Thoughts on Transcribing by Jill Valentine


Every year someone in the studio catches an aggressive variety of repertoire illness; maybe just by breathing in the same air or touching the same doorknob or sharing a straw, it spreads like the plague and the entire studio is playing the same piece. Studio class becomes a death march of the first movement of Clarke Sonata, Bach 2, Arpeggione . . . you know the repeat offenders.

The obvious solution is to take the road less travelled and not play the piece. But if you just need a vacation from the entire small core repertoire we have—perhaps some inspiration from abroad that will help you get back to the core rep with fresh ideas—may I suggest transcribing something. Violists glean some of our core repertoire from this method as it is, and it’s becoming more popular than ever to transcribe and test our humble viola’s limits.

It always begins for me with loving a piece as leisure listening and then trying it out as I mess around between *serious* practice sessions. In this way I arrived at my first transcription experience, preparing Piazzola’s Le Grand Tango a few years back. I studied a Chopin Nocturne the following year and then tried the Bach D-minor Violin Partita, which gave me a thorough reality check regarding what translates well and not-so-well from violin to viola. I got an even better lesson on what (not) to do in studying Sarasateana the following year. I hope what I, my peers, and my teachers have observed might be of some help to you if you plan to do any violin transcribing, which you should, because nothing kicks your technique in the pants like some violin music.


Violin-specific observations:

  1. Violin music is hard. If it isn’t fast notes that don’t respond in time, it’s triple stops that just don’t sound as clear 5 tones down, a giant shift to somewhere nobody should ever have to go on the viola, or right-hand nonsense like up-bow spicatto. Be prepared for intonation work on a bigger instrument than the music is meant for and for exercising skills—10ths, fingered octaves, etc.—that you normally don’t have to deal with.
  2. Your allies are a slightly slower tempo and dense, clear sound quality. If you get one, the other will follow. Make up for the response time by giving yourself that time; it actually sounds faster in the end if you can hear all the notes (copyright Ivo, every lesson).
  3. Pick your battles with the bowings. Our bows are heavier and longer than theirs; the fancy things aren’t always a direct translation. If it doesn’t work after a week of practicing it, it won’t work in the concert. Oh, and don’t bother with up-bow spic. Not worth it.
  4. Go for a piece that doesn’t spend much time in the highest register; a direct transcription usually works just fine.

Once you’ve torn your way through the violin repertoire and are bored again, you might consider cello rep. In my experience, transcribing cello rep is more problematic. Given the similar structure of a violin and a viola, it’s easy to just take everything down a fifth and call it done, but almost any cello piece will give a violist problems with handling the octaves. There’s technically only one octave that the cello has and we don’t, and much of the “high” range cello music sounds great on the middle range of the viola, so why not keep all that at pitch?

Because suddenly you’re looking at a piece with half the octaves untouched and half 8va to avoid the pitches we don’t have, and good luck piecing octave changes together not only coherently but also in a way where character isn’t lost. What sounds bright and soloistic on a cello could be kept at pitch on viola but sounds much more introverted. One must be careful not to go transcription-crazy: we should not sacrifice what the composer intended the piece to mean to make it playable on an instrument that, despite the similar range, is twice as small and half as able to project.

Besides the “Arpeggione” and the Piazzola, which were transcribed already, I have also transcribed Manuel De Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole myself. It’s a charming set of dances that gives you freedom for octave choices without much consequence. It fits well on the viola, is in a friendly key, and shows off lots of colors, giving a recital program a nice Latin flair. Currently I’m putting together the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, which has been tougher. There are more detrimental consequences for octave choices, and the lack of depth in low-range passages is more apparent.

Cello-Specific Observations

That said, here are some cello-specific tips, compiled from Ivo-isms, peers, and my own observations:

  1. When in doubt, it seems to work better to choose color over pitch. I initially tried the beginning of the third movement of the Rachmaninov at pitch, up on the C string, but the sound quality was so different than the bright, generous cello opening. I struggled to keep a warm and brilliant sound in that range, so 8va was my better choice.
  2. Try a direct 8va transposition first and see what happens, then change as necessary while retaining a line that makes sense. Try not to switch octaves in the middle of a phrase; either keep the whole phrase at pitch or 8va all of it.
  3. I find that an extra rich sound is the most important thing overall in adapting cello rep. Wide vibrato, heaviness in the bow, and maybe some nice slides on shifts with bow changes when appropriate (or just everywhere, since it seems like cellists can’t get enough of that).

All things considered, we don’t need to borrow repertoire and try to sound like the instrument it was written for. If that were the case, we’d listen to the original version and save ourselves the effort. Instead, transcribing is a great way to test my knowledge and intuition about my craft and forces me to get to know my instrument’s range of expressive tools. We find the viola’s distinctly melancholy, vulnerable, but rich sound very relatable; perhaps in some ways more human than the acoustic perfection of other instruments. And seeing what that could add to the integrity of other pieces is an exciting project to take on.

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