BACH / PURCELL / HANDEL: Stokowski Transcriptions
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Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
Long before Stokowski, there was a tradition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of transcribing the harpsichord and organ works of Bach for the modern symphony orchestra. Mahler, Elgar and von Bülow, among others, orchestrated Bach's works. Busoni's Bach transcriptions for the modern piano became staples of the repertoire. In the nineteenth century Liszt was constantly transcribing other composers' works for the piano, even entire operas, of which he constructed paraphrases. All composers often transcribe their own works for different ensembles. Schoenberg, in his early years, made orchestral versions of chamber music works by late Romantic composers. I myself have orchestrated works by Tchaikovsky (Andante Cantabile), a set of fourteen Grieg songs, and, commissioned by the Gershwin family, the Three Piano Preludes and the Lullaby. I have also made symphonic syntheses of Bizet's Carmen (Carmen Symphony) and Janáček's Makropoulos Case.
I feel very comfortable with Stokowski's Bach transcriptions, not only because I grew up with them, working with Stokowski, but because they are so sincere and heart-felt. There is no reason to apologize for these extraordinary orchestrations, which brought this music to a much larger audience than had previously heard Bach.
In Stokowski's early days at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra Bach was seldom heard in orchestral concerts. When Mendelssohn re-introduced the music of Bach almost a century after his death, Bach had been almost forgotten. Mendelssohn started a constantly growing process of re-discovery, and Busoni - and later Stokowski - continued to fuel this process. In a recent series of concerts I conducted in Israel, it was their idea that we perform original Bach in the first part, including Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, followed by modern orchestrations by Mitropoulos and Stokowski. It worked wonderfully, side by side. Stokowski did a magnificent job of portraying in his orchestral versions the organ works he played in his youthful church appointments in London and New York, thus enlarging the orchestral repertoire as Liszt had done with the piano, and bringing this magnificent music to new, much larger audiences.
Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 has a second movement for strings, one of his most poetic, evocative creations. It took on a life of its own after the violinist August Wilhelmj, in 1871, made an arrangement under the title Air on the G String. In that and similar arrangements it was recorded numerous times in the early twentieth century, attaining a pop-culture status. In the original the melodic line is always carried by the first violins, and each of the two segments is performed twice, identically. Stokowski made sure that each repeat was different, changing very cleverly the voicing, and giving the melody most often to the cellos. The result is magical. Stokowski wrote: \After Bach's time, the first performance was conducted by Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1838. During the 88 years since Bach's death, as far as we know, no one had publicly played this masterpiece. Yet today almost everyone interested in music knows and loves this melody." I often programme both versions, and each has its own merits. In my concert in Israel we also offered Stokowski's arrangement of the Air as an encore.
The secular Cantata No. 208, Was mir behagt, was composed for the birthday of Bach's employer. Stokowski's arrangement uses minimal instrumental forces: just two flutes, two oboes and strings. Sheep may safely graze is the best known and popular part of the original cantata.
Stokowski used to call the 'Little' Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 "one of Bach's greatest creations," and indeed the simple, remarkable tune is hard to erase from the memory. What Bach does with this tune in the organ version remains original to this day. The transcription is faithful to the sound of the organ, starting with the oboe, followed by the English horn and then piling up new instrumental combinations to reach a brilliant climax. In Stokowski's own words: "In its orchestral form, it begins with the single voice of wind instruments. As each instrument enters, the complex weaving of the counterpoint becomes always richer, and the fugue ends with all the instruments sounding like a triumphant chorus."
Of Komm' süßer Tod, BWV 478, Stokowski says: "This poignant and soul-searching melody was composed by Bach around 1736. It is one of the melodies published by Schemelli in his book of sacred songs 'Musicalisches Gesangbuch'. Schemelli was Cantor at the Castle of Zeitz and he engaged Bach to edit his song book. Bach also provided several compositions of his own and added the figured bass to others. In giving this sublime melody orchestral expression, I have tried to imagine what Bach would do had he had the rich resources of the orchestra of today at his disposal."
Soon after Bach was named Cantor at St Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, he began work on his Easter Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden or Cantata No. 4. Stokowski chose to orchestrate the tenor aria "Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn", a jubilation which ends with the words "Death has lost its sting. Hallelujah." Stokowski wrote: "In this music, Bach has expressed the exultation and uplifted state of our feelings at Easter. Against the deep solemn tones of the chorale we hear the rapid counter-themes which contrast with it and add to the excitement. For a brief moment near the end, the music is hushed and tranquil, like a prayer. Then it gradually mounts up from low tones to the highest and ends in ecstasy."
Es ist vollbracht! is an alto aria from the second part of the St John Passion. The meaningful words are: "It is accomplished; what comfort for the suffering human souls. I can see the end of the night of sorrow." The music speeds up with the words "The hero from Judah ends his victorious fight". At this point, the Stokowski orchestration changes character as well, fully echoing the effect of the original version.
Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV680, (We all believe in one God), also known as the Giant Fugue, is a Chorale-Prelude of majestic proportions, attaining enormous impact in spite of its short duration. It is best described by Stokowski himself: "This music is not easy to perform, even with today's modern technique. In Bach's time it must have been very difficult. In transcribing it for large symphony orchestra, I have tried to imagine what Bach would have done if he had the vast resources of the modern orchestra. Bach often improvised at the organ, taking as his themes the chorales of Luther. In some great moment of improvisational inspiration probably came the concept of this unmatched composition, combining highly-evolved characteristics of the fugue and choral-prelude with the free counter-theme in the pedals, giving the world a new form, as unique today as it was in Bach's time." Vaughan Williams also made a remarkable transcription for string orchestra, seldom heard these days.
Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599, (Come Thou Redeemer of our Race), previously arranged by Busoni for solo piano as one of his numerous Bach transcriptions, was also orchestrated by Ott