Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

The business of transcription is an interesting one. This is where works that are written for one instrument or group of instruments (or even voices) is rewritten, usually by a different composer than the original, for a different instrument or group of instruments (or, yes, even voices). There are many examples in the classical literature, so while it might sound vaguely disrespectful at first, in truth it is a very common and very old practice. One famous example is JS Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, originally written for organ but later orchestrated in a very famous version by Leopold Stokowski (and recorded for the Disney film Fantasia). Pachelbel's Canon in D has been transcribed for nearly every instrument grouping that you can find, and musicians in wind ensembles and concert bands throughout the country are well acquainted with orchestral transcriptions of music. Some such transcriptions are very fine works in their own right, and provide good opportunities for young musicians to get exposed to some of the great orchestral repertoire or give more honed, experienced musicians something to really dig into.

Here's a piece I heard on the radio today, but not in the transcription that I heard! Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote in 1957 a piece called Variations for Brass Band. This was to be the main 'test piece' at the big competition of British brass bands, which are a pretty unique pleasure in themselves. In addition to their own pieces, there was one work that every band had to perform as part of their overall scoring, and in 1957, it was this by Vaughan Williams. The version I heard today was this same piece rewritten for full orchestra...but the version I'm featuring here is another transcription, this one for full wind ensemble. (A brass band, clearly, has no woodwinds.) The piece was apparently not terribly well-received in its original form, as it is not much of a brass band "showpiece", with almost no opportunities for a band's solo performers to shine. But I found its orchestral version fairly compelling, and I was interested to see that there's yet another version floating around.

Here are the Variations for Wind Band by Ralph Vaughan Williams, transcribed from the original brass band work by Donald Hunsberger.

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