Transcribing Keyboard Music for Cello
After vocal music, the instrument that has had the greatest amount of wonderful music composed for it must be the piano, along with its keyboard predecessors.
Surprisingly, the solo piano repertoire is sometimes a better source of “concert pieces” than the repertoire for other accompanied instruments. This is because the cello’s large pitch range allows us to “raid” from both hands of the piano part, stealing every bit of musical protagonism that we want, making ourselves into the undisturbed and unique soloist (star) of the show, if that is what we want to be. In contrast to this is the situation of transcribing the Violin Sonata literature, in which case the piano normally has a role at least as important (if not more) than the other instrument. For this reason, converting a Piano Sonata into a piece for cello and accompaniment can give us a virtuoso solo piece, whereas transcribing a Violin Sonata for cello will always keep us in the realm of chamber music.
The piano is a self-sufficient musical world, a virtuoso orchestra played with two hands (and a foot), providing simultaneously melody, harmony and rhythm. Allowing a cellist to steal some of their most attractive melodies actually has an advantage for the pianist, especially for those who are lacking an arm – it makes their pieces much easier to play as they are now sharing the load with another musician! Let’s hope they don’t mind playing only the accompaniment – and often in a different key to the original version !!
Unfortunately, however, if we steal all their melodies, what’s left for the pianist is often too “thin”: we can’t respectfully ask a “real” pianist to accompany with only one hand (although a learner may not mind). In these cases, we have two choices to improve the situation:
- fill out the piano accompaniment with some more notes to occupy their free hand/fingers
- play the piece with guitar or harp accompaniment: what are too few notes for the piano will usually be quite sufficient to occupy a guitarist or a harpist.
Now we cellists can enjoy the delights of playing the tunes of Chopin Waltzes, Nocturnes and other assorted musical treasures – and we no longer need a virtuoso pianist to accompany us, as is the case in so much Romantic music for cello (Chopin and Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas, for example). Even some Classical Period piano pieces can be raided for the cello: Mozart’s Piano Sonatas offer some surprisingly wonderful opportunities for theft, especially some of the beautiful slow movements. Many of the faster movements would also perhaps make very enjoyable cello duos although the frequent Alberti bass lines that sound so great on keyboard instruments are often much less well adapted to being played on the cello.
Mozart’s piano music has a maximum range range of about 5 octaves which expanded to 6 1/2 octaves during Beethoven’s lifetime and has expanded since to more than 7 octaves. Even Bach’s keyboard music covers a range of about 4 1/2 octaves.
Because the range of the piano is so much wider than the cello’s, we will certainly need sometimes to modify the original compositions by doing some octave transpositions, raising up the lowest notes and, more commonly, bringing down the highest.
Here is a list of cellofun transcriptions for accompanied cello of music that was originally written for solo piano: