Transcribing Piano Music

Posted In: Repertoire

  • Participant
    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #184691

    Many of my lessons with Lucile Lawrence were punctuated with instructions on what was good writing for the harp, and what was bad. The first step in deciding to make a transcription for the harp is to identify which pieces do NOT work, rather than choosing a piece trying to FORCE it to work. There are many piano pieces that overlap with harp music writing, and many of them have already been transcribed. But the vast majority of piano music is not suitable. How do you determine that before trying? A starting point is to look for these features: chromatic scales, chromatic chord progressions, articulations that are not possible on the harp such as a lot of staccato, long passages or phrases of repeated notes, issues of range and key where the music lays too low for the harp to play clearly (such as much of Brahms), and keys that are awkward and impossible to play in that resist transposing. Furthermore, pianist are often very protective of their “sacred cows” such as Chopin, and in my experience, laugh at harpists who attempt to play such works as do not fit the harp well, and sadly, that ridicule spreads to all harpists, as most pianists pay us very little attention to begin with.
    I know one music club that will not present harpists at all because of the typical repertoire of transcriptions they cannot abide.
    A good example of this is Scarlatti. He wrote hundreds of Sonatas. You can easily go to a music library and leaf through the collections. You will see so many that feature wide leaps and staccato playing that is so natural to the harpsichord and unnatural to the harp. You will see many with chromatic chords that are unplayable, and articulations that are impossible. And then, once in a while, you will see one that could work, many of which have been transcribed by various harpists.
    You have to have the sounds and articulations of the original instruments in your ear, to understand the music. Miss Lawrence insisted that you have to be able to play Debussy or Ravel beautifully on the piano in order to understand the sounds before you can consider transcribing them. That is why Salzedo’s transcriptions are so detailed and creative. His transcriptions of Debussy’s Clair de Lune (solo and duo) are highly instructive. I am not such a pianist, but I have the sounds in my ear sufficiently, I think, to make a few good transcriptions.
    So, my practice is to be highly selective of what music to transcribe, and I reject over a hundred pieces for every one that I work on, and throw out ten of those for every one I complete. You will see the results when I publish my collections, which will be fairly soon.

    Participant
    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #184692

    Nicanor Zabaleta promoted himself for several years as a harpist who never performed transcriptions, but in truth, most of the time he played a great many of them.

    Participant
    carl-swanson on #184696

    Well here’s a nice way to end the year! I agree with almost everything you said Saul!! I would have titled the post TRANSCRIBING KEYBOARD MUSIC rather than PIANO MUSIC, because sometimes the source is harpsichord(as you mentioned), sometimes organ, and sometimes piano. I want to add something here that you didn’t mention, which is that if a piece was originally written for harpsichord and is played on piano, then that too is a transcription, since the sound, characteristics, and capabilities of the two instruments are so different. So pianists who complain about harpists transcribing keyboard music, if they don’t believe in transcriptions at all, shouldn’t be playing Bach,Scarlatti, Handel, and a host of other 18th century composers. Busoni recognized this problem and made his own gorgeous transcriptions of Bach.

    The fact that a keyboard piece CAN be played on the harp doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be played on the harp, as you mentioned. There are times, when the gods are smiling and the wind is in the west, that a piece sounds better on the harp than on the keyboard instrument for which it was originally written. Two pieces that come to mind are Debussy’s first Arabesque and Liszt/Renie’s La Rosignole. But there are others too. There are some wonderful virtuoso harpists today who include transcriptions in their repertoire, and some of these pieces are piano warhorses. I think that with time, even the piano players can get used to hearing these pieces on some instrument other than piano, provided the transcription works well for the harp.

    Participant
    Gretchen Cover on #184700

    I’m shocked by the pleasant exchange between you two! We are less than 24 hours into the new year, and this may well be the memorable moment of 2015:)

    Participant
    Biagio on #184701

    Very interesting comments for me as a beginner, thanks. As one who primarily plays wire strung – totally different instrument from the concert harp! – perhaps it is worth noting that it also works the other way. Bunting’s collections are pianoforte scores of wire harp compositions – there is no way in the world one could play them on wire harp as transcribed:-)

    Happy New Year to all.

    Member
    Janis Cortese on #184718

    Just a minor comment here that, speaking AS a pianist, pianists have zero right to defend sacred cows. We play an instrument a huge chunk of whose job is to stand in for all other instruments. Any pianist who feels differently is cordially invited to recall Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawski’s magnificent Paganini ripoffs, and the zillions of orchestra reductions that are the bread and butter of any working pianist — not to mention all that yummy Baroque stuff that was written before our instrument was even invented.

    In short, you paid for that harp and you are the one who put years into learning how to manipulate it. You have every right to make ANY SOUND YOU WANT on it.

    I feel a bit strongly about this. Some Chopin wouldn’t work well since it’s so pianistic, but some probably would and some would work with some nudges. I for one would LOVE to hear him on a harp. I’d love to hear Scott Joplin’s Bink’s Waltz on a harp. I’ve been working for the last year or so on a project to take the introductions of various Haendel arias that I like a lot and rework them into various genres. So far, I’ve managed swing, jazz, Impressionist, tango, gospel rock, a Mozartean etude, late Romantic, ragtime, and something vaguely Asturias-like.

    If you can play it, you can play it. Anyone who doesn’t like it can stop their ears or go listen to something they like more.

    *clears throat* Sorry for the thesis. It’s just that, while there is certainly good and bad taste in music, strict dogmatism turns me off. I love to hear people move things from one instrument, genre, or setting to another. It’s terrific fun and a wonderful way to learn about a piece.

    Participant
    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #184830

    The Chopin pieces that can work are likely to have been orchestrated or arranged a hundred different ways already, like the pieces used for the ballet Les Sylphides, or the Minute Waltz. I like your points about pianists having a cow over their “sacred cows.” I guess they were just harp bashing, because, heaven knows, much of the piano’s success as an instrument came at the expense of the harp, which was once more popular. I would be curious to know if harp sales are steady or growing now, while piano sales are rapidly declining.

    Transcribing warhorses is a bad idea, if only because their associations are so strong, and it is hard for a listener’s ear to make the switch. They also tend to be longer and louder than the harp or harpist can sustain. I have seen some rather poor choices made, sometimes frequently, as they seem to go in waves, and that inspired my post. Some harpists seem to spend a lot of time either copying each other, or perhaps sharing ideas. There was practically a tidal wave of Bach transcriptions in the last ten years or so. I think Bach doesn’t sound very well on the harp, most of the time. Handel and Telemann have a lighter texture and brighter sound that translates far better than often-ponderous Bach.
    I, too, love transcriptions, as long as they are fine. It is an art. It require creativity and sensitive ears. There’s nothing worse than a dogmatic approach in which nothing is changed at all. Putting pedal markings and maybe a few fingerings in is not a transcription.
    I have a problem with Liszt’s Le Rossignol, and that is the chromatic passages. Renie found as complex an approximation as one could probably find, but for me, it simply cancels out the piece as one that is usable. And as my harp approachs another re-riveting, I am loath to play too many pedal changes anymore. It never really occurred to me that the mechanism comes with a limited lifespan.
    The real important point is, for anyone contemplating a recital, there are enough fine solos that go unplayed not to resort to another transcription. It is good to have a few, to have composers the audience knows, but not too many, unless that is your theme.
    If someone really wants to make a splash, perhaps they should arrange a fantasy and variations on airs from a contemporary opera!

    Participant
    Biagio on #184856

    Hi Saul,

    I don’t know about pedal harp trends, but “folk” harp sales are definitely increasing over the last few decades; a new maker seems to pop up every year. The market seems to be getting differentiated into three major groups and a couple of minor ones:

    1) Top of the line production shops
    2) Limited production high end, often custom design as well
    3) Middle range quality and higher end kits
    4) Minor groups:
    a) Low end junk
    b) One at a time custom
    c) Specialty – antique reproductions, wire, triple, double, cross etc.

    Pretty typical for any emerging market – after all folk harps enjoyed their revival in the US only a few decades ago. Broadening the field, one maker (Dave Woodworth, Heartland Harps) has come out with a carbon fiber pedal harp and some others have begun to produce more lever harps with concert tension.

    “Interestinger and interestinger” as Alice would say.

    Member
    Janis Cortese on #184867

    Pedal harp sales will probably always hold a little flat, just because of the cost of the things. And piano sales are only declining if one doesn’t consider the takeoff of sale rates for high-quality digitals, which in all honesty, are getting better and better. A good Avant Grand for example, will beat the pants off of ANY upright, and all but the very best and most fussily maintained acoustic grands, neither of which the vast majority of people can afford.

    When it comes to devices that are so very expensive, and difficult to move and maintain, those considerations will trump all others. Over the past two centuries, pianos have grown gradually less and less costly and more and more apartment-friendly, and over the same period of time, harps unfortunately went the other direction. 🙁

    I’m waiting for the day when someone somewhere will come up with a mass-produced electronic geegaw that will replace the pedal mechanism and make fully modulation-friendly harps achievable for most people.

    Participant
    Tacye on #184868

    Janis prompted me to research this Over the past two centuries, pianos have grown gradually less and less costly and more and more apartment-friendly, and over the same period of time, harps unfortunately went the other direction. 🙁
    Drawing on an 1894 harp brochure and purchasing power calculator I conclude that harps are more affordable for the average person now than then. (I was looking at the economic status particularly, rather than the RPI or how many loaves of bread you could get for the same money.)

    Anyone know what pianos used to cost?

    Member
    Janis Cortese on #184870

    Are you talking pedal harps? I actually know … well, zero people who could afford one without major contortions, if at all.

    Good quality digital pianos that will outstrip any upright can be had for two grand, if you’re willing to buy used. A decent used pedal harp will cost five times that plus string and maintenance cost.

    If you’re talking lever harps, then absolutely I agree with the premise that harps are less costly and more convenient. That’s definitely got a lot to do with the recent and current lever harp renaissance, I have no doubt.

    Participant
    Tacye on #184875

    Most of the harps on the brochure I link to are pedal, but there are a couple of lever ones on page 10. Do you have any figures for what pianos used to cost a considerable time ago? Your statement about historical affordability got me curious to check it out.

    Don’t forget long term depreciation – how many digital pianos (especially used) would you need to buy over the long lifetime of a well maintained pedal harp?

    Spectator
    Sid Humphreys on #184879

    Tracye,
    Follow this link and click on the catalog image to scroll through it. In 1891, one could purchase a Steinway Grand for around &1,050.
    http://antiquepianoshop.com/online-museum/steinway-sons/

    Member
    patricia-jaeger on #184881

    Tayce, My mother was given a Steinway baby grand piano. Model 0 on her 20th birthday by her mother. The cost in 1920 (confirmed by a letter I have confirming this, from Mr. John H. Steinway, Chairman of the Board of Steinway & Sons on December 7, 1982) was $1,000. I have her piano, after her death, in my living room. Mother began piano well before her graduation from high school, with Sigismond Stojowski at The Institute of Musical Art, in New York City, a ferry ride from her home in Morsemere, New Jersey. The Institute later was named The Juilliard School of Music after a large donation from the wealthy Juilliard Family (in the woolen cloth business).

    Participant
    Tacye on #184902

    Thank you Sid and Patricia, I also found http://www.steinwaybocaraton.com/HistoricalPricesofSteinwayPianos-5789.html

    On a quick calculation the price of Steinway grands seems to have gone up over the last century by more than pedal harps. Interesting. If anyone has a source for prices of more modest uprights I would still be grateful.

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