The Art of the Piano Transcription: Richard Strauss and Others


Dr Charles Wiffen, Head of the Music Department, Bath Spa University

22 November 2011

The following is an essay by the Convenor for Literature and Humanities, Dr Robert Blackburn, who has a special and very longstanding interest in this subject. It includes some of the material presented by Dr Wiffen, but also a large amount of further detail not referred to in the talk. The intended focus of Dr Wiffen’s talk was the growth of the solo piano transcription of songs and instrumental music between the 1830s and the 1920s, and its steady decline since the 1930s. The piano reduction  (or vocal score) of operas and sacred works, essential for performance in the age before the invention of recording, was not included, as it is a separate category.

It will be useful to start with some definitions. Although the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (1980) does not give a proper definition of transcription or arrangement in the sense discussed here, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Ed. Michael Kennedy, 4th edition, 1996, and the Oxford Companion to Music, ed. Alison Latham, 2002, both do. The Concise Oxford provides the following as a twin definition of ‘transcription’: (1) an arrangement of a musical composition for a performing medium other than the original, or for the same medium, but in more elaborate style. (2 ) The conversion of a composition from one system of notation to another.  The Oxford Companion offers the following:  (1) A term often used interchangeably with ‘arrangement’. It is, however, possible to make a distinction between transcribing, as copying a composition while changing layout or notation (for example from parts to full score) and arranging, as changing the medium - for example, from piano quartet to full orchestra, as in Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’ piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25.  (2) Transcription is also carried out by ethnomusicologists when they attempt to capture in staff notation a performance recorded in a field. In each of these two cases, only the first definition is relevant.

The plain fact is that in the age before recorded sound was invented, which was also the great age of the expansion of the domestic piano, there was a big demand for versions of musical works such as symphonies, overtures and solo songs which could be played as solo piano pieces or as piano duets by competent performers.  All the main symphonies from the Viennese classical period benefited from this situation, which was made still more problematic for music lovers who lived far away from concert halls. Thus, the instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert was universally enjoyed in private sitting or drawing rooms in a way which is also a tribute to the practical keyboard and reading skills of so many amateur musicians of the period up to the 1920s. Later composers who sought wider diffusion of their music were well aware of what was needed. Brahms, for example, routinely made arrangements of his symphonies and chamber works for two pianos, piano duet, or piano solo. A twentieth century composer such as Prokofiev also made numerous arrangements of his works to meet the market.

However, for the listener, the non-performing member of an audience, a parallel market existed, at least from the early years of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) onwards. Liszt was the founding father of the virtuoso piano transcription, a term which in his case included not only a straight version of the original, with some extension or embellishment, but also included the free fantasia or paraphrase, usually on themes from popular operas. These were written as showpieces, of course, for Liszt himself to play, and were mostly well beyond the capacity of amateur pianists.  Supreme examples are The Reminiscences de Don Juan (a prodigious fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), the Rigoletto Paraphrase and the Miserere from Il Trovatore (Verdi) and the glorious solo fantasias based on Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Auber, Weber and Rossini also drew Liszt’ attention as a transcriber. All this came from a composer pianist who not only transcribed his friend Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, and several other opera excerpts by Wagner, including the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, but also set out to familiarise the wider public with the glories of the German solo song repertoire.  He started with Beethoven (including the whole of the short song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte), then Schubert, on a large scale. Liszt obviously loved the songs of Schubert, and wanted them to become as widely available as possible to the largest possible audience.  He continued with Schumann and Mendelssohn, as well as very minor figures such as Dessauer, Lassen and Robert Franz. He even transcribed six of Chopin’s Seventeen Polish Songs for solo piano at a time when these were not at all widely known. Liszt’s solo piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies are brilliantly effective realisations of these great works in their own terms. They are not fantasias at all, in no sense decorative, improvisatory effusions, but are masterly, and literally exact replications of the original orchestral scores, but intended for himself to play before large and appreciative audiences. Consequently, they rule themselves out in practice for all but the most advanced players.  He did the same service for many of the organ works of J.S. Bach. There are six of the big organ Preludes and Fugues, in A minor (BWV543), C major (BWV545), C minor (BWV549), C major (BWV547), E minor (BWV548, ‘The Wedge’), and B minor (BWV548). Some might even say that the later history of the piano transcription was a series of elaborate footnotes to the achievement of Liszt in this area.

Franz Liszt

At one time seriously neglected, the transcriptions of Liszt have really only had serious attention paid to them since the Second World War. Some pianists, such as the Australian Roger Woodward, have recorded several of the Beethoven symphony transcriptions, for their own sake, while more and more pianists have taken up the Schubert and Schumann song transcriptions, despite, of even because of, their often hair raising technical difficulties.  It is now not uncommon to find these included in recital programmes in groups,  especially works such as Der Wanderer, Gretchen am Spinnrade,  Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Fruhlingsglaube,  Liebesbotschaft,  Standchen, Litanei, Aufenthalt, Am Meer, Die junge Nonne  and even the mighty and almost unplayable Erlkonig (The Erlking). Two well-known Schumann transcriptions by Liszt which are moderate extensions of the original songs are Widmung (Devotion) and Fruhlingsnacht (Spring Night). The present writer has played these since being a teenager.

Sigismund Thalberg

A largely forgotten figure, very famous in his day, and both a celebrated virtuoso pianist and an active composer, was the Geneva born Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871), who for decades was  regarded as Liszt’s chief rival. Thalberg first played in London in 1830, then toured Germany, and first appeared in Paris in 1835. He toured the U.S.A. in 1856 with the French composer Vieuxtemps and then entered opera management. Among his numerous transcriptions and fantasias on operatic themes is his Opus 70, which consists of 24 transcriptions under the title’ L’art du chant applique au piano.’  The composers represented go back to Stradella and Pergolesi, then continue with Gretry, Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Meyerbeer, and the collection includes Beethoven’s song Adelaide. 

Brahms, born in 1833, was a great composer who was also one of the most learned musicians of his time. He was not a transcriber on the Lisztian scale, or anything like it, but he did produce certain things in this area which still have their interest.  In 1854, aged 21, Brahms arranged the E flat Piano Quintet, Op.44, by Schumann (his close friend and mentor) for piano duet, though it remained unpublished until 1887. The Scherzo from the same work he transcribed for solo piano, but this had to wait until 1983 for publication. In the same period, 1854/55, he arranged two overtures by his friend the great violinist Joseph Joachim, for two pianos, and there is a solo piano version, now unfortunately lost, of the hectic finale from Beethoven’s third Rasumovsky Quartet, Op. 59, No.3. But pianists who love Brahms’ solo piano works, and have the second volume of these, published by Peters Edition, will always have noticed the five ‘Studies’ which appear at the end.  The first two of these pieces were composed when Brahms was only nineteen (1852). They are an Etude ‘after Chopin’s F minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 2’, and a Rondo ‘after Weber’, based on the Finale of that composer’s Sonata in C, Op. 24. As one would expect, both these pieces are very challenging technically, but the Chopin piece, written mainly in sixths for the right hand with a left hand playing another metrical structure, though always with Chopin’s harmonies, has a special fascination. It is very slightly longer in bar numbers than Chopin’s original, but because of the way Brahms had thickened the texture, particularly in the right hand throughout, it takes much longer to play, even though it is marked ‘Presto’. This is one of those cases in which one says ’It all depends what you mean by ‘Presto’. It is the only tribute as such to Chopin among Brahms’ works, and prefigures the fifty three virtuoso elaborations on Chopin’s Studies composed between 1894 and 1914 by the great Polish-born pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), the partial aim of which was to enhance the technical difficulties of Chopin’s originals still further by doublings where Chopin wrote only single lines. Godowsky famously introduced countermelodies, and transferred passages routinely from the right to the left hand; in one case, he ran two studies together, with the right hand playing one and the left hand the other.

Johannes Brahms

The Chopin and Weber studies were not published by Brahms until 1869. But in 1877 came three studies after J.S. Bach, all published two years later. Brahms decided to add in the two earlier pieces, and they came out together as Five Studies. Two of the Bach studies are two-part realisations of the same movement, the Presto from the Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1021 (composed before 1720).  The last is a transcription fort he left hand only of the Chaconne in D minor, from the Partita for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1005 (1720). In the case of the celebrated Chaconne, Brahms does what Busoni did later in his two-handed transcription, and introduced the theme an octave lower than it appeared in the solo violin original. He naturally sticks strictly to the shape and mood of the piece, and is careful throughout not to distort into pianistic near impossibility the delicate but strong violinistic texture of the original. This is not a showmanship piece, in the Lisztian tradition, but a model of restraint, a real attempt to convey the grandeur of Bach’ s flowing and dramatic invention in playable pianistic terms. In my view, Brahms’ left-hand version of the Bach Chaconne should be heard much more than it is, despite the attractions of Busoni’s later, more celebrated version for pianists who understandably want to play with both hands.

It was the generation of composer-pianists born in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s who carried forward the Liszt tradition as transcribers for the piano, and especially as Bach transcribers.  Yet this was an era which increasingly also saw the benefits in public performance of hearing Lieder, originally composed for voice and piano, given greater weight, colour and sonority by being presented in a large concert hall for voice and orchestra.  Hugo Wolf was an early beneficiary of this, though Mahler benefited far more in practice, and so did Richard Strauss, since so many of their best-known songs exist both with piano accompaniment, and in the orchestral versions which they themselves provided.  Before we come to a discussion of Strauss, however, it is necessary here to say something about Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and Max Reger (1873-1916),each of them a prodigious keyboard executant who was also a prolific composer.  Each of these three figures contributed much to the art of the piano transcription, especially in relation to J.S. Bach’s music.

Ferruccio Busoni

The dominant figure here, without question, was Busoni. His aim was to make Bach’s music as available as possible to the modern music lover, which meant the modern pianist, amateur or professional. His Bach-Busoni Edition runs to seven volumes, of which Volume 5 and 6 are his edition of the Well Tempered Clavier (the Forty eight Preludes and Fugues). Busoni made a distinction between arrangements and transcriptions. The first two volumes of his Bach Edition are headed Arrangements, Volume 1 covering what he calls ‘Study Works’, and Volume 2 ‘Master Works’. The former includes the two- and three-part Inventions for keyboard, while the latter includes, notably, the Chromatic fantasy and Fugue, The Clavier Concerto in D minor, and the Aria with 30 Variations (the Goldberg Variations). Volume 3 is given the separate title ‘Transcriptions’, and contains the following:

·       Prelude and Fugue in D, for organ, BWV 532

·       Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, for organ, BWV 552 (St Anne)

·       Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 565

·       Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, for organ, BWV 564

·       Ten Chorale Preludes for organ

·       Chaconne in D minor, from the Partita for solo violin, BWV 1005

Volume 4 is entitled ‘Compositions and free transcriptions, in which he mixes Bach works with his own compositions directly and very obviously inspired by or derived from J.S. Bach. So Volume 4 includes the Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother, but also Busoni’s own Sonatina Brevis ‘in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni’ (inspired by Bach’s little Fantasy and fugue in D minor) and the definitive edition of Busoni’ s own great Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which of course exists in versions for two pianos and for piano solo.

All the transcriptions in Volume Three were issued separately by the publisher, with the ten chorale preludes for organ in two volumes. All are arguably better known and more frequently played by both amateur and professional pianists the Busoni’s own original works for piano solo. The great D major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532, and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, stand out. The first of these is the only large –scale organ work by Bach which was transcribed by Busoni, d’Albert and Reger, and one can see its immense attraction for them, its special power and grandiosity.  In spite of the great technical problems of incorporating the complex pedal part, and the rotating fluidity of the fugue subject in BWV 532, very tricky for pianists when doubled at the octave, or combined with passagework in sixths and thirds in the right hand, the musical fascination of the piece outweighed all other drawbacks. Busoni’s transcription of BWV 532 was a ‘party piece’ of the young Emil Gilels (1916-1988) who takes the fugue subject at a gentle trot, but still manages to extract the majesty of the structure to the fullest extent. In our time, it is widely perceived that the second of these works, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the world’s most famous organ piece by a huge margin (rivalled only by Widor’s Toccata from the Romantic era) is not by Bach, but by another hand.( see the article by the organist and Bach scholar Peter Williams, in Early Music, June           1981). In the time of Busoni and Reger, there were no such doubts, and the popularity of the work was still growing, to reach its apogee much later on in the opening of Walt Disney’s 1939 film Fantasia, played in an orchestral version conducted by Leopold Stokowski. It is interesting that the Toccata and Fugue was left alone by both Liszt and d’Albert. The latter’s Bach transcriptions, fascinating for their clarity, include the organ Passacaglia in C minor, one of Bach’s greatest achievements, but as a group, clearly avoid the organ works already transcribed by Liszt. D’Albert (1964-1932) was one of the great pianists of his day, a Scot by birth, but a German by affiliation, who was not only a travelling virtuoso performer, but a prolific opera composer as well.  His Bach organ Prelude and Fugue transcriptions, recorded splendidly, for the first time complete, by the Australian pianist Piers Lane in 2008, are as follows:  C minor , BWV 537 ; G major, BWV 541 ; F major (Toccata and Fugue) BWV 540 ; A major, BWV 536 ; F minor, BWV 534 ; D minor (Dorian ) Toccata and Fugue, BWV 538 ,and D major , BWV 532. Lane also plays D’Albert’s transcription of the great Passacaglia.

Eugene D’Albert

Reger was attracted by the organ chorale preludes for transcription purposes, and tackled only four of the larger works. Apart from the D minor Toccata and Fugue, and the D major prelude and Fugue, he chose only two other well-known larger pieces: they were the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, ‘The Wedge’, and the Prelude and Fugue in E flat, ‘St Anne’. He transcribed sixteen shorter pieces, including two  (Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, and Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt) also transcribed by Busoni, but also Herzlich tut mich verlangen, from the St Matthew Passion. The German pianist Markus Becker has recently (2009) recorded all these pieces for Hyperion, mostly for the first time.

Max Reger

The virtuoso German pianist Carl Tausig (1841-1871) was one of the earliest Bach transcribers after Liszt, with several chorale preludes and, inevitably, the D minor Toccata and Fugue. Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) published two sets of Bach transcriptions for piano, in 1861 and 1872. These were drawn from Violin sonatas 2,3,5 and 6, and from cantatas 3,8,15,29,10,35 and 36. But it was the next generation, and the one that followed, which saw the interest in this new mode rise sharply. First in the field were the Russian Georgy Catoire (1861-1926) and the Russian Alexander Siloti (1863-1945, pupil of both Tchaikovsky and Liszt) followed in chronology of birth by D’Albert , Busoni, and Reger. They were succeeded by, in order of birth, Alexandre Goedicke (Russia, 1877-1957), Percy Grainger (Australia, 1882-1961), Ignaz Friedman (Poland, 1882-1948), Walter Rummel (Germany, but lived in France for most of his life, 1887-1953), William Murdoch (Australia, 1888-1942) Samuil (not Samuel) Feinberg (Russian-Jewish, 1890-1962) and Dmitri Kabalevsky (Russia, 1904-1997).

Myra Hess

 It was inevitable that many, indeed most of these transcriptions would be marginalised over time, and most of them were forgotten until the Hyperion recording project was launched. However, in Britain, the overlapping lives of two distinguished Jewish lady pianists living in London carried the work of Bach piano transcription into a further dimension. One was Myra Hess (1890-1965) who became Dame Myra Hess after 1941, and the other was Harriet Cohen (1895-1967). Myra Hess’s piano transcription of the chorale from Cantata No.147, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu , Joy of Man’s Desiring in English, in order to scan) became one of the very best -known of all such works, famous across the world. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1926, and has never been out of print. Harriet Cohen did a small number of Bach transcriptions herself, but none approached the success of Hess’s Jesu, Joy.  In 1932, Oxford published A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. This was no mere accident of homage, but was the result of her fame throughout Britain and beyond in the 1920s, and the admiration, almost bordering on idolatry, which she attracted as an artist and as a woman, among composers and writers. For most of her adult life Harriet Cohen was the mistress of the composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) who wrote many pieces for her, including his contribution to the Bach Book. The other contributors were Granville Bantock, Lord Berners, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Eugene Goossens, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and W. Gillies Whittaker. All were transcriptions for piano solo of music composed by Bach for other forces, mostly church music. This publication was included, quite rightly, in the Hyperion series, and the performer in Jonathan Plowright.

Harriet Cohen

Also published by Oxford in the 1930s was a version for piano of another piece from a Bach Cantata which became greatly loved in this period. This was Schafe konnen sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze) from cantata No 208, with its irresistible combination melodic charm and pastoral felicity in the thirds and sixths of the harmony. Mary Howe was the transcriber, and she included the recitative which precedes the main movement. Others have followed her, with more complex versions such as those by Dinu Lipatti, Egon Petri and Percy Grainger, but none of these include the recitative.

Mention of Percy Grainger again leads on to a placing of this extraordinary man in the context of his time as one of the greatest and most prolific of all transcribers and arrangers. Apart from his prodigious gifts as a pianist, Grainger was from the start a collector of folksongs, like so many of his generation, and also a pioneer ethnomusicologist. He made his debut as a pianist in London, but his concerto debut was actually in Bath, in 1905, playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, apparently with the Pump Room Orchestra. He met Grieg (1843-1907) in the Norwegian composer’s last year, and became a famous exponent of the Grieg Piano Concerto. In 1907, Grainger met Delius, twenty years his senior, and the friendship was instant and lifelong. He was also a lifelong friend of Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner and Cyril Scott. Percy Grainger’s British Folk-Music Settings, the outcome of four years collecting musical material out of doors, has over 500 items. 200 more (Danish melodies) were added when he went to Denmark between 1922 and 1927. Most of these folksong settings, including his best known pieces, Shepherd’s Hey, Country Gardens, My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone, Irish Tune from County Derry, and so on, appeared in multiple versions, but a keyboard version was always one of them.

Percy Grainger

Yet he devoted a huge amount of time to arranging folksongs for chamber and orchestral forces, and for large wind ensemble as well as for chorus and solo voice. He said: ‘My life has been one kicking out into space , while the world around me is dying of ‘good taste’.’  Many of Grainger’s keyboard transcriptions from works by other composers have been gathered on to a disc by the Australian pianist Piers Lane. They range from Byrd, Dowland and Handel to Stanford, Cyril Scott and Delius, from two songs by Gershwin (The Man I Love and Love Walked In) to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers and from Brahms’ Cradle Song, to Apres un Reve and Nell by Faure.  A choice item, typical of Grainger’s eclectic outlook is Chinese Melody: Beautiful Fresh Flower, while the most sumptuous, and also the most technically challenging, is Ramble on Love, based on the final duet between Sophie and Oktavian at the end of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Richard Strauss

There are only five piano transcriptions of Richard Strauss’s songs by the pianist Walter Gieseking (189x-1956), all published in Berlin by Adolphe Furstner, yet they have all remained in the repertoire. The best known, a piece of formidable difficulty, is of the early song Standchen (Serenade) Op.17, No.2, 1885/6, poem by Adolf Graf von Schack. The other four are Heimkehr (Returning Home) Op.15, No.5, 1884-6, poem also by Schack, Freundliche Vision (A friendly vision), Op. 48, No.1, 1900, poem by Otto Julius Bierbaum, Winterweihe (Welcoming of winter), Op. 48, No.4, poem by Karl Henckell, and Schlechtes Wetter  (Bad Weather), Op.69, No.5, 1918, poem by Heine. These are of course quite distinct from the orchestral versions of many of Strauss’s songs, including some of the most famous, such as Zueignung, Allerseelen, Cacilie, Ruhe, meine Seele,  Heimliche Aufforderung  and  Morgen. There were 26 in all. Strauss himself did most of these, but three were orchestrated by Robert Heger, one by Felix Mottl and one by Ludwig Weniger. One song, Die heiligen drei  Konigen aus Morgenland (The Three Holy Kings from the Orient) was composed for soprano and orchestra in 1906, then unusually, transcribed for piano by Strauss, and published as the last of the Six Songs, Op.56 (1903-6).  Strauss’s now celebrated and universally loved Four Last Songs, for soprano and orchestra, 1948,without opus number, were composed straight into orchestral score. They were first performed in London on 22 May 1950, the year following Strauss’s death by Kirsten Flagstad with the LPO under Wilhelm Furtwangler.  Ernest Roth, Strauss’ s friend and publisher, gave them their title ‘Four Last Songs’, posthumously, and transcribed the orchestral score for piano. In 1934, ten of Hugo Wolf’s songs were transcribed for piano solo by Bruno Hinze-Reinhold, and published by Henry Litolffs Verlag, Braunschweig.  Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff and Morike are the poets represented, together with two songs from the Spanish Song Book and one form the Italian song Book (Heyse and Geibel). The present writer has a copy of this rare publication. Like all these versions for piano, this was an attempt to make the selected songs more widely available to musicians who simply wanted to play through the music in the absence of a singer.  In the case of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) it is not easy to feel that the exercise was fully justified, since with Wolf, the words of the poem are even more significant than usual in conveying the meaning of the music.

During his American years, Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) made thirteen piano transcriptions of various materials for his own concert use, generally as encore pieces. The most significant, with dates, were:

  • Bizet: Minuet from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1 (1922)
  • Fritz Kreisler: Liebesleid (1921)
  • Fritz Kreisler: Liebesfreud (1925)
  • Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1933)
  • Musorgsky:  Hopak from Sorochinsty Fair (1924)
  • Schubert:  Wohin? (1925)
  • J.S.Bach: Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue from the Violin Partita in E (1933)
  • Tchaikovsky: Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1 (1941)
  • Rachmaninoff:   Song: Margaritki (Daisies) (1922, revised 1940)
  • Rachmaninoff: Song: Siren’ (Lilacs) (comp.1913 or 1914, 1st perf. 1922)

Sergei Rachmaninoff

The most spectacular of all piano transcriptions from the inter-war years came from the pen of Stravinsky. He composed increasingly for the piano in these years, culminating in the great Concerto for Two Pianos of 1925, which the present writer has played in public, with one other performer, a number of times. In 1921, Stravinsky took three sections from the ballet Petrouchka (1911) and turned them into virtuoso piano pieces of hair-raising difficulty, for the great Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, to whom they are dedicated. They are, in order:   (1) Danse Russe (2 )Chez Petrouchka and (3) La Semaine Grasse.  They were published by Editions Russe de Musique in 1922, with the careful superscription ‘Transcription pour piano seul par l’auteur’.

The young Arthur Rubinstein

Finally, it is necessary to pay some homage to the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, born in 1928, who I addition to being a prolific composer and arranger, and active pianist, over his lifetime, has also been an unswerving advocate for the music of Busoni,Grainger, Shostakovich and Britten. The best known of his solo piano works are both based on musical ideas from Shostakovich, and Britten. The Passacaglia (Variations on a musical motif) on D-S-C-H takes the motif based on the musical letters of Shostakovich’s initials, and creates a vast series of technically very challenging variations on it, lasting 80 minutes in performance. The Fantasy on themes from Britten’s Peter Grimes is shorter, but no less uncompromising technically.  Among the straight transcriptions, those of Grainger’s Hill Song no. 1, the first movement (the only one Mahler completed) of Gustav Mahler’s symphony No.10, and the six unaccompanied violin sonatas of Eugene Ysaye should be mentioned here, though there are many more, including simpler transcriptions such as those of Ivor Novello’s We’ll gather Lilacs, and Frank Bridge’s song Go Not, Happy Day. In addition there are arrangements and paraphrases by the dozen in Stevenson’s huge output, notably of works by Chopin and Alkan. There is a Ronald Stevenson Society in London, and a collection of essays edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland, entitled Ronald Stevenson: the Man and His Music: A Symposium (2005), which is recommended to readers who would like to find out more about this remarkable man. The Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan has just recorded three discs of Stevenson’s piano music on the Divine Art label.


Dr Robert E. Blackburn, 2013