This blog is dedicated to the topic of transcriptions. To transcribe or not to transcribe? Which pieces work well for flute? How does one write a good transcription?
To transcribe or not to transcribe?
Personally, I think transcriptions are a great idea. There are some people, however, who are very purist and consider that there are so many good flute pieces that we don’t need to play repertoire written for other instruments. I have often played violin sonatas and someone has come up to me after a concert and said something like: “It was interesting that you chose to play that violin sonata. But why didn’t you just play his flute sonata?” Usually, it’s because the violin sonatas are so much more interesting. There is also the added benefit of understanding the composer’s style. Playing transcriptions of Bach’s cello suites or violin sonatas gave me a much deeper understanding of his style than just by playing the flute sonatas. They also make one think. By making a piece work for flute, adjustments and modifications might be needed and this involves skills like analysing, octavising, research etc. These skills are essential for a well-rounded musician.
So, assuming that transcribing is a good idea, here are my tips for writing a good transcription for flute. Many instrumental pieces can work very well, especially those written for violin, cello, oboe and clarinet, as well as songs and vocalises.
1. Respect the composer.
Start out by copying the music note for note. Include all markings, dynamics, articulations etc. Try to use an original manuscript or Barenreiter – steer clear of badly made editions. Be careful when transposing music written for instruments in Bb (clarinet, trumpet etc) or similar.
Personally, I try to keep the music in the original key. This isn’t always practical if there are, for example, a lot of low Bbs or As, which could be resolved by just transposing the music up a semitone or two. However, I believe each key has its own particular colour and changing the key can often lose something. Not to mention the purists or people with perfect pitch who will persecute you after your performance! Transposing violin pieces up a perfect 4th to make the lowest note C instead of G is an easy solution, but not always the best.
3. Double stops
If you encounter double stops, you have a few choices:
a) Use grace notes for the lower voice (or upper voice depending on where the melodic line is). This can give the listener an idea of the harmony. This method works pretty well in solo baroque repertoire (cello suites, partitas/sonatas for violin etc).
b) Simply cut out one voice and either leave it or put it in the piano part if you feel something is missing. It depends how much the piano is doing at that time. If they already have a lot to do at that time, don’t stress them out with a crazy right hand part!
c) Use multiphonics. I’ve never done this, because multiphonics never really sound that good. But it might work well for some contemporary pieces.
d) Just don’t transcibe this particular piece if there are a lot of double stops! If the music sounds bare without the lower/upper voice and grace notes sound a bit ridiculous compared to the original, then just find another piece. Some pieces are especially written for violin and all their techniques which don’t always translate to flute playing.
4. Octavisation. This is where your compositional brain needs to kick in. I have often heard really terrible transcriptions where the music is just shoved up a couple of octaves and loses the warmth of colour/depth or completely goes against the piano part- giving a very open texture. The Khachaturian violin concerto springs to mind! By following the shape of the melody, one work out which notes work an octave higher and that don’t disrupt melodic line. This can be tricky in violin pieces that go down to G below middle C. Some people put notes octaves higher because they worry their low register is not loud enough. This means you just need to practice fullness of tone in the low register a bit more!
5. Flutey effects
Putting in your own effects such as singing and playing, whistle tones, key slaps or beat-boxing – just don’t! It can make a beautiful piece sound a bit tacky and gimmicky. Again, respect the composer!
Pieces that work well for flute
Here are some ideas of pieces that I’ve either played or heard that are a good place to start.
Bach, JS – Sonatas for violin and keyboard , violin concerti, solo partitas and sonatas for violin. Not all of them work, but quite a lot do.
Mozart- violin sonatas. These give you a great insight into Mozart’s style in a way that the original early flute sonatas do not.
Beethoven – “Spring” sonata, Sonata no.8 in G, Romances for violin and orchestra, Concerto for violin (William Bennett made this famous).
Saint-Saens – Rondo Capriccioso.
Dvorak – Romance for violin and orchestra
Mendelssohn – Sonata in F minor
Kreisler- various pieces (good for encores)
Elgar- Chanson de Matin, Chanson de Nuit, Salut d’amour, La Capricieuse etc.
Mendelssohn – Song without Words in D major
Bach – cello suites
Poulenc and Saint-Saens sonatas
Albinoni – concerti
Poulenc- vocalise, songs
Mendelssohn – songs without words
Faure – songs
I hope this gives you some ideas and food for thought. Try them out- if they don’t work out in performance, at least you learnt some useful skills and more about a certain composer. Of course don’t neglect the original flute repertoire- we have some gems for sure!
Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!