Monday, May 28, 2012

Why You Should Not Transcribe Beethoven

Because it's wrong! Heh. Ok, why is it wrong? Beethoven himself did it, transcribing a piano sonata for string quartet. He only did that once but did it skillfully enough that the result is, if not earth-shaking, at least listenable. But it is very rarely played. Part of Beethoven's art, unlike that of, say, Bach, whose music is eminently transcribable, is to write most exactly and precisely for the particular instrument or instruments he chose. With great caution pianists sometimes use a lower octave than written in a piano sonata for a note or two because the piano builders were, partly at Beethoven's instigation, adding notes to the bass bit by bit at the time. They might argue, those bold pianists, that Beethoven himself, playing the piece six months later on his new piano with that extra bass note might have used it!

You see how it is? Do not tamper with Beethoven if you know what's good for you. I once proposed to a very fine violinist I was working with that we play an arrangement of the slow movement from the Tempest piano sonata made by Mauro Giuliani, a guitarist who was working in Vienna at the time Beethoven was alive. It would have actual historical cachet! The answer: "No." I have tried a few times to transcribe a movement or two. Haydn I can get to work, even a little Chopin. I almost got a slow movement from one of Beethoven's piano sonatas intended for amateurs to work for guitar duet. I even tried re-writing a movement or two for guitar as a composition exercise. But I would not inflict one of my Beethoven transcriptions on an innocent audience.

So, are you convinced yet that it is just wrong to transcribe Beethoven? Here, have a listen to this:

Ah, the sublime delicacy of it! Now here is the real thing:

Now I know the conductor has zombie eyes and they have Jesse Ventura playing drums and there are only three women in the orchestra so it must violate some diversity regulation, but this is Beethoven. That other thing on guitar is just...



RG said...

I take it that you are saying that the guitar transcription is a poor representation of Beethoven's composition, and not that the performance (if listened to without reference to Beethoven) is in itself deficient as music in some way. Given that interpretation of your post, if that (guitar performance) were about as good as possible a rendition of the transcription, for the instrument, then your argument is coercive enough. But, do you assure me that a different guitarist or performance could not present Beethoven's work more convincingly?

Bryan Townsend said...

Would you believe that the whole post was put up just so I could make those tasteless jokes about the Vienna Philharmonic in the last paragraph?


Ok, great comment. Yes, I am saying not only that a guitar transcription of the second movement of the 7th Symphony is a bad idea, but any guitar transcription of pretty much any Beethoven. Yes, deficient musically.

The reason is that Beethoven, in particular, wrote music that is very tightly tied to the capabilities of the instruments he chose. Bach's music, on the other hand, is more abstract. It can be transferred to different instruments and still work musically.

But that was also a poor performance. Perhaps the best attempt to do this kind of thing was the Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita who performed and recorded Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky on solo guitar. I heard him do it in Toronto in 1984. Very impressive! But... in retrospect, still a bad idea...

It's a bit like a dancing bear. It really isn't about whether he dances well or not.