Transcriptions for Cello: Why and How?
WHY TRANSCRIBE MUSIC FOR CELLO?
Of all the beautiful music that exists in the world, only a tiny fraction was conceived originally for the cello. Although music usually does sound better – and is almost always easier to play – on the instrument for which it was conceived, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all this wonderful repertoire can’t – or shouldn’t – be played on the cello (or on any other “non-original” instrument).
A great masterpiece, “borrowed” from the repertoire of another instrument (including the voice) is quite possibly more satisfying, both for players and listeners, than a mediocre composition conceived for the original instrument. This applies especially to the quite limited (reduced) cello repertoire because cello technique has evolved so much, that we can now play beautifully, music that would have been considered unplayable (too difficult) for the average cellist not so long ago.
If Mozart could have heard modern cellists, we might, like violinists, have now 5 magnificent Mozart concertos and 36 sonatas in our repertoire. However, because he didn’t – and because rebirth, cloning and time warp technology are unlikely – the best we can do now is just to quietly borrow and adapt for cello, the masterpieces that he did write for the violin (and other instruments). I like to think that Mozart (and all other composers) would be pleased that their music was so loved. And violinists can’t really complain as we have taken nothing away from them: we use the word “stolen” as a joke but, in fact, even the word “borrowed” is too strong to describe this process of transcription, as it also implies, inaccurately, that if we have it, then they can’t use it.
It’s fun and instructive to compare the cello to other instruments – and to imitate their characteristics by playing their music. If we consider the saxophone, clarinet, flute and violin as being like flying birds, and the double bass like a dancing elephant, then the cello would be the equivalent perhaps of …….. a flying cow? And the french horn could be perhaps that same cow dancing on a tightrope! The cello is very well suited to playing vocal music but, like the horn, is not really suited to virtuosic music or fast jazz improvisations as it’s just too big and slow. But if we want to develop a fast, light-footed virtuoso technique it’s great to at least try to play fast pieces, written originally for those flying instruments, on the cello.
Let’s look now in more detail at the transposition process, first in general and then specifically for each different original instrument
HOW TO TRANSCRIBE MUSIC FOR THE CELLO
1: FINDING THE RIGHT KEY AND REGISTER
Often, the process of adaptation to the cello involves transposing the original music into a different key, in which it (the music) lies (and therefore sounds) the best on the cello. Being able to use our open strings and harmonics helps us greatly to mimic the fluidity and freedom of the voice, piano, violin, saxophone etc and this “right key” will usually be one in which we can use a maximum of harmonics and open strings, especially in faster music. Until somebody invents a “Capo” (as used on the guitar) for the cello, finding the right key can make all the difference between the very same piece being horribly difficult (and thus sounding awful or being a lot easier (and thus sounding great).
And we really need this help. The cello is a big instrument, and passages that may be very easy (“lie under the hand”) for the original instrument can be very uncomfortable (or impossible) when played on the cello. For us cellists, even playing simple scales across strings in keys without open strings is clumsy and awkward.
In contrast to saxophones and many other wind/brass instruments which “like” flat keys, the cello really prefers naturals or sharps. In the sharp keys, the gradual loss of the open strings starts with the bottom string and works its way up whereas in the flat keys it is exactly the inverse. A similar comparison can be made with respect to extensions: the sharp keys require extensions in the cello’s “first position” starting from the lower strings and working up to the higher strings as we add sharps, while the flat keys do the exact opposite. As our principal singing register is on the top strings, our comfort here is more important than on the bottom strings.
This is in fact a definite advantage of playing transcriptions: we can now take the liberty of choosing our key, and thus avoiding (where possible) these “nasty” flat keys. There is no point playing the piece if it is going to sound bad. Where the piece can be made to sound better (easier) by changing the key, we have had no hesitation in doing just that, even when this means that the piano part (accompaniment) has to be rewritten in the new key (or played on an automatically transposing instrument like a digital piano). Normally, however, the first step to finding the right key is to find the range of the piece to be transposed. This is because it is usually the lowest and highest passages that will determine where on the cello (if at all) the music will sound the best. Therefore our choice of key for any transcription is normally determined firstly by looking at the range (finding the best register) and then by finding the most comfortable key in that approximate register.
The modifications necessary in order to adapt “stolen repertoire” to the cello are often partly determined by the different instrumental origins. Let’s look in detail at the specific problems associated with transcribing from the different instruments and instrument groups: