Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby and the art of piano transcription.

I first discovered this piece late last century, when soprano Natalia Bezrodnova invited me to accompany a recital of Russian songs. A decade later, I was delighted to find out that Rachmaninoff had transcribed it for piano solo. Rachmaninoff’s most famous transcriptions are the ones of Bach and Kreisler’s violin pieces, and of course The Flight of the Bumblebee, but I’m surprised that this one isn’t played more often.

For comparison, here is the original song.

Back when I was at music school, piano transcriptions used to be considered vaguely disreputable. I suppose if you take a fairly straightforward piano duet (two pianists, four hands), and then Tausig says “I can do that with just two hands and add a few extra notes along the way” — well, you could celebrate the miracle that a pair of human hands can even do that, or you could be appalled that it’s undermining the traditional seriousness of the classical concert hall. And when Adolf Shulz-Evler comes along and tries to outdo Tausig , I’m definitely entertained, but I can see why some people might fall into the second camp.

But transcriptions have a longer and altogether more honourable history. Before the era of broadcasts and recordings, the piano transcription was a way for new music to reach a lot of households. Liszt’s versions of Schubert songs were for the most part a humble tribute (although we are talking about Liszt here: he could get carried away once in a while), and gave a well deserved boost to Schubert’s reputation.

In Bach’s youth, before people used words such as plagiarism or copyright, transcription was a way of studying composers whose work you admired. Brahms also followed this tradition. One of my teachers told me that if I ever injured my right hand, I should count myself lucky to have a reason for learning the famous one-handed transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the D minor violin partita.

As it happens, I’m quite happy to have missed out on that particular brand of “good luck”. But I’m also happy to have spent many hours exploring piano transcriptions of great music, and there’s still plenty more to look forward to.

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