The passing of the age of deriding the transcription allows us to be joyful at one composer’s enthusiasm and understanding of the works of another. Transcription, in any case, has been a valid way of music making in almost every generation of the history of Western music, and it cannot be simply assumed that the gramophone has replaced it as a likely means of disseminating music not often encountered in live performance. In the case of his very careful arrangements of seven of Bach’s greatest organ works, it should be mentioned that Liszt was at the forefront of the revival of serious study of polyphonic organ playing and the independent study of the pedalboard in order to restore the neglected Bach to his public. Liszt also published an edition of Bach’s organ music in which he also added two other pieces of Bach in his own transcription for the organ. The Sechs Präludien und Fugen für die Orgel-pedal und -manual von Johann Sebastian Bach—Für das Pianoforte zu zwei Händen gesetzt von Franz Liszt
were the first in a long series of Bach transcriptions by many of the great pianists and pianist-composers which extended from the mid-nineteenth century to our own times through such names as Brahms, Tausig, Saint-Saëns, d’Albert, Busoni, Reger, Grainger, Rachmaninov and Bartók. Apart from the obvious purpose of communicating Bach’s music through the instrument with which these composers felt most comfortable, there is also a sense of greater satisfaction at being able to exploit the piano for its innate good qualities in a way that simply playing Bach’s harpsichord and clavichord works on the piano seldom produces. Doubling bass notes in octaves, for example, is present in virtually every piano piece in the literature, and the use of the sustaining pedal not just as a colouring device, but also to hold notes which the fingers cannot keep depressed, and the consequent inevitable blurring of some counterpoint, is equally ubiquitous. Now, the organ works of Bach, especially, are familiar to us from acoustical surroundings in which, willy-nilly, something like the effect of a sustaining pedal is achieved, and the power of the pedal organ is usually such as to make the lowest voice of the texture disproportionately strong. In his transcriptions, Liszt carefully doubles the pedal part in octaves wherever practical and appropriate, but otherwise alters Bach’s text almost never, aside from some necessary octave transpositions to allow the hands to reach all the voices, and the fleshing out of a few rhetorical chords. He adds no tempo directions, dynamics or phrasing marks of any sort. As to Bach’s originals, the question of dating their origin is still unsettled, although most of them date from his time in Weimar. Some were revised later in Cöthen, and at least two of them (E minor and B minor) probably date from his time in Leipzig. It doesn’t really matter; all these works are the mature Bach at his best extended style, and the variety of idea and structure remains astounding to us all. In the playing of the transcriptions it seems best to proceed as Liszt probably did, and to study them on the organ in order not to be tempted into spurious pianistic effects—although the problem of memorising them in versions with and without pedalboard becomes acute. It is worth trying to reproduce the effects of eighteenth-century registration, articulation and ornamentation wherever feasible, and, as with all of Liszt’s literal transcriptions, it is important to go to the best available source of the original in order to check the text—Liszt was generally very scrupulous about the matter, so there are only one or two small corrections to make.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991