FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Transcribing Violin and Viola Music for Cello

TRANSCRIBING VIOLIN MUSIC FOR CELLO

violin open strings clefs

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. 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 transpose the music down by an octave – and probably use our thumbposition in the neck region quite a lot! But for those of us who don’t have the luxury of having  5-string cello, read on ……

ORIGINAL KEY OR TRANSPOSED ?

The problem of transposing a violin piece simply down an octave is that it becomes one fifth higher for the cellist than it was for the violinist. Because the cello doesn’t have an E-string, all passages that are played on that 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 when violinists 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 why the transcriptions of the Bach Violin Partitas and Sonatas, as well as the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, didn’t really 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 a fifth (plus an octave) so that the four open cello strings coincide with the four open violin 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). There are however multiple exceptions to this standardised procedure.

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 5Mozart’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 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 transcription, we also need to find solutions (adaptations) to problems of register, bowing/articulation and doublestops/chords. 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 is only one tone lower than our “prima donna” A-string. Violinists play Paganini’s “Moses Variations” (on a theme by Rossini) on the G string. We cellists play that piece (transcribed) on the A string! Imagine playing it 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 cellos “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.

up octave from violin

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:

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 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”.

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 kind contributor has rewritten these sonatas using traditional cello clefs.

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 try to play this repertoire in the original key (watch this video of Bach’s Chaconne played on the cello in the original key) ……. but is it really worth it? The Chaconne lies beautifully for the cello when transposed down a fifth whereas is it almost insanely difficult in the original key. Probably the most satisfactory solution for playing much of the 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. Those movements of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas that are most richly polyphonic are available on this site in both forms: for one unaccompanied cellist (down a fifth) and for cello duo (in the original key).

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 Saint Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Sarasate’s Zapateado etc).

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: ADAPTATIONS FOR DOUBLESTOPS

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.

fast impossible strav suite ital

3: ADAPTATIONS FOR BOWINGS AND ARTICULATIONS

Cello strings are slower to respond than those of the violin. This is especially noticeable in fast separate-bow passages, and especially on the lower (fatter) strings and when there are many string crossings. For this reason, when adapting these types of passages to the cello we may often want to add a few small slurs to help the music flow along and avoid scratches (from the bow-changes) and the sewing-machine effect.

Another important difference in bowing characteristics between violin and cello is the greatly superior capacity of the violin to maintain long sustained bows. The cellist normally needs more “bow” to make the instrument resonate than does the violinist. Long slurs with many notes under them will often need to be broken when adapting the passage to the cello. If our bow length was in the same proportion to our instrument’s size as the violin’s, then our bow would need to be many times longer than it is. In fact, the cello bow is shorter (but heavier) than the violin bow, so we will need to compensate with more frequent bow changes in long slurred passages.

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TRANSCRIBING VIOLA MUSIC FOR CELLO

viola open strings clefs

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 Fairy Tale 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 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 concertos four movements. The lowest note in the original version is a C (a fourth above the cello’s open G string). This register seems unnecessarily – and uncomfortably – high. If we keep it 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.

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PROBLEMS COMMON TO TRANSCRIPTIONS FROM BOTH VIOLIN AND VIOLA

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, however, thumbposition is, unfortunately, usually quite strained in the lower fingerboard regions (see Thumbposition In The Neck Region). Because the cellist’s left hand only covers a range of a third, when playing violin and viola music we can find ourselves often faced with some very uncomfortable passages for the hand – especially in the lower positions in situations for which we can’t use the thumb.

stamitz orig

Rather than struggling unsuccessfully (and unnecessarily), we may prefer to simply change the occasional note:

stamitz simplified