FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Transcribing Vocal Music for Cello

From Renaissance madrigals to opera to lieder to popular and folk songs, much (if not most) of the most beautiful music ever written, was conceived for the voice.

The cello is possibly the instrument that most resembles the voice. But this is not only because of its unique register, which goes from the deepest bass voice to the highest soprano and beyond. Both the timbre and the technical difficulty (the effort required to go from one note to the next) of the cello also resemble the human voice. Probably, most of us who have chosen to play the cello, did so because we were attracted to its rich beautiful singing sound rather than to its ability to play accompanying bass lines or to do pyrotechnics. For this reason, playing vocal music on the cello is extraordinarily satisfying.

Here, we can make the most of the singing, lyrical qualities of the cello without needing its virtuoso aspects. This is because singing is basically like playing with only one finger on only one string, which means that even the most pyrotechnical vocal music, when transcribed for cello, never comes anywhere near to the difficulties of our virtuoso repertoire (see Vivaldi’s aria Agitata da Due Venti). While most string music is not suitable for transcription for singers, basically all vocal music can be played on the cello with just a few adjustments for key and register.

We can learn a lot from both listening to singers and from playing their music. Singers not only play with only one lonely finger (therefore connecting most notes with glissandi), they also only use one bow direction: they can only do down bows (albeit hugely long ones). After each down bow (expiration) they need to do a quick upbow in the air (i.e. take a new breath). This obliges singers to think of the music in phrases, with breaths in between each phrase, even when no actual rest is written. Playing vocal music thus encourages us to greater sensitivity to the “breathing” (phrasing) of the music.

Because singers don’t need to change their bow, their legato is a seamless molten liquid. Singers connect their notes much more than string players do, both in the vertical sense (glissandi between notes) as well as in the horizontal sense (legato). The use of well thought out fingerings to allow the connecting of notes through the use of carefully dosed glissandi is something we can learn and practice especially well with vocal music (see Mendelssohn: On Wings of Song). Because “legato” is the “default setting” for singers, we need to be aware when playing vocal music,that the absence of written-out slurs does not mean that the music is not legato.

So, apart from being pleasurable and “easy”, playing vocal music is a wonderful way to develop our lyrical melodic musicality, our sensitivity, our musical imagination, our ability to make a beautiful sound, legato, vibrato etc.

The vocal music transcribed here is basically of two types: songs and opera arias. A notable characteristic of vocal music, and more especially of songs (as compared to opera arias), is that they tend to repeat the same melody several times. They can do this without getting boring or repetitive because the lyrics change each time the same music is repeated. We instrumentalists cannot however use new words to make the repetitions interesting, but we do have another possibility that singers don’t have, which can compensate this lack of words: we can change voices. If we find the right key for a song, we can change octaves for the repetition(s) and thus be both male and female voice alternating in the same song. This is a great effect which we will use a lot. (See Litanei, Killing Me Softly, Summertime, Lucevan le Stelle, Memory).

The cello’s lack of lyrics has two other side effects

  • the syllabic structure of the words sometimes require the addition of certain rhythmic subdivisions or additions in the melody that, when we play the song on the cello, are actually unnecessary or even disruptive to the melodic line. Because we don’t play the words with the cello, we can take the liberty of removing some of these extra syllables and return to the simple, essential melody (see Strauss: Morgen).
  • the words also have to be taken into account when interpreting slur markings in vocal music. We mustn’t take the slur markings in vocal music too literally because they have a different meaning as to what we are used to in string writing. They are definitely not bowings, and are even not usually phrasings. More often than not the slurs simply indicate that a syllable has more than one note on it. Normally only those notes that are sung in the same syllable are slurred. This does not however mean that the unslurred notes are not legato. Thus we will often need to rewrite the slurs the as in the following example:

slurssingersbrahms

There are a great number of websites that exist from where play-along piano accompaniments for vocal music can be purchased and downloaded. Here is a list of some of the most popular.