Schoenberg and the art of transcription

Hugh Collins Rice argues the case for transcription in a technological age


What might it have been like to attend a concert at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna just after the First World War? 

The project was about as high-minded as it is possible to be.  There were to be no critics, no applause (or indications of disapproval), the audience would have no prior knowledge of what was to be performed and there were no printed programmes.

The range of composers presented at the concerts was impressively broad and many of the works were completely new to Vienna at the time.  The performances would be meticulously prepared, though economics dictated reduced arrangements for larger scale works. There is almost puritan clarity not only in the circumstances of performance but also in this reduction of the music to its essentials.

Today, when multiple recordings of Mahler symphonies are easily available, the prospect of sitting through Mahler played on two pianos or a very small ensemble seems faintly ridiculous.  But there is an abiding fascination in these concerts, with their strange and compelling idealism, as witnessed by recording projects like those of Reinbert de Leeuw with Het Collectief, and Trevor Pinnock with the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble. 

And even in a world where technology makes all music instantly available, we continue to be interested in transcription and what it might tell us about listening to a piece of music.  When the pianist Pina Napolitano asked if I would make a transcription of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto op.42 for a chamber ensemble there was an entirely practical motivation: to enable her to programme the work more easily.  But it also seemed entirely appropriate to the music, given Schoenberg’s own relationship with the art of transcription.

Schoenberg’s various transcriptions of his music (and those he encouraged his pupils to make) produce interesting consequences.  His seminal work, the Chamber Symphony op.9, exists in a number of different arrangements.  Originally written for a chamber orchestra of 15 players (1906), its many transcriptions include those by Eduard Stuermann (1920) for solo piano, by Webern (1923) for the instrumental ensemble of Pierrot Lunaire, and by Schoenberg himself (1936) for a full symphony orchestra.  Each of these versions had an eminently practical function in getting the work performances.  Each also has the potential to develop the way we hear the work.  Reductions clarify – something always important to Schoenberg – while expansions bring a bigger range of instrumental colour.

In a letter written after Schoenberg orchestrated the Brahms Piano Quartet op.25 in 1937, he sets out the reasons for his arrangement, which gave me much encouragement when approaching transcription of the Piano Concerto.

His first reason: I like this piece, I could certainly identify with.  The Piano Concerto is a work I have been fascinated with all my adult life.

His second reason: It is seldom played also resonated.  It is always hard to quantify these things, but the Schoenberg Piano Concerto seems a comparative rarity in the concert hall.  A quick scan through the BBC Proms database reveals that it has been performed twice in the last 25 seasons. This compares with Bartók’s 3rd (8 performances), Britten (5), Shostakovich 2nd (6), Prokofiev 3rd (9), and Ravel’s G major (a whopping 15).

But Schoenberg goes on to explain thirdly that his transcription of Brahms is also about how we listen: I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

How might a transcription of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto affect the way we listen to it?   In arranging it for essentially the same ensemble as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony I wanted to bring out some innate qualities of the work.  This is an instrumental ensemble uniquely associated with Schoenberg, and its comparatively large wind section, including 3 clarinets and a pair of horns, together with solo strings, has always seemed to me an ideal vehicle for Schoenberg’s combination of contrapuntal intricacy and emotional intensity.  I also hoped it would tackle head-on one of the issues which seems to plague the reception of Schoenberg’s later music;  why didn’t he continue writing the way he did at the beginning of the century?  In linking the soundworld of these two works, one from the very end of his tonal period and the other a serial work from the end of his career, the connection between the works would surely become more apparent.  Perhaps it would even be possible to hear this wonderful piece as music rather than twelve-tone music?


Hugh Collins Rice's transcription of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto Op. 42 arranged for fourteen musicians will be given its UK premiere as part of a tour of Second Viennese School gems with pianist Pina Napolitano and The Façade Ensemble at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre (17 February), London’s Cadogan Hall (22 February) and Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall (26 February). For ticket information visit click here

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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