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Essential Transcriptions

Christopher Brandt | April 2017

    Over the past century an increasing emphasis has been placed on the performance of original works for band, resulting in fewer transcriptions being performed each year. This article seeks to identify the origin of this trend, assert the value of transcriptions in the band repertoire, and propose significant transcriptions worthy of performance.

    Growing out of the military band tradition, the modern band has endured a prolonged struggle to validate itself as a viable music ensemble capable of much more than “providing music for entertainment and civic/public functions/celebrations.”1 Music of the 19th century through the first part of the 20th consisted “primarily of transcriptions of orchestral literature, opera excerpts, light music (waltzes, polkas, patriotic and popular tunes, etc.) and, of course, marches.”2 With limited original music of quality written for band, many bandmasters including, Albert Harding, Patrick Gilmore, William Revelli, and John P. Paynter, actively transcribed works for their ensemble to perform.
    Beginning in the early 1900s band leaders began to encourage established composers to write original music for band. This led to a trickle of new works, many of which are still considered cornerstones of the repertoire, including First and Second Suites for Military Band by Gustav Holst; English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams; An Original Suite by Gordon Jacob; Hill Song No. 1, Hill Song No. 2, and Children’s March “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Percy Grainger; Concert Music for Wind Band by Paul Hindemith; and Dionysiaques by Florent Schmitt.
    Gradually more original works were written for band. For the first time, on July 21, 1942 the Goldman Band presented a concert consisting entirely of original works for band. Edwin Franko Goldman became a champion of bands and began commissioning original band works in 1949 through the League of Composers, the first program of its kind in America.3 In 1952 Frederick Fennell, in conjunction with founding the Eastman Wind Ensemble, sent letters to approximately 400 composers about his new ensemble, imploring them to write for it.
    Progress was slow. In 1958, sixteen years after Goldman’s Jubilee concert, The Instrumentalist questioned respected band leaders across the country, asking them to list the “best creations for wind band.” Of the 118 titles listed, 67 were transcriptions (57%).4 Eventually, as a result of the foresight of these great band leaders this ratio changed. A 1970 Northern Iowa College survey of College Band Directors National Association members concert programs between 1961 and 1966 showed that out of 234 performed pieces, 136 (68%) were original compositions for band.5 This trend continued into the end of the 20th century.

Why Don’t We Play Transcriptions?

    The development of such a rich repertoire of original band works led to fewer performances of transcriptions. For almost a century band leaders encouraged composers to write for band. However, most leaders of the movement did not do so at the expense of transcriptions. Here is Frederick Fennell speaking at the 1975 CBDNA conference:

    “Wind band transcriptions would have educational value as long as the performers preserved the beauty of the original musical ideas through listening to recordings or performances during the preparation process.”

    Fennell believed that some works were actually superior when transcribed for band. “Many people have always felt that [Richard Wagner’s] music sounds better when played by a band than it does in its original orchestral setting.”6
    Additionally, those band leaders in this era who avoided transcriptions often did so for good reason. As previously mentioned many bandmasters were freely transcribing music to fill out their concert programs. With such a high level of proliferation, and often haste to be the first ensemble in the area to perform a work, the quality of such transcriptions was sometimes questionable. For evidence, consider the number of these transcriptions that have survived. While several masterworks are firmly established as core repertoire, the vast majority have faded.7
    While past band leaders are sometimes misconstrued as anti-transcription rather than pro original music, some directors are intimidated by the perceived monumental undertaking of performing the works of Wagner, Bach, and Copland. They may be unfamiliar with common performance practices and historical background associated surrounding the work. For some it may be the fear of misinterpreting a work so firmly established in classical music due to unfamiliarity with the genre. (It should also be noted that one significant obstacle to the performance of transcriptions is that many are only available with a condensed score, making rehearsal arduous.) With these deterrents, it can be easy to turn to yet another ABA composition off the shelf or a previously performed original work for band. However the reward of discovering and sharing the intricacies of historical masterworks is well worth the additional score study and preparation time.

Why We Should Play Transcriptions

    Transcriptions should remain an integral part of band repertoire. Outstanding music does not lose its value in a different medium. If the transcriber has preserved or added excellence, the work is worthy of study and performance. This perspective is one readily adopted by orchestras and vocal ensembles routinely perform transcribed works.8 Some even perform pieces originally written for band. Transcriptions are so prevalent in other genres that modern composers will often transcribe their own work for various ensembles. For example, Eric Whitacre originally composed Lux Aurumque for chorus in 2000, he then transcribed it for band in 2005, and again for orchestra in 2011. As directors, the music we perform is arguably our most significant decision with regard to our ensemble, and we cannot forsake such a substantial segment of repertoire simply because it was not originally conceived for our ensemble.
    From an educational standpoint transcriptions offer bands the opportunity to study musical eras that predate our young ensemble. Through their use, ensembles may perform music from each musical era, exposing them to Western music’s rich heritage. Transcriptions open the door to conversations about form, performance practice, and compositional techniques, that are often left closed by contemporary band works for band. Additionally, holding a discussion related to the efficacy of a transcription, or the strategy that led to orchestration decisions can be educationally rewarding. Students could be asked what choices they might have made that would have been different. One could even ask students to create their own transcription of a simple piece or section of a piece.

    If the history of wind literature is a pendulum, it began (out of necessity) well into the area of transcriptions, but as bands matured it is now firmly entrenched on the side of original band music. We should recognize the value of original works and high-quality transcriptions, and find better balance between the two.  

End Notes
1 The Winds of Change: The Evolution of the Contemporary American Wind Band/Ensemble and Its Conductor by Frank L. Battisti (Galesville, MD: Meredith Music Publications, 2002), 3.
2 Ibid, 13.
3 The American Wind Band: A Cultural History by Richard K. Hansen (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2005), 83.
4 “The Best in Band Music,” The Instrumentalist (August 1958): 74-76.
5 “An Emerging Band Repertory, A Survey of the Members of the College Band Directors National Association.” by Karl Holvik, Journal of Band Research 6 (Spring 1970): 19.
6 Time and the Winds: A Short History of the Use of Wind Instruments in the Orchestra, Band and the Wind Ensemble by Frederick Fennell (Kenosha, WI: G. Leblanc, 1954).
7 Expert Wind Band Director’s Perceptions of the Purpose and Value of Transcriptions in the Wind Band Repertoire by Michael Phillips (Phd Diss. University of Florida, 2014).
8 Phillips, 17.

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Compiled in a 2014 University of Florida study by Michael Phillips, the following list of transcriptions includes those deemed significant contributions, and worthy of performance. Members of the American Bandmasters Association were provided an extensive list of band transcriptions and asked to rate several factors including their familiarity with, and more importantly, the significance of each work. The list below represents those pieces receiving the highest overall rating of significance (approximately 25% of the given list).

Grade III
Nimrod from Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma Variations” (1899) by Sir Edward Elgar, edition: Alfred Reed (1965).

Grade IV
    Festive Overture Op. 96 (1954) by Dmitri Shostakovich, edition: Donald Hunsberger (1965).
    Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral (1838) by Richard Wagner, edition: Glenn Lucien Cailliet (1983).
    County Band March (1903) by Charles Ives, edition: James Sinclair (1974).
    O Magnum Mysterium (1994) by Morton Lauridsen, edition: H. Robert Reynolds (2003).
    Prelude No. 14, Op. 34 (1952) by Dmitri Shostakovich, edition: H. Robert Reynolds (1988).
    Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor BWV 582 (c.1708) by Johann Sebastian Bach, edition: Donald Hunsberger (1975).

Grade V
    Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943) by Paul Hindemith, edition: Keith Willson (1947).
    Four Scottish Dances (1957) by Sir Malcolm Arnold, edition: John Paynter (1978).
    Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572 (c. 1712) by Johann Sebastian Bach, edition: Richard Franko Goldman (1957).
    Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (c. 1704) by Johann Sebastian Bach, edition: Donald Hunsberger (1998).
    Overture to Candide (1956) by Leonard Bernstein, edition: Clare Grundman (1986).
    Lincoln Portrait (1942) by Aaron Cop­land, edition: Walter Beeler (1995).
    Variations on America (1891) by Charles Ives, edition: William E. Rhoads (1968).
    La Procession du Rocio (1913) by Joaquin Turina, edition: Alfred Reed (1962)

Grade VI
    Profanation from Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah (1943) by Leonard Bernstein, edition: Frank Bencriscutto (1995).
    Carmina Burana Suite (1936) by Carl Orff, edition: John Krance (1967).
    El Salon Mexico (1939) by Aaron Copland, edition: Mark H. Hindsley (1972).