First of all, why transcribe anything?
- Your instrument has a "low calorie" repertoire. There are no significant works for solo bassoon by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, etc. Even the Mozart Concerto is second-rate Mozart (sorry, K.191!!). Transcribing music by first-rank composers makes you stretch and allows you vicariously to inhabit the world lived in by string players and pianists.
- There is a piece you particularly love and would like to try it on your instrument.
- There is a particular technical aspect of your playing you'd like to work on. I'm thinking of the Italian vocalises played by trombonists for working on lyricism and phrasing, for instance.
- You would like to fill a gap in a theme-oriented program, but there is no work by the composer or period of music you choose to highlight.
- Playing transcriptions gets us outside of a "bassoon-centric" view of music. Because the music is not written for the bassoon it makes us solve problems that do not take into consideration the strengths or weaknesses of the bassoon. I'm thinking of the breathing and phrasing issues inherent in playing string music, for instance.
Now that I've justified the urge to transcribe, it would be tempting to run amok and transcribe all of my favorite non-bassoon pieces! Since I'm pretty sure no one wants to hear the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the bassoon, I must list some precautions and prohibitions involved in the process.
If the transcription is intended for public performance make sure to keep the public's expectations and reactions in mind. Therefore, avoid transcribing:
- A very popular work closely associated with the original instrument, e.g., Debussy's Premiere Rhapsody for Clarinet. It may actually work well on the bassoon, but knowledgeable audience members will come away from your performance wanting to hear the piece again on the "right" instrument.
- A piece that's awkward on your instrument, such that, when performed, your effort is obvious and distracting to the listener.
- A work that doesn't sound good when played in a different tessitura.
- Don't transcribe a work that really needs to be played in its original key if this can't be done on the bassoon. It is generally best to transcribe in the original key. The color or mood of a piece is often defined by its key, so can be important for the character of the piece.
- On the other hand, if the key isn't so important, transcribe and transpose when the logic of the piece works better in another key for your transcription setting.
- When transcribing vocal works (arias, vocalises,etc.) avoid those with lots of declamation or recitative on the same pitch. These passages are meaningless without the words. Try for pieces with lots of melisma and instrumental-style flourishes.
- Choose good, but lesser-known work by a major composer, e.g., Beethoven F major Romance for Violin.