a recording of the London Symphony arranged for piano.

The great European composers are often available in transcription. Brahms used it as a nakedly commercial means of getting his big works more widely known — and why not? Busoni made a good living out of transcribing some of the great Baroque works. Composers as diverse as Grieg and Ravel wrote for the piano in the first place and then orchestrated — transcribed in reverse, if you like — what they had made. The comparisons between the piano and orchestral versions of works such as Grieg’s suite From Holberg’s Time, or Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, are immensely illuminating. It causes one to think that if any piece of orchestral music hasn’t been transcribed for piano (or perhaps even organ), it should be at once; and that there are all sorts of piano pieces that ought to be orchestrated.

As well as Albion’s role in recording Vaughan Williams’s transcriptions, English music is generally well-served by transcriptions. David Owen Norris has recorded Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches and Falstaff, to deserved acclaim. My first discovery in this genre in English music was Richard Rodney Bennett’s magnificent transcription for two pianos of Holst’s Planets. And it is not just the most celebrated works that get the treatment. Vally Lasker, the transcriber of Job, also made a version of one of Holst’s least familiar, but most absorbing and original works, his Japanese Suite. All of these repay listening.

The moral of this story is that the casual listener — which most of us are — can always be taken deeper into the heart of a piece of orchestral music by hearing it played on the keyboard. As the recording industry looks for new ideas to stay solvent, perhaps that is one.