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 gorgeous 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. So it was that both Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin and Beethoven‘s Violin Sonatas were published also in a 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 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.

ORIGINAL KEY OR TRANSPOSITION ?

The violin and cello are so closely related (similar) that it is easy to think that transcribing violin music would require just 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 a fifth not only makes the playing easier but can be also a vital component 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.

In the case of music in very “flattened keys” this principle is no longer valid. 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 concrete disadvantages. This is why violin music in the flatter keys that has been transcribed for cello on this website tends to have a 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 along with Mozart’s Violin Sonatas K378 and K454.

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 (and articulation) and double-stops (and 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 acrobat 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, it is musically preferable to keep the violin music in the original key, or at least not transpose it down quite as much as the octave-plus-a-fifth that would seem so logical.

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, we will often be in a register that is too low for the cello to really sing comfortably. For this reason, when transcribing viola pieces we will probably want to play them at the same pitch as the original or at least transpose them up into a higher key. Playing them 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 ours. This is incomparably more difficult and not usually practical. 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 (the top 3 cello strings 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, 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. So, we will need to transpose the piece down.

In order to use the most open string equivalents possible, we can start by trying a transposition up a 5th, 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.

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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 only practical in the higher fingerboard regions. In the Neck Region therefore, the cellist’s left hand however only covers a range of a third and this means that, when playing violin and viola music we can find ourselves sometimes faced with some very uncomfortable passages hand – especially in the lower positions where 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