Creative: William Cole on transcription

For some people, it is difficult to justify tampering with music from the classical canon. I imagine it’s even less defensible to the same people to starting messing about with the music of Bach – his music is of course held in such reverence and, from a compositional point of view, it’s almost always seamlessly put together. Yet, I confess – I’ve done it, and on September 9th, The Hermes Experiment will give the first performance of my transcription of Bach’s aria ‘Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not’ from his cantata Ich Hatte Viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 in their exciting ‘Inspired by Bach’ concert at St John’s, Notting Hill. I imagine I’m less squeamish than some, though, about doing it. After all, we know that composers of Bach’s time thought about a musical score as material to be remorselessly adapted, rescored or downright stolen, and composers throughout the history of classical music have always rearranged, transcribed and generally had a good time messing about with music of the past.

Nevertheless, when approached by The Hermes Experiment and having suggested this aria for the concert, I did have to ask myself in what way a contemporary rescoring for a singer and a handful of instruments (one of which, the clarinet, post-dates Bach’s own time) could possibly illuminate or enrich the original. The aria itself is a true gem, and interesting in that it has no contrasting middle section, as most Baroque arias did. The opening material – falling, expressive gestures over steady but rich harmonic motion – is present in the aria from start to finish, with direction and momentum provided by extraordinary subtleties of texture and harmonic rhythm. It’s funny to think he probably wrote it in his lunch break, or between two choir practices or similar.

Anyhow, these characteristics have great implications for the transcriber (a more useful word here I think, by the way, than arranger, which seems to carry connotations of functionality). In this case, for example, contrast is clearly not the aim of the game, and it seemed more appropriate to support Bach’s original intentions by exploring the different possibilities especially of texture offered by the instrumentation of The Hermes Experiment than ending up disturbing the characteristic unity of the piece by trying to tamper with the actual notes and rhythms. It becomes clear quite quickly that it’s absolutely vital for any transcriber to begin the process by analysing the music in question in this way, so as to support or enhance the original, to let it speak in a new guise, than to betray or twist it.

On the issue of enhancement, there is another factor at play, and a more personal one at that. I’m fascinated by moments in music history where you can see a composer working absolutely at the limit of the musical language available to him or her. There are many examples, and I’m sure readers will have their own – the ‘Tuba Mirum’ from Berlioz’s Requiem springs to mind, as do many of Wolf’s Lieder. A particular favourite of mine is actually a moment at the centre of Thomas Weelkes’ motet ‘When David Heard’, when David mourns with the words ‘O my son Absalon, would God I had died for thee’. Weelkes sets the text with utter simplicity, and as sparsely as he possibly could have in the early 17th century – a single note, a single chord, another single note, a short phrase, a single triad, and so on. It’s an amazing moment, and in a way transcription (if practised sensitively) offers an opportunity to imagine what those moments would be like if the composer had access to a more extensive musical language. How far would Weelkes have gone? How far do we dare to go today? Whatever some might say, for me good transcription is perhaps less about messing around with the notes and rhythms of these great pieces, and more about engaging in a fruitful, illuminating (and hopefully fun) dialogue with great music of the past.