Transcribing Violin and Viola Music for Cello
The following link takes us to a list (catalogue) of all the cellofun transcriptions that are based on original music for violin and viola:
Now let’s have a look at some of the questions involved in making these transcriptions:
TRANSCRIBING VIOLIN MUSIC FOR CELLO
The violin repertoire is not just vastly larger than the cello repertoire, it’s also much more melodic and virtuosic, in keeping with the qualities of the violin. Playing violin music on the cello doesn’t just extend our repertoire, it also extends both our technique and our melodic musicality, encouraging us to think, feel and play “like a first violin” rather than like a minor accompanying figure normally confined to bass lines but with occasional (and therefore frightening) melodic moments.
Sometimes it is the composer who makes – or at least allows – the transcription for cello. Cesar Franck made his own cello transcription of his momentous violin sonata, without modifying either the key or the piano part and Breval published his Violin Sonatas simultaneously and identically for either violin or cello (and notated always in the treble clef!). While it was originally thought that Brahms had himself made his adaptation for cello of his G major violin sonata, it is now known that this was actually the (very good) work of the brother of the famous cellist Julius Klengel.
At other times it is the music’s publisher who, perhaps in an attempt to sell more copies, publishes violin pieces simultaneously in a (normally identical) version for cello, simply transposed down by an octave. So it was that both Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin and Beethoven‘s Violin Sonatas were published also in a contemporary version for cello. So there is nothing neither new nor unethical in “stealing” from the violin repertoire. In fact, cello technique has improved so much in the last 100 years that what would have been considered difficult for a cellist in the time of Mozart and Beethoven is now routinely expected of any common cellist. This means that we can often cross the boundary into violin repertoire without too many difficulties, so long as we keep an open mind about the adaptations that might be necessary in order for the pieces to actually sound good on the cello.
Probably the easiest and simplest way to play violin music on the cello is with a 5-string instrument, especially if it has a somewhat smaller string length. In this case, we only need to get used to reading in the treble clef with a simultaneous transposition down an octave, and probably using our thumbposition in the neck region quite a lot! But for those of us who don’t have the luxury of having a 5-string cello, read on ………
ORIGINAL KEY OR TRANSPOSED ? WHICH IS “THE EASY OPTION” AND WHO IS IT EASY FOR?
The great advantage of transposing a violin piece down by only an octave for its cello transcription is that the key doesn’t change and therefore the accompaniment doesn’t need to be transposed. But this retention of the original key (and therefore the original accompaniment) is only an advantage for the music publisher/transcriber/arranger and usually creates many additional (and avoidable) difficulties for the cellist(s) who will later play this transcription.
This is because when we transpose a violin piece simply down an octave it now lies a fifth higher up the fingerboard for the cellist than it was for the violinist. Because the cello doesn’t have an E-string, all passages that were played on the E-string on the violin will need to be played on the A-string on the cello, which means that we will be obliged to use our high fingerboard regions much more than violinists do when they play the same piece. The cello is already a much larger, more cumbersome instrument than the violin and this, combined with the added difficulty of the register, explains perhaps why the original transcriptions of the Bach Violin Partitas and Sonatas as well as of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, published soon after the original violin versions and in the same keys, didn’t have the success that the music deserves: they were just too difficult to play.
A more successful way of transcribing violin music is normally with a simple, automatic transposition down an octave plus a fifth, so that the four cello open strings coincide with the four violin open strings. This transposition down an extra fifth not only makes the playing easier but can be also essential for the realisation of many of the musical effects which make idiomatic use of the open strings (especially relevant in Bach and Telemann‘s music for unaccompanied violin). This however requires much more work from the transcriber, because all the accompaniment parts have to be rewritten in the new key. So, in summary, while transcribing violin music for cello in the original key (simply down an octave) is the “easy option” for the transcriber, it definitely is not the easy option for the cellist who will later play the piece. For the cellist, the “easy option” is a transposition down an octave plus a fifth.
There are however multiple exceptions to this general rule.
Firstly, in many pre-romantic violin sonatas – especially the early classical composers like Mozart – the violin never goes above the mid-string string harmonic on their E-string. Nowadays, with the advances in cello technique that have occurred since Beethoven’s time, this is quite a manageable register which often allows us to play the cello transcriptions in the original key, with the cello’s notes simply transposed down an octave. This is a very convenient transcription also in the sense that the accompaniments do not need to be transposed and can remain totally unchanged. This transposition has been used for almost all of the pre-romantic violin music available on this site (see Mozart Violin Sonatas, Beethoven Violin Sonatas, Beethoven Romanze in G, Schubert Sonatina etc).
We can also make a compromise between the two previous options. Instead of transposing our original violin music down by the standard octave-plus-a-fifth or the simple octave, we can also transpose it down by a different (smaller or larger) interval. Although we lose all open string equivalences, this can sometimes be a good thing. In music that was originally in a difficult key, doing a non-standard transposition down can sometimes make it easier, bringing it into a more comfortable key in which we can actually use more open strings than when doing the more standard transpositions. This is certainly the case for music in very “flattened keys”. Even with only three flats in the key signature, the violin can’t use its top two open strings, and transposing the key down by a fifth adds one more flat into the key signature, effectively neutralising both of the cello’s top open strings also. Therefore, for violin music in keys with two flats or more, a transposition down by a fifth not only brings us no advantage in terms of open-string use, it actually brings us concrete disadvantages. This is why violin music in the flatter keys that has been transcribed for cello on this website often has a non-standard (usually smaller) transposition, taking us into an easier (sharper) key in which we can, unlike in the original violin version, use our open strings. Some examples of this are Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Nº 4 and 5, Mozart’s Violin Sonatas K378 and K454, Telemann’s Third Fantasia and Beethoven’s Romanza in F.
Sometimes, even for violin music that was not originally in a “flat” key, we can make the cello version easier by doing a non-standard transposition that brings us into an easier key in which we can use not only more open strings but also fewer extensions. Bach’s E Major Violin Partita is a notable example: all of the movements apart from the Prelude are very much easier when transposed down an extra tone into G major rather than in the A major of our standard Bach transposition of a fifth-plus-an octave. Suddenly all the horrible extended doublestops are no longer extended and can often be played using an open string, thus are no longer awkward, strained and difficult. Unfortunately, the Prelude cannot be transposed into this key because of the open-string bariolage effects. This creates a new problem for us as now we have to decide whether to change key after the Prelude (from A to G major), or play the entire Partita in the difficult key. In Classical music circles, we tend to be quite purist about key relations, especially within a Suite, Sonata or Song Cycle, but in the jazz and pop worlds – not to mention in operas and oratorios – the “songs” follow on from each other often in quite unrelated keys. There are many advantages to be had in choosing the key in which we will play a piece according to the register of the instrument which will play it. By allowing the performer a maximum level of comfort, we are helping both the player and the music to sound their best, even if our chosen key is not the same one that the composer originally chose.
Not only do we have to choose the most appropriate key for our transcriptions but also need to find solutions (adaptations) to various problems of register, fingerings, doublestops/chords and bowing/articulations. Let’s look now, one by one, at these different areas.
1: REGISTER ADAPTATIONS
THE ELEPHANT IN A TUTU
The violin’s lowest string (the G-string) is, unlike the cello’s lowest string, a very melodic string. This is not so surprising when we remember that the violin’s G-string is only one tone lower than our “prima donna” A-string. Violinists play Paganini’s “Moses Variations“, the introduction to Monti’s Czardas, and Bach’s famous “Air”, all on the G string. We cellists play those same pieces on the A string! Imagine playing them on the cello’s C string? It would be like an elephant trying to do a circus acrobatic performance! Even the cello’s G string is not really the greatest for big singing melodies. The cello’s two lower strings are really best suited for harmonic accompaniments. This difference in characteristics between the two lowest strings of the respective instruments means that, in order to stay in the cello’s “melodic” register (and keep out of the elephant-in-a-tutu register), we have several options:
- keep the violin music in the original key (transposed down an octave) and then transpose the highest passages down by an additional octave (as has been done for 15 of the 17 Mozart Violin Sonatas available on this site)
- transpose the music down by an octave plus a fifth (which keeps the open string equivalence) and then transpose the excessively low passages up by an octave (see Saint Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso)
Let’s continue looking at the problems of register adaptation:
GOING UP INSTEAD OF DOWN TO AVOID BEING SWALLOWED BY THE PIANO
Sometimes – often, in fact – even if we maintain the original key to avoid the cello’s lower register, we still might find ourselves grinding away on the G and D strings, submerged (buried, hidden) under a sea of piano notes in passages in which the violin has no problem of projection. In these cases, we might actually want to transpose the passage up an octave (so it would then sound at the identical pitch as when played on the violin). This is not an easy decision: what we gain in projection, we lose in variety of register. For this reason, this technique has been used very seldom in the violin transcriptions presented on this site. Here is one example from Mozart’s Violin Sonata K379:
Another example of this can be found in the first 22 bars of the slow movement of Mozart’s Violin Sonata K296.
CLASSICAL VIOLIN SONATAS
In accompanied sonatas such as those by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert we can usually maintain the original key without any major technical difficulties because these pieces:
- don’t actually go up very high
- don’t use huge amounts of chords or special open E-string effects (unlike Bach’s unaccompanied violin music).
Mozart’s Violin Sonatas never take the violinist higher than the half-string octave (“E” on the violin) with the exception of one bar in K526 where an F is needed. Some of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas go occasionally (and briefly) up to a fourth higher but this is still only to an “A” two octaves above our open “A” string – nothing too strange for standard cello repertoire. Playing violin music on the cello in this way (simply one octave lower) is however the technical equivalent of the violinist playing it all a fifth higher. Pieces that were “low” and “easy” on the violin become “high” and considerably more difficult on the cello. Whereas the violinist stayed mostly in their Neck Region, we in contrast will need the Intermediate and Thumb Regions frequently, and we won’t need the lower C string at all (except as an addition to certain chords where it can be very useful). The thumb will be used often, not only in the higher registers but also very much in the Intermediate Region where it replaces the violin’s open E string.
For some of the highest passages, we may prefer to play them down an additional octave, for the sake of safety:
This idea of playing Violin Sonatas transposed down an octave on the cello is neither new nor radical. In 1783 (Mozart was 27 years old and Beethoven just a 13-year-old boy) the french cellist-composer Bréval published his 6 Sonatas Opus 12 for violin or cello. Rather than using the limited range of the Classical-period violin sonatas (Mozart, Beethoven etc), they use the more extended range of the violin sonatas of Brahms and other Romantic composers. They are written in the treble clef and need thus to be transposed (read) down an octave. This can be confusing because written this way, the notes sound one note higher than if they were written in the tenor clef. This is too close for mental comfort and we can easily find ourselves slipping inadvertently into the tenor clef (and cacophony). Fortunately, on www.imslp.org, together with the original edition, some generous contributor has rewritten these sonatas using traditional cello clefs.
For some higher (or more difficult) pieces a small downward transposition can sometimes make them considerably easier, especially when that transposition brings us into a more comfortable key (such as in Mozart’s Violin Sonatas K 454 and K 378, both originally in Bb major but here transposed down a minor third into G major). Of the 17 Mozart Violin Sonatas transcribed on this website for cello, only these two needed to be transposed from their original key in order to make them “playable”.
UNACCOMPANIED VIOLIN REPERTOIRE
Unfortunately however, for some violin repertoire – especially the unaccompanied repertoire – maintaining this higher register is not practical. In the Bach Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin and the Telemann Fantasias (also unaccompanied), for example, two factors make this almost impossible: the chords, and the frequent use of special effects with the open violin E string. If we want to play this repertoire comfortably as one lone unaccompanied cellist, then we are almost obliged to transpose them down a fifth (plus an octave of course). We say “almost” because some cellists do actually play this repertoire in the original key, and manage to do it very well, as can be seen in the following videos of Bach’s Chaconne played on the cello:
But is it really worth it? The Chaconne is almost insanely difficult in the original key whereas it lies beautifully for the cello when transposed down a fifth as can be seen in the following video:
Probably the most satisfactory solution for playing much of the heavily polyphonic, lower register unaccompanied violin repertoire on the cello is to play it as duos, for two cellos, in the original key. This allows us to solve both the register and the double-stopping problem simultaneously as can be seen in the following beautiful performance.
Those movements of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas that are most richly polyphonic are available on this site in both versions: for one unaccompanied cellist (transposed down a fifth) and for cello duo (often in both the original key and transposed down a fifth).
VIRTUOSO VIOLIN REPERTOIRE
To play virtuoso violin pieces we will also usually need to do the same transposition down a fifth. This is because these pieces are already hard (and high) on the violin, so we need to use every device we possibly can in order to help make them even remotely playable on the cello (see cellofun versions of Saint Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Sarasate’s Zapateado etc).
Some brave and brilliant cellists do however enjoy the challenge of playing virtuoso violin pieces on the cello in the original key, but the admiration for their unbelievable virtuosity (and bravery) is tempered by the fact that musically, the pieces can sound a little bit “freaky” in the violin key. Unlike Bach’s violin music, romantic-period virtuoso violin pieces tend to be “up high” even for the violin. Even transposed down by an octave, this is simply right out of the cello’s singing register and these versions often sound abnormally (and unnecessarily) high on the cello, like a singer using their “falsetto” voice, even if they are fantastically played. Here are a few videos so we can make our own decision about whether or not the musical result of keeping the original key is worth it, even for these superhuman cellists:
KEY PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH GOING DOWN A FIFTH
Unfortunately, when we transpose down a fifth, we go into a “flatter” key – with one more flat (or one less sharp) in the key signature. So, for example a piece which is originally in Bb major (or G minor) for the violin, is now in Eb major (or C minor) for the cello, which means we can no longer use the open A string. This complicates matters considerably for our left hand. This situation occurs for example with the cello transcription of Bach’s First Solo Violin Sonata (in G minor) but fortunately for no other of his six sonatas and partitas. Even worse is the situation for pieces that are originally in Eb major or C minor. After transposition down a fifth, they now have four flats in the key signature, which means that we are unable to make use of either of the two top open strings.
2: FINGERING ADAPTATIONS:
THE FREQUENT NEED FOR THUMBPOSITION IN THE NECK REGION
Beethoven and Schumann were pianists and their compositions can be quite unidiomatic (difficult to finger and bow) for all string players. Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Telemann however also played the violin/viola and their writing for these instruments is usually very idiomatic: not only did they understand the characteristics of the instruments but also probably played their pieces themselves. Unfortunately, their idiomatic writing for violin and viola, when transcribed for the cello, is often much less “idiomatic” and can cause us some considerable fingering headaches.
For both violinists and violists, the left-hand covers a range of a fourth without needing to shift. When we cellists use thumbposition, our hand covers an identical range and when we transcribe violin/viola music for the cello, we soon discover that we will need to use a lot of thumbposition in order to be able the play the huge number of fast passages that are conceived for the violin (with all the notes of the scale under the violinist’s hand in any one position). Using thumbposition in the higher fingerboard regions is not a problem for us – we are used to that – but in a lot of violin/viola music transcriptions we will need to use thumbposition in the neck region which is, unfortunately, usually quite strained, especially in the lower positions.
Using thumbposition in these low positions is uncomfortable, but situations in which, for various reasons, we can’t use the thumb are sometimes actually even worse. Rather than struggling unsuccessfully (and unnecessarily), we may prefer to simply change the occasional note, especially if we want to make an “Easier Version”:
The possibilities for using doublestops are much greater on the violin than on the cello. This is mainly because the cellist’s hand is so much smaller in relation to the cello fingerboard length than the violinist’s. The saying “double-stops make one good player sound like two bad ones” applies much more to the cello than to the violin. For this reason, in the “cellofun” transcriptions found on this website, the violinists’ double-stops (especially in melodic passages) have often been replaced by single notes for the cellist, with the missing notes being placed in the piano part when possible.
In many other (non-cellofun) transcriptions for cello of violin music however, the original violin double-stops are maintained. This is probably out of fidelity to the composers’ original intentions, or perhaps also because the virtuoso cellist who was consulted for the transcription liked a challenge. Whatever the reasons, for cello transcriptions, the maintaining of awkward violinistic doublestops can create some extremely difficult passages in music that is not supposed to be particularly virtuosic. For example, when Piatagorsky helped Stravinsky to make a cello version of his Suite Italienne (the original source material is from the orchestral music for the ballet “Pulcinella” for which Stravinsky adapted themes from the music of Pergolesi), we can only wish he might have had a little more consideration for “normal” cellists’ quality of life. With its rapid scales in fifths and thirds, four-finger violinistic contortions etc, often in thumb position (the original key is maintained for the cello version, therefore it lies very often in the higher registers), there are so many difficult (or impossible) doublestopped passages that what was a delightful piece for violinists becomes a cellist’s nightmare. In the cellofun version of this piece, many of these horribly difficult doublestops have been removed:
To get the resonance of the violin’s open A-string in an octave doublestop we can use the following imaginative (but unconventional) fingering using an upsidedown doublestop:
USING STOPPED NOTES INSTEAD OF THE VIOLIN’S ARTIFICIAL HARMONICS
The violinist’s left-hand can’t go as high up the fingerboard as the cellist’s left-hand, because their thumb (unlike ours) has to stay behind, stuck in the crook of the neck (violinists don’t use “thumbposition”). This means that, in passages for which violinists are obliged to use artificial harmonics (because their hand can’t go any further up the fingerboard) we cellists can in fact sometimes “comfortably” continue up the fingerboard, playing stopped notes. Often this may be technically easier, and sound better, than leaping two octaves backwards down the fingerboard in order to find the artificial harmonics, which is what violinists are obliged to do.
3: ADAPTATIONS FOR BOWINGS AND ARTICULATIONS
Cello strings are more difficult to set in motion (slower to respond) than those of the violin because not only are they more than twice the size (length and thickness) of the violin’s strings but also the instrument is so much bigger and heavier. While the resonating volume of the violin body is approximately 2 litres, that of the cello is fifteen times greater, at about 30 litres. The following table shows some of these enormous differences between the cello and its smaller relatives:
|String length (cm)
|String diameter (mm)
0.3 - 0.66
0.45 - 0.66
0.66 - 0.80
|Instrument weight (g)
RESPONSE TIME FOR RAPID BOW CHANGES
These differences create a much slower response time for the cello and this is especially noticeable on the lower (fatter) strings and when there are many bow changes, especially with string crossings. For this reason, when adapting fast separate-bow passages to the cello from violin music, we may want to add a few small slurs to help the music flow along and avoid scratches from the bow changes (and also avoid the dreaded monotony of the sewing-machine effect).
Even on the higher strings, we may want to add a few slurs in order to be sure that all the notes will speak in fast passages with fiddly articulations:
TOLERANCE OF RADICAL SPEED/PRESSURE FLUCTUATIONS
Another consequence of the vastly different response times between the cello and the violin is the enormous tolerance of the violin to radical changes in bowspeed/pressure. The fact that violin strings require much less bow pressure than the thicker cello strings allows violinists to “get away with murder” in the sense that they can use incredibly asymmetrical bowings, requiring rapid and extreme variations in bow pressure and speed, without the instrument producing unwanted accents, scratches or squeaks. On the cello, we often will need to reduce the asymmetries of the violin bowings, usually by using more “hooked” bowings with which we try to reproduce the same articulations as in the violin original. Sometimes however, the music is too fast for hooked bowings, in which case the most successful adaptation for cello might be a modification not only of the original bowing but also of the original articulation (slurs). While this might offend purists it might also – by making the passage more easily playable – please both the cellist and their audience.
ABILITY TO SUSTAIN LONG BOW STROKES
Another important difference in bowing characteristics between violin and cello is the greatly superior capacity of the violin to maintain long sustained bows. Compared to the violin, the cello not only requires more energy to set the strings in motion but also to keep them vibrating. If our cello bow length was to keep the same proportion to our instrument’s size as the violin’s, then our bow would need to be many times longer and heavier than it is. Unfortunately, the human body could not manage a bow that large, and in fact, the cello bow is, for ergonomic reasons, shorter (but heavier) than the violin bow. Therefore, to make the instrument resonate (sing) through long phrases, we cellists normally need more “bow” than violinists. Long slurs with many notes under them will often need to be broken with more frequent bow changes when adapting the passage to the cello.
OPTIMUM BOW DIRECTION IN STRING CROSSINGS
If we ever try holding our cello as though it were a violin, under our chin (with the spike removed, please!), we will immediately realise why our playing posture requires that the instrument be turned around 180º and rested on the floor (or on the calves/knees in the pre-romantic period). This inversion of the instrument’s orientation with respect to our body means that we play the cello “upside down” compared to the violin. Whereas for cellists, the higher strings are also physically higher, requiring a raising of the bow arm, for violinists, it is the lower strings that are physically higher. So while the violinist’s bow arm relaxes down to the higher strings, the cellist’s bow arm relaxes down to the lower strings. This has major consequences for the bowing of string crossings.
Whereas for all string instruments, the optimum wrist circle direction for string crossings is in the clockwise direction (see Bow Physics and String Crossings), the inversion of the vertical order of the strings between cello/doublebass and violin/viola means that the optimum bow direction for string crossings is also inverted, so what is the “good” bow direction for a string crossing on the violin is actually the “bad” direction for the cello. This is especially significant in leaps across several strings:
UNIQUE PECULIARITIES OF TRANSCRIBING VIOLA MUSIC FOR CELLO
For almost all of the factors discussed above in relation to transcriptions for the cello of violin music, we could substitute the word “viola” for “violin”. There are however some small peculiarities with respect to the transcription of viola music for the cello that are slightly different to those of violin music. While the viola repertoire is even more reduced than the cello repertoire, they do have some very beautiful pieces written for them, most notably the Schumann Fairytale Pictures and the Telemann Viola Concerto. While it does seem immoral to “steal from the poor” we can justify it by letting them steal from our cello repertoire (the Saint Saens Cello concerto sounds great on viola).
The main problem with transcriptions from the viola repertoire is that the viola, even more than the violin, is at its richest and most melodic in the lower registers whereas the cello is at its richest and most singing in the medium and higher registers. This is why violists play Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata at exactly the same pitch as cellists even though the viola is tuned an octave higher than the cello. This choice keeps them in their (easy) lower register whereas we cellists play it in our (excruciatingly hard) high register. If we were to play the Arpeggione in the equivalent (low) register as violists, it would be infinitely easier but we would sound like the elephant trying to do the acrobatic circus act that we mentioned above in relation to the Paganini Variations on One String from the violin repertoire.
In other words, if we play viola pieces in the same key as them but one octave lower, the transposition task is very easy but we will often be in a register that is too low for the cello to really sing comfortably in. For this reason, when transcribing viola pieces we will probably want to transpose them up into a higher key. Playing them in the same key and at the same pitch will normally be simply too high: when the viola goes up to the octave above their A-string we would need to go up to two octaves above our open A-string. This is incomparably more difficult and usually impractical. If we however transpose the key up a fifth (which brings the music down a fourth) then we can preserve the identical use of three of the open strings (with the top three cello strings now corresponding to the bottom three viola strings) while the top viola string would correspond to the octave harmonic on the cello A string. This would seem like a good compromise. Doing this, we would never need the low C string notes at all in our viola transcriptions, as the G string corresponds to the viola bottom (C) string. Curiously, we find this identical situation when we play violin music transposed a simple octave down (in the original key), as here also, the cello G string corresponds to the violin’s bottom (G) string.
Let’s look now at a detailed example: the Telemann Viola Concerto. The highest note in the original viola part is a G, almost 2 octaves above the cello’s open A string. This note is used often and in extended melodic passages, of three of the concerto’s four movements. The lowest note in the original version is a C (one fourth above the cello’s open G string). This register seems unnecessarily – and uncomfortably – high. If we play the piece in the same key as the viola but play it one octave lower, then we will spend an awful lot of time in the “grunting register” as can be seen by playing the cellofun published version in this key. So, we will need to transpose this piece into a different key in which the cello’s notes are somewhere between these two extremes of “too low”(one octave lower than the viola) and “too high” (same pitch as the viola).
In order to use the most open string equivalents possible, we can start by trying a transposition up a fifth, from G major into D major. Because we are coming from one octave below, this means that the music will sound (after this transposition), one fourth lower than the original, rather than one fifth higher. This will make our highest note the D, a fourth above the octave harmonic on the A string, and our lowest note will be an open G string. This is starting to look like a reasonable range and, in fact, this is a good register for the cello transcription of this piece.