|A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen|
In 1931 the pianist and muse Harriet Cohen invited all her principal composer friends each to make an arrangement of a work by J S Bach for inclusion in an album to be published by Oxford University Press. Published as A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, it is recorded here for the first time by virtuoso pianist Jonathan Plowright. The disc is completed by eight other 20th-century British Bach transcriptions.
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'What a lot of bunglers these English composers are in piano-writing, as evinced in this album, which was a good idea spoilt!’ Thus wrote the composer-pianist Ronald Stevenson in 1982 to the critic Colin Scott-Sutherland. Under discussion were the contents of A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, which Stevenson summed up as ‘a manual of “how not to write for the piano”’. Stevenson’s criticisms, which in a subsequent letter he extended to Herbert Fryer’s transcriptions of Bach cello pieces, focus on the fact that, however faithful (or not) the transcriptions may be as arrangements of Bach’s material, they are not in his view ‘real piano music’; and he compared several passages in parallel with their treatments by the prince of all Bach transcribers, Ferruccio Busoni.
These are severe strictures from an acknowledged modern master of piano transcription (Stevenson has made over 300 transcriptions of works by at least 85 composers). But we must regard British composers’ transcriptions of Bach in the early twentieth century as coming, for the most part, from a different (non-Busonian) tradition. If they offer a view of the music partly formed under the highly Germanic influence of the London music conservatoires, and partly under the more neoclassical aesthetic of the 1920s, they surely provide a musical experience that is stimulating in its variety and encompasses both the dutiful and the masterly. A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen is in that sense a fascinating anthology of British transcribing manners of the inter-war period.
In 1931 the charismatic pianist invited all her principal composer friends each to make an arrangement of a work by J S Bach for inclusion in an album to be published by Oxford University Press. For twenty years Harriet Cohen had been an assiduous champion of contemporary British music (not to mention her related role as mistress and muse of Arnold Bax), and so could call upon the talents of most of the major creative figures in early twentieth-century British music. Not all of those she invited complied: Elgar promised a piece but failed to deliver, and Gustav Holst turned her down, saying he didn’t feel like writing for the piano. But twelve composers duly supplied her with arrangements, all dedicated to her, and she premiered the contents of the Bach Book at the Queen’s Hall on 17 October 1932.
The volume, arranged alphabetically by composer, opens with Sir Granville Bantock’s version of the chorale prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV645 (originally based on a chorus from Cantata No 140). The wide left-hand leaps in which Bantock indulges on the first appearance of the chorale tune, where the bottom note is sounded as a grace-note before the rest of the harmony, were a feature which especially excited Ronald Stevenson’s derision in the letter quoted above, and several of the other contributors are guilty of this rather makeshift stratagem. Stevenson compared the Bantock, to its detriment, with Busoni’s famous treatment of the same piece. Later appearances are in octaves, however, while a brief episode in pastoral sixths and a sensitive underpinning of the figuration in thirds are among the felicities of the setting. Bantock made a version of this arrangement for small orchestra in 1945.
In choosing a chorale to transcribe, Bantock (the oldest composer to contribute) was typical: most of the participants selected relatively short pieces, with chorales the clear favourite among Bachian genres. But the Bach Book contains two weightier items, the first of them by Harriet Cohen’s lover, Arnold Bax. Bax was the only composer who chose to arrange a secular organ work—the middle section of the Fantasia in G major BWV572—and all the evidence suggests that this was a free-standing transcription created before the idea of the Bach Book had even been born. The manuscript is dated ‘Xmas 1927’ and dedicated ‘For Tania’ (Bax’s pet name for Harriet Cohen), rather than the ‘For Harriet Cohen’ that appears in the Bach Book, so presumably it was in fact intended as a Christmas present: possibly its existence helped to crystallize the idea of the Bach Book in Harriet’s mind.
Unlike the other contributors (save one), Bax had no compunction about writing on three staves to accommodate the musical text, and this gives his pages a more organ-like appearance and a more orchestral effect. After a grand, majestic opening the Fantasia proceeds in more even, flowing polyphony, but the textural density, with internal trills and ornaments, is reminiscent of Bax’s own piano sonatas. The grandiose conclusion, which like several other passages appears literally unplayable, certainly pulls out all the stops, as it were.
Lord Berners’ reputation is chiefly as a musical humorist and ironist, but there are works (such as his Fugue for orchestra) which show he had a more serious side, and he was an impeccable craftsman. His setting of the chorale prelude In dulci jubilo BWV729 is more smoothly made into a piano piece than some of its companions in the Bach Book, contrasting grandiose chordal writing against flowing arpeggiated lines, the figuration breaking out into elated triplets and finally semiquavers as the triumphant final bars are reached.
Arthur Bliss took the chorale prelude Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV614 from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein as the subject of his arrangement. This is a notably restrained, even reverential setting, with discreet octave doubling of bass and upper lines sensitively supporting the melody, though at one point requiring wide skips by the left hand to encompass Bach’s harmony.
Frank Bridge’s arrangement of the serene chorale setting Komm, süsser Tod BWV478, from the Schemelli Gesangbuch, which he made in June 1931, is relatively restrained and essentialized in its approach to Bach’s original, apart from the gradations of the dynamics and the ‘pianistic’ arpeggios of the Poco maestoso central section which gradually become fulsome harped chords. In 1936 Bridge made a version of this transcription for string orchestra, giving it the title Todessehnsucht (‘Longing for death’).
Eugene Goossens was the only contributor to the Bach Book to choose an orchestral work to arrange. His version of the Andante central movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2, dated ‘Cincinnati, Sept. 29, ’31’, has the most cluttered appearance on the page of any of the pieces, partly because he adds trills and anacruses, and partly due to the need to accommodate Bach’s highly contrapuntal web. A few passages contain lines in small notes, which Goossens states ‘must be played, but are subservient to the main thematic interest’. Yet it all sounds perfectly effective.
Like Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells chose a chorale prelude from the Orgelbüchlein: O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross BWV622. Howells had been a passionate admirer of early music since his student days, and was no stranger to composing in an archaic style. (He would later produce an inspired blend of old and new in his keyboard suite Lambert’s Clavichord.) Unlike some of the other contributors Howells is lavish with dynamic, tempo and expression marks and phrasing. His very slow tempo—slowing further to an Adagiosissimo in the final bars—helps to sustain and clarify the intricate polyphonic web of Bach’s writing. Only towards the end, in the assai sostenuto ascent to the climax, does he do much to personalize the harmony.
John Ireland chose to refashion Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn BWV648 from the ‘Schübler’ chorales; his manuscript is dated August 1931. His one-page setting underlines the fugal tendencies and questing chromaticism of Bach’s original, beginning in and finally retreating into the bass.
Constant Lambert, whose name is seldom associated with early music though in fact he did a large amount of arranging, especially for the ballet, chose the chorale prelude Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV605 from the Orgelbüchlein. In this sprightly yet reflective piece he keeps a constant four-part texture, each part rhythmically differentiated from its fellows, and scorns any extra embellishment.
The jewel in the crown of the Bach Book is surely the second of the larger-scale pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s glowing chorale and chorale prelude on Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ BWV649, the fifth of the ‘Schübler’ chorales. He is the only contributor to the Bach Book to have insisted on having the text of the chorale printed in the score, along with a translation by Robert Bridges (originally for The Yattendon Hymnal) which renders the opening line as ‘Now cheer our hearts this eventide’. Vaughan Williams had only recently composed his massive Piano Concerto, dedicated to Harriet Cohen, and she was not to give the premiere of that work until the following year, 1933. Already in 1928 she had introduced another work Vaughan Williams had written for her, his Hymn-Tune Prelude on Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Song 13’. Their correspondence in the years 1931–3 evinces a good deal of mutual affection, and this grand Bach transcription, at once stately and intimate, is further evidence of Vaughan Williams’s esteem for her.
Vaughan Williams described it as a ‘free transcription’, which is something of an understatement. Like Bax, he writes largely on three staves to accommodate a full, rich keyboard texture, and after a statement of the chorale the chorale prelude follows. Vaughan Williams adds a tenor part of his own to Bach’s work and greatly elaborates its texture, for example with anti-historical parallel triads in his inimitable ‘English pastoral’ manner and with dissonances not found in Bach—to increase the tension, but also the interplay of light and shade throughout the piece. The mildness of the dissonances is deceptive, for they lead to different contrapuntal conclusions and he even deletes whole bars and sequences of Bach in order to replace them with music of his own. He thus extends an ongoing line of descent from the sixteenth century, for BWV649 is in fact Bach’s own transcription of the first chorus in his Cantata No 6, ‘Bleib’ bei uns, denn es will Abend werden’, in which he derived his chorale melody from the alto part of a different chorale published in 1594 by Seth Calvisius (1556–1615), a distinguished predecessor as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. The ‘evening’ associations of Cantata No 6 seem to have inspired Vaughan Williams to turn his ‘free transcription’ into a kind of nocturnal meditation that wrestles with doubt rather than the certainties of Bach’s faith.
William Walton, in 1932 still a young rising star of British music, contributed a ‘free arrangement’ of Bach’s early chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen BWV727. Walton’s freedoms are nothing like as radical as Vaughan Williams’s, but they include frequent changes of register—taking the left hand to the remotest end of the piano at one spot—octave doublings, and the addition of staccato markings to some phrases. (Walton would return to this piece in 1940 and orchestrate it as the fourth movement of his ballet The Wise Virgins, which is entirely made up of Bach arrangements.)
William Gillies Whittaker (1876–1944), who at the time he was invited to contribute to the Bach Book was simultaneously Professor of Music at Glasgow University and Principal of the newly founded Scottish National Academy of Music, was a Northumbrian composer of quite progressive instincts (as his visionary setting of Psalm 139 for unaccompanied double chorus in 1924 attests) but was more celebrated as a scholar of early music. In addition to editing Bach he had founded the Newcastle Bach Choir and would eventually be known for his posthumously published standard study of all the Bach cantatas. In his otherwise restrained treatment of the chorale prelude Wir glauben all an einen Gott BWV740, Whittaker’s persistent accents on the melody notes rather seem to war against his marking Sempre dolcissimo e legato, but this in fact makes an interesting study in balance, since the pianist must maintain the serenely devotional mood throughout.
Harriet Cohen, as well as being the unifying force behind the Bach Book, herself made a number of Bach transcriptions. Be contented, O my soul collates the opening recitative (‘Mein Gott, wie lang’, ach lange’) and closing aria (‘Wirf, mein Herze’) of Bach’s Cantata No 155 for the Feast of Epiphany, and is contemporary with most of the contents of the Bach Book, though it appeared independently in 1931. She dedicated her arrangement to Leslie Runciman, the ship owner and aviator. The recitative is remarkable for her unflinching retention of Bach’s ever-repeated pedal D in the bass and his expressive dissonances, apart from some pianistic filling-out of textures towards the end. The aria, with its persistent dotted rhythms later played off against triplets, develops into quite a difficult piece with some tricky textural tangles.
Cohen’s contemporary and rival for the crown of leading British woman pianist, Myra Hess (1890–1965), was much less of a modern-music specialist but was greatly admired as a Bach player, and made a number of transcriptions of her own. Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, Hess’s version of the chorale from Cantata No 147, first published in 1926, has become a well-loved recital item in its own right for its quietly ecstatic flow of triplet figuration over the noble chorale melody, though it is a tricky piece to balance. Hess’s version of the Adagio from Bach’s C major Toccata BWV564 (also known as the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue because of its unique three-movement form) is simpler. The continuous sostenuto octave writing in the left hand underpins a highly decorated and expressive right-hand melody while both hands share the harmonic in-filling between.
The pianist Leonard Borwick belonged to the generation that preceded Harriet Cohen and Myra Hess: his debut had come in Frankfurt in 1889, and he had the advantage of studying with Clara Schumann, who once wrote that she considered him her finest pupil. Clara had absorbed the passionate admiration for Bach of her husband and of Johannes Brahms—of whose music Borwick became one of the composer’s favourite interpreters. Borwick often included works by Bach in his recitals, and published several piano transcriptions. His version of O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV656, one of the ‘Leipzig’ chorales of early date which Bach is believed to have revised in Leipzig in the 1740s, was published in 1925 and is almost dryly contrapuntal (Borwick scorning much in the way of ‘interpretative’ markings). It might almost be imagined as harpsichord music until a sudden flourish of pianistic octaves brings in the grand (not to say Brobdingnagian), organ-like third statement of the chorale; the piece thereafter works up to a cadenza and conclusion during which the pianist must wish for organ pedals so his feet can take some of the strain off the hands.
Borwick’s transcription of Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor BWV578 was published the following year. This is a superbly effective piece despite some ponderous octave doubling in the bass entries, working up to a really resplendent conclusion.
The pianist and Bach scholar Herbert Fryer (1877– 1957) studied at the Royal College of Music and subsequently in Berlin with Ferruccio Busoni. Afterwards he taught at the Royal College of Music until his retirement in 1947. He composed piano pieces, songs and light music miniatures but is probably best known for his Op 22 Bach transcriptions, issued in 1932 (the same year as the Bach Book) as Five Transcriptions from Bach, each one dedicated to one of his many piano pupils. These are notable for being drawn exclusively from the unaccompanied Cello Suites, recasting single-line works as fully harmonized piano pieces, rather as Leopold Godowsky had done with Bach’s unaccompanied Violin Sonatas. No 4 of these transcriptions, dedicated to Theodlinda Calburn, is the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No 6 in D major, BWV1012, a piece ineluctably bittersweet despite its major mode. Bach himself had already richly harmonized his melody with majestic triple- and quadruple-stopped chords, but Fryer re-imagines the piece in a full two-handed harmony, often introducing quite sharp dissonances and the occasional extra chromaticism within the overall progressions. Given that it is necessary to produce a very even flow to this music, the transcription is as much as anything a study in pedalling, which Fryer indicates precisely in interchange from pedal to una corda and even third pedal if it is available.
Hubert Foss (1899–1953) is best remembered as a writer on music—his books include The Concertgoer’s Handbook (1946) and a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1950)—and as the founder and first director of the Music Department of Oxford University Press. See what his love can do is Foss’s transcription, published in 1937, of the tenor aria Seht, was die Liebe tut from Bach’s Cantata No 85. This is a pastoral piece—the Cantata is one of those on the theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd—similar in character to Hess’s Jesu, joy. Foss’s part-writing is admirably uncluttered, and he knew—as not all his fellows did—the importance of silence and rests to let air into his textures.
As already mentioned, Ronald Stevenson (born 1928) has been one of the foremost exponents of the art of transcription in the British Isles for over fifty years. In addition to his original compositions (which include the huge eighty-minute Passacaglia on DSCH and the choral symphony Ben Dorain) he has made piano versions of works by a huge range of composers from John Bull to Alban Berg. His version of Komm, süsser Tod BWV478 (the same chorale as set by Frank Bridge for Harriet Cohen’s Bach Book), dates from April 1991. It is, however, a transcription at one remove: for Stevenson has here made a solo piano version not from Bach’s original but of the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski himself said of his version that he had ‘tried to imagine what Bach would do had he had the rich resources of the orchestra of today at his disposal’. In re-imagining Stokowski’s orchestral textures for the keyboard Stevenson makes use of a rich palette of piano colour, especially in the middle and bass registers, and a subtle use of pedalling. He also had in mind Stokowski’s performance of the piece. The basic tempo is immensely slow, much slower than in the Frank Bridge version (a comparison of the two settings is fascinating). The surging, authoritative arpeggio writing at the climax makes clear that this is, above all, piano music. The final, heavenward-ascending gesture is Stokowski’s addition to Bach, newly given pianistic form by Stevenson.
Calum MacDonald © 2010
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