6 Transcendent Transcriptions
Flute Center's Julian Rose shares masterpieces that sound even better on flute!
There’s something thrilling about exploring the “greatest music ever written”. Whether that happens together in an orchestra - with, say, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on the collective music stand - or alone as we carefully contemplate each note of a Bach Cello Suite, it is from this canon where I, like most people, draw the most inspiration. And, whether I want to admit it or not, very few pieces that qualify as among the “greatest of all time” were originally written for solo flute.
Within the chamber music context, flutists are luckier than most. Many great composers (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Faure, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Copland, to name a few) have given us true masterpieces. But many of my favorite composers - Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. - never wrote anything substantive for solo flute.
Transcriptions free me from the constraints of my instrument - they make me feel more like a complete musician rather than just a flutist. After all, great music transcends the original instrumentation.
Here are my 6 favorite transcriptions that you can program on your next recital.
I fell in love with the 3 Partitas and 3 Sonatas for Solo Violin by JS Bach when I was living in Paris in 2007. I must have listened to recordings of them 1,000 times. I bought the original Barenreiter Violin partition from a little shop off of Rue de Rome and began learning the notes, transcribing the double-stops as best I could. A year or two later, I did the same with the Cello Suites. Sadly, many of these movements just don’t fit too well on the flute: they are too dependent on the double-stops and the counterpoint they provide. But in this edition, Gergely Ittzes combines select, individual movements from all 3 Partitas and homogenizes their key into e minor. The movements he chooses are those where the double-stops can be most readily avoided all together, so these end up sounding like they were original to the flute since there are not a slew of rapid arpeggiations. He includes 8 movements total here, so I recommend nixing two or three if you’re performing them just for time, otherwise, you’re looking at a 30 minute solo Bach Partita. Below are the 8 movements listed out, with asterisks next to my preferred program:
- * Allemande (Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, mvt. 1)
- * Corrente (Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, mvt. 3)
- Double. Presto (Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, mvt. 4)
- * Sarabande (Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, mvt. 3)
- Tempo di Bourrée (Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, mvt. 7)
- * Bourrée (Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006, mvt. 6)
- Double (Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, mvt. 8)
- * Gigue (Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, mvt. 4)
As if that one Partita wasn’t enough, you also get an excellent transcription of the first two Cello Suites, BWVs 1007 and 1008. These two Suites require very little editing at all, and Ittzes takes a fairly hands-off approach to transcribing them, which is appreciated. While both the G Major and D Minor suites fit extraordinarily well on the flute, I particularly love the D minor Suite BWV 1008. The solemn and pensive opening Prelude is among my favorite Bach movements of all time.
In summer of 2018, Flute Center of New York put on our first Resident Flutist Recital. I performed Saint-Saens’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. This is a brilliant, fun, virtuoso showpiece that fits exceptionally well onto the flute. I was surprised in working it up how well much of the passagework actually fits under the fingers (ahem, assuming your Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Dailies are worked up…). I thought this would be a heavier lift than it was. I remember talking to James Galway a few years back - he made the point that the best music sounds really hard to an audience but actually isn’t all that hard to play. I would put this piece into that category.
I wish we had our own Brahms Sonatas. From his symphonies to his solo piano music, Brahms’s music embodies everything I love about classical music generally - I can’t get enough of that late Romantic Era style. To me, that’s the biggest gaping hole in our repertoire - the one with Brahms’s name on it. When, during my undergraduate degree at VCU, I first heard a clarinetist colleague perform one of the Op. 120 sonatas, I immediately set out to find the scores and transcribe them myself. I immediately stumbled upon these beautiful transcriptions by Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Flutist Jeffrey Khaner, which he had just published, along with the release of a stellar CD of the same works, just about a year earlier. This sonata is one of two in Op. 120 originally written for solo Clarinet in B flat and Piano, the other being in E-Flat Major. Both are exceptional works that transcend the clarinet as the primary delivery vessel - they work on the flute, and they would obviously work on any lyrical instrument. This is one of those pieces that drips pure music. There’s nothing flashy or noisy, no extra notes, just a pure chamber music masterpiece. While I prefer the F minor sonata personally, I encourage everyone to also sample Brahms’s E-Flat Major sonata.
The Massenet Meditation is a simple pleasure of mine. Growing up giving multiple performances/recitals every year, I put a lot of pressure on myself to always play faster and louder pieces than in the last recital. It never occurred to me that a performance, much less an encore, could be exclusively a slow piece. It wasn’t until after I had graduated from UNCSA with my Master’s Degree that I ever programmed a slow, lyric encore. When I finally did, it was this Meditation. Long a favorite of Violinists as an encore, it works just as well on Flute. My adult self wishes I could pull my 20-year old self aside and tell him to focus more on the slow music and less on the fast notes. I’d hand him this score.
I imagine Oboists must feel about these Three Romances the way we flutists feel about our Prokofiev Sonata (ironically, also Op. 94). Like the Brahms above, these are pure music - beautiful little soundscapes each 3 or 4 minutes long. My first interaction with these Romances was when I had to play an excerpt from the second one for some audition back in high school. I remember not liking them because they were too pretty, too melodic (how terrible!). I put them away for a decade or more before hearing a colleague of mine here in NYC perform them beautifully in between two monster works. I don’t remember those two monster works - funny, because I was always someone oriented toward those larger, powerhouse pieces. But I remember these 3 Romances very clearly as the beautiful palette cleanser in between. Considering how few masterpieces we have from the Romantic Era generally, their relative accessibility compared to some of our repertoire (I once heard a joke about how you first had to marry your accompanist before asking them to play the Franck with you…), and how well these fit our instrument, I would expect to hear these performed by every Conservatory student at least once before graduation.
This work has been so thoroughly transcribed for “other” instruments that finding a recording or performance of the original version for voice is harder than finding a performance of one of the many transcriptions. Cellists, Violinists, Pianists, Trumpeters, and, of course, us Flutists - everyone has adopted the luscious harmonies and haunting melody line of this simple song. My introduction to this piece was via one of my all-time favorite flutists: Susan Hoeppner. I first met Ms. Hoeppner in 2003 at the Julius Baker Masterclass, where she was one of the featured teachers and artists. I quickly fell in love with her fast, spinning vibrato, which is on full display in her recording of this work, on her 2003 album, Serenade. To me, this piece is endlessly freeing - every note and rhythm seems to be just a suggestion, secondary to the phrase itself. This was always (and still is) one of my favorite Music Minus One pieces to play at night just for fun.