Transcription is one of the most fascinating activities in a musician’s life. It shares some elements with composition, and some with performance; it is an interpretive activity, yet one which is deeply imbued with originality and creativity. It is also a formidable opportunity for being involved in the very fabric of music; for discovering “how it works” – and how it may fail to work; which aspects survive the transfer to a different medium of sound production, and which ones need to be adapted in order to produce a satisfactory aural result. To the perceptive mind, the activity of transcription is very close to analysis, and, as such, it partakes of the genius’ creative energy and of the humble study of the disciple.
Johann Sebastian Bach was well aware of this all. While he was gifted with one of the most prodigious musical minds of all times (or precisely for this reason), he constantly returned to transcription practices, both for immediate practical purposes (such as the need of adapting a previously composed work, of his own or by somebody else, for a different ensemble or medium) and for goals of personal improvement. As a young musician, he transcribed numerous Concertos by Italian and, to a lesser extent, by German masters: the challenge of reproducing on an instrument such as the harpsichord the variety of timbre, volume and “mass of sound”, along with the contrapuntal intricacies of a polyphonic texture, was an added bonus to what was probably his first aim. By opening up the machinery of the Italian concertos, by studying the tiny mechanisms which made them work so smoothly, in fact, Bach was gradually mastering the Southern idiom, its peculiarities, and the forms in which it expressed itself.
He continued to dedicate a particular attention to Italian music, throughout his life. He transcribed or adapted several sacred works, including those by Gasparini and Durante. He reworked the astonishingly beautiful Stabat Mater by Pergolesi, turning the masterpiece written by a twenty-five-years-old Italian master on his deathbed into a German Psalm. This happened in the very last years of his own life, when the German composer had already written the vast majority of his own, immense masterpieces; yet he still found that he could learn something, in a form of “distance learning” process which gave him further creative ideas and stimuli. Thus, as a by-product of this study, a motif found in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater ended up in the accompaniment of Bach’s own B-minor Mass, precisely at the only moment when the Virgin Mary, portrayed in Pergolesi’s work, was mentioned.
Bach also practised, and to a great extent, the art of self-transcription, parody and borrowing. Countless movements excerpted from his sacred and secular works were transformed, adapted, re-texted, arranged for new instruments and voices; melodic ideas could find their way into different works; the barrier which today separates the sphere of the religious and of the secular proved to be much more permeable in his time and mentality. Some of his works have no precise indications as regards instrumentations, and thus have given to Bach’s posterity a kind of posthumous licence to perform them with all kinds of musical instruments – ranging from ensembles similar to those which Bach may have had in mind, to others made of instruments which had not been invented at his time.
On the other hand, we do know that on certain occasions Bach could be very fastidious in his search for the right timbre. He was acutely aware of the peculiarities of each instrument; of its symbolic associations (for example, violino piccolo was considered as an instrument for love serenades, and thus we find it in contexts where human love is celebrated), and of its strengths and weaknesses. His transcriptions, thus, are never the simple transposition of “the same notes” on another instrument, except when the result was equally satisfactory in his ears. One could say, therefore, that even on those rare occasions when “the same notes” worked equally well, he had undertaken a true process of “transcription”.
In the following centuries, Bach’s own works have become the object of countless transcriptions, paraphrases, arrangements and creative appropriation. Many of the greatest composers of the later centuries have realized, at least once, a transcription or adaptation of a work by Bach: from Mozart’s transcriptions of the WTK Fugues to Schumann’s accompaniments for the Solo violin works; from Mendelssohn’s adaptations of the sacred works for new instrumental combinations to Brahms’ Studies on fragments from the Violin Sonatas and Partitas; including such a disparate cohort as that composed by Saint-Saëns, Webern, Busoni, Rachmaninov, Kurtág and many others. Some transcriptions and adaptations are of the “archaeological” type, i.e. reconstructions which aim at recreating sounds and styles which could have resounded at Bach’s time; others boldly disregard any such scruple, and fully exploit the range of new instruments (such as the piano), along with their own dynamic and timbral idiosyncrasies, but, especially, bearing the mark of the taste of the era.
This is, of course, quite unavoidable. Even those who purport to be “reconstructing” the “authentic” sound of Bach’s time or the tempi played by contemporaneous performers are partially conditioned by the mentality of their own times; it is a conditioning which no one can avoid, and which, in fact, renders the resulting transcription intelligible in the ears of today’s listeners. Thus, an operation such as that undertaken by Salvatore Carchiolo not only is perfectly legitimate under the viewpoint of historical performance practice (all musicians were transcribers, at Bach’s time) and under that of artistic consistency (transcription has always been considered as an artistic form of its own), but it is also a kind of reciprocation, by an Italian musician, of the homages Bach paid to the Southern country and to its musical civilization, through his numerous transcriptions from Italian originals.
The works recorded in this CD are among the most challenging and intriguing of Bach’s output. His Six Solos for the violin, though not entirely unprecedented in the violin literature, are still regarded as unique achievement both on the technical plane and on that of musicianship, artistry and spirituality. Three of the Solos are Sonatas, inspired by the form of Church Sonatas, and with a more severe and contrapuntal writing; the remaining three, the Partitas, are dance-suites, with a somewhat lighter character and pronounced dance-rhythms. This album comprises the three Sonatas, one of which was transcribed for the harpsichord at Bach’s time, possibly by himself; another has been transcribed in modern times by Salvatore Carchiolo, who also performs it in this recording; and the third is a combination between a period transcription and a modern completion. Such transcriptions, far from being the “sacrileges” which some purists claim them to be, are in fact a valuable gift even for a better understanding of the original versions. While present-day violinists have reached a degree of technical and musical refinement which has fortunately deprived the Six Solos of their aura of “unplayability”, making them a common fare in the concert halls and (with less fortunate results) in the Conservatories, it is undeniable that much is left to the hearer’s imagination in the passages where the fugal writing is at its most complex. Bach purposefully played on the human mind’s capability of retaining the memory of a sound even when it has physically ceased to be produced, so as to follow a polyphonic texture even when it is impossible to actually sustain all the notes; however, when these Fugues are performed on traditionally polyphonic instruments (such as the harpsichord), a new facet of their beauty is revealed. When reverting to the original, therefore, our understanding of the scoring’s complexity will have increased and become clearer, allowing us to enjoy to a greater degree the unique qualities of the violin’s timbre.
On the other hand, when Bach transcribed from multi-voiced ensembles to the keyboard, as happens in the case of Reincken’s Sonatas, the challenge consisted in replicating the intertwining of the parts in the original score, without sacrificing the polyphonic clarity and the intelligibility of the texture. Bach, of course, was one who gladly accepted this kind of challenges; in fact, in his own original works, he was particularly attentive to the possibilities of highlighting – or also of purposefully concealing – the subject entries of a fugal texture. Reincken was a famous master who belonged in the generation preceding Johann Sebastian Bach’s, and who, allegedly, after hearing his younger colleague, claimed that the art of improvisation was still alive in a talent such as his. Though their encounter is not documented beyond doubt, what is certain is that Bach knew well and admired Reincken’s works; the six Sonatas and Suites from his Hortus Musicus are likely to have inspired many features of the similar works by Bach.
Throughout the generations, thus, this album represents a living homage to the art of music seen not as a dead letter preserved in libraries and archives, but rather as a continuing dialogue which transcends time, space and styles. It is a chain of traditions, of reverent learning, of daring attempts, whereby each generation both learns from the preceding and innovates the language; and, by adopting practices which once used to guarantee the liveliness of the musical tradition, we can in turn ensure the continuation of the most temporal of all arts. It is therefore with great pleasure that, in my quality as the Cofounder of JSBach.it – a portal dedicated to the relationships between Bach and Italy – I particularly welcome this recording, which perfectly embodies our ideals: serious scholarly research, creative practice, study of the reception of Bach in Italy and of his own engagement with our tradition. This album is the living continuation of that dialogue, and one which will certainly continue to bear fruits.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Salvatore Carchiolo is an italian harpsichordist, continuo player and musicologist. He was born in Catania (Sicily). He is graduated at the “Sweelinck Conservatorium" in Amsterdam, where he studied under Bob van Asperen. He is graduated as well in literature and music history at the University of Catania and his activity covers also musicological research. He has collaborated and recorded with the most renowned italian early music ensembles and has performed in countless prestigious concert venues all over the world.
Salvatore Carchiolo is harpsichord professor in Catania Conservatory and has taught thoroughbass in the Conservatories of Verona, Trapani and Torino. He is active as well as a musicologist and is the author of the most comprehensive essay on italian continuo performance practice as Una perfezione d’armonia meravigliosa. Prassi cembalo-organistica del basso continuo italiano dalle origini all’inizio del Settecento published by LIM.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.