Thursday, March 17, 2011


I've done some transcribing for bassoon lately. The process has made me think about what makes a successful transcription.  Here are some guidelines I try to follow:

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.
A successful transcription is one in which the essence of the original music is preserved and, perhaps enriched by any new facets exposed through performance on a different instrument. Just as a really great piece can withstand multiple performances by different artists, some great works can be performed successfully on different instruments. 

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. 
Slight blog digression here!  I just transcribed Debussy's "Syrinx" for bassoon.  This would seem to violate two of the principles listed above. It does, but it also fits perfectly into a themed program I'm presenting at the IDRS Conference this June.  Since I do not plan on publishing my version or performing it again after the Conference, I think I'll be able to squeak by on this one.  Conferences are places to try out things that may be extreme and impractical in other situations. Besides, there won't be very many flutists there to mock me!!
  • 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.
Blog digression #2! I just transcribed three Shostakovich string quartet movements for bassoon quartet. In one movement, the range of the string parts is from low Db in the cello to leger line G in the first violin. In order to fit this on four bassoons, I transposed the piece down a minor third.  This put the 4th bassoon (cello) part on low Bb and the 1st bsn (violin) up to high E (down an octave). This is the only key in which the transcription would work. Another key would necessitate lots of multi-octave displacements, robbing either the lowest or highest voice of its character.
  • 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.
Bassoonists, trombonists, saxophonists, bassists, etc. are all avid transcribers. What are your reactions to the above?  What points would you add to my lists?


  1. Great tips! I use transcriptions all the time to round out my saxophone students' recitals and competition entries, as the only extant major repertoire for that instrument is 20th-century or later. (I have had joking arguments with my colleague who teaches trombone about whether K.191 is the Mozart tenor saxophone concerto or the Mozart trombone concerto.)

    I'm a woodwind doubler, and recently did a theme-oriented program of Debussy's solo music for woodwind instruments. I filled out the program with some of Prorvich's bassoon transcriptions from Children's Corner, plus some oboe transcriptions.

  2. What a great, well-organized set of thoughts! I did a full program a few years ago of "Music That SHOULD have been Written for the Oboe", and the centerpiece was the middle movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. I listened back recently and I still think that piece should have been written for the oboe.

    My favorite thing about having done that is that now whenever I play the piece from within the orchestra I get to listen to the solo line as a fellow soloist - which only otherwise happens on the rare occasions that an oboe soloist comes to town.