Eric Himy
Writings by Eric Himy

The Art of the Transcription

The art of transcription - of recasting music, more or less literally, from one performance medium into another - has been a common practice for a long time. A good transcription (or a paraphrase) tests the abilities and the imagination of the transcriber as much as the creation of an original composition. Trying to maintain the distinct characteristics of a given work, while meeting the demands of a new medium, are not always easily achieved. A good transcription can sometimes shed new light on already familiar music.

It seems that with all the fast-pace changes and problems that we face in the world today, one wonders if in this serious atmosphere whether we haven’t forgotten the general enjoyment of music. Often the pursuit of stylistic authenticity has become the performance ideal of our era and thus transcriptions and paraphrases have often been frowned upon by purists as tampering or sacrilegious alterations with the purity of the composer’s original

With this attitude regrettably, the transcription as a valid form of artistic expression and comment upon another’s work has sometimes been discounted and even neglected. Liszt was perhaps the most prolific of transcribers, producing volumes of piano transcriptions and paraphrases (the complete Beethoven Symphonies, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Bach's Organ works, Schubert’s Lieder and many operatic works). Audiences were not only entertained but were also afforded the opportunity to hear music they might never before have encountered. His famous Tristan Liebestod transcription reached audiences before Wagner’s Opera did!

By the late 19th century, concert transcriptions were very popular and many others great virtuoso performers and composers continued this tradition: Busoni, Godowsky, Rachmaninov, and Horowitz, to name but a few. The great virtuoso Earl Wild can also be mentioned. Wild in fact studied with the famed Egon Petri, who was a student of Busoni and the performance of transcriptions and transcription-making was indeed admired and encouraged as an important development in becoming a complete pianist.

The latter half of this century has witnessed a continuing debate over the value and validity of the piano transcription. Composers and performers have practiced the art of transcription as long as music has existed as a profession in the western tradition. While some have seen the art of transcription as a corruption of the original composer's intent, others have seen transcriptions as a way to disseminate little-known compositions to a wider audience. Or to render accessible music to the amateur or young student which would be otherwise impossible to play.

The piano transcription is often at the center of arguments over artistic taste and musical merit. The varying ideals and quality of piano transcriptions have only added fuel to the debate over the art form's usefulness and validity. While some transcriptions are viewed as high achievements in the art of music, others are seen for what they are - vehicles for the display of a particular artist's individual gifts. As these arguments play themselves out through the changing social climate, the piano transcription is inevitably subject to the whims of social fashion - popular in one moment and in the next, reviled.

The fact remains that many of the greatest composers and pianists have practiced some form of the art of transcription. While I would not presume to know the minds of these celebrated artists, I do think there are several reasons why the piano transcription is a vital part of keyboard artistry. More importantly, I think there are intriguing reasons why this art should be a part of every pianist's musical education.

As teachers (and as students who continue to learn and develop after we cease our academic careers), we continually struggle with the fact that students do not often wish to do what they are told. They struggle between submission to authority and the desire for self-expression of their individual artistic personalities. Although most students dutifully submit to their teachers' wills (in part because they know that they must learn from someone who has mastered certain necessary skills), do they fully experience the given subject with the passion and drive that they would associate with something that came from within their own heart and intellect? If a student has a burning love of a particular non-keyboard musical work, perhaps we could help them discover for themselves the same things we wish to teach to them. Through the art of transcribing that beloved piece of music for the piano, the students may truly learn their lessons in keyboard artistry because their internal desires for knowledge and self-expression are being validated and gratified.

The list of skills that can be learned through transcription is too long to fully examine in a format such as this article. There are, however, several skills that we as teachers consistently strive to impart to our students. Students often fail to see details when faced with the sometimes overwhelming page of musical text. If they are forced to deal with the details through actual decision-making and the process of committing those decisions to paper, they may be able to transfer the importance of their own discoveries to the next sonata or salon piece they are assigned to learn.

Note-Length and Rest-Length

When students are studying the music of the Classical period, it is often difficult for them to understand the importance of note and rest length. Even advanced pianists see the combinations of rests and notes and fail to release the fingers or the pedal in the actualization in sound of the composer's intent. The exact length of these score markings seems unimportant, partly because the piano is a very forgiving instrument in the concert hall. Perhaps also, the student has never experienced a musical setting where the exact lengths of notes and rests are of crucial importance.

When transcribing an orchestral score of any level of complexity, a student must come to terms with the sound and role of the orchestral instruments. If one note sounds for a longer time on the piano, the ear doesn't necessarily discriminate the culprit as every sound around it is of the same timbre. In an orchestral setting, the failure of an instrumentalist to rest in a given spot affects the entire musical ensemble in a sometimes embarrassingly noticeable way. Any student who is trying to duplicate the sound and texture of an orchestral score at the piano may become more aware of the vital importance of small details as they endeavor to create the same types of sound at the piano. The student who notices the vital importance of these details through involvement in another musical setting may be able to transfer that new knowledge to their understanding and actualization of their piano repertoire.

Sound Color

Works for the orchestra, organ, solo instrument and voice have all been transcribed at one time or another for the piano. We have continually marveled at a great performer's ability to transform the uniform sound of the piano into a sound quality that seems to defy the properties of the instrument. We talk to our students about the importance of differing sound colors not only in the performance of music written during a specific cultural period, but also of the importance in sound color between stylistic musical periods. Do our students really understand the concept of sound color when they practice for many hours a day on an instrument that basically sounds the same all of the time?

When students are involved with transcribing not only the music of a different instrument or instruments for the piano but also the sound of that instrument to the piano, they must visualize the sound in their minds as they endeavor to capture it on the two-stave or three-stave piano score. As they experiment with the piano, they begin to realize that different combinations of finger attack and weight do actually approximate the sounds of these other instruments. Not only do they begin to understand that different sound colors are possible on the piano - they gain the knowledge of how to produce them in performance. These skills may also be transferred to their solo piano repertoire.


Attack and articulation are equally nebulous subjects for students to understand when dealing on a daily basis with an instrument that has one basic sound quality. When transcribing an orchestral score for the piano, they may realize that two or more instruments playing at the same time create one sound of unusual quality. As they learn to read the many lines of an orchestral score as one unified thing, they begin to see how the differing attacks and articulation styles of the instruments relate as they create a unified sound. As this concept transfers to the piano, they may realize that eight fingers and two thumbs may actually work with differing articulations and attacks at the same time in the creation of a sound that appears to defy the principles of the piano as an instrument. Also, by understanding and aurally visualizing the differences in articulations and attack of the various instruments, a student may begin to play orchestrally, that is, to give passages and themes different levels, qualities, and characters of sound.


One of the immediate benefits of transcribing a larger musical texture to the piano is that students are forced to learn how to read a larger score. Three-stave piano music is not a commonly occurring construct and four-stave writing is somewhat of a rarity. As students are faced with the task of negotiating the maze of a larger score, they begin to really notice that even the smallest internal sound events influence the sound texture of the whole. Students most often are taught to distinguish between melody and accompaniment in their piano studies. When these labels are attached, awareness of the inner delights of the score fades. Through transcription of a larger score, a student may realize that every note of an accompaniment figure is actually part of the melody and influences the color, texture and sound of the melodic note. Alberti Bass can somehow immediately become a very intriguing force in a composition. Transference of this awareness to a Mozart or Beethoven piano score can transform the student's perception of the rhythmic forces at work in the music.

Solution of Technical Problems

All good students practice their scales, arpeggios and chords. These are the basis of solid piano technique. However, the performance of any work in the piano repertoire requires so much more in the realm of complex physical movements. Even a strict diet of technical exercises and etudes does not fully cover the spectrum of piano technique nor do they always equip a student with the necessary skills needed to detect, examine and solve the technical problems of the more complex repertoire. As a student must deal with the masses of notes occurring in an orchestral, organ or vocal/instrumental score, the problem of what to keep or discard and how to remain faithful to the original becomes paramount. If a student loves a non-keyboard piece enough to transcribe it for the piano, they will eagerly surmount the technical challenges of how to perform it on the keyboard. Trying to do with two hands what is normally done by eighty people gives a student some very complex decisions to make and problems of technical facilitation to solve. The way a piano score sounds and the way it looks on the page is not always the way it is played. Justas with our popular folk stories, the truth is often more fantastic than the legend. As the student learns how to facilitate the demands of a multiple instrument score onto the piano keyboard, they solve technical problems that are equal to, and often surpass, what they need to accomplish in the piano literature thereby allowing them the gratification of knowing that they solved the problem not as their teacher told them, but in a manner that satisfied their personal internal musical desires.


Not all students are prepared to deal with the demands and problems of transcribing a complex musical score to the piano. They can still gain the same rewards through the simplest transcription assignment. These rewards are often most precious because they were won through the student's own desires and not through the demands of the teacher. Perhaps the most important skill a student learns through the transcription process is that they must aurally visualize the music they wish to transcribe before they commit it to paper. Through problem-solving and reflection, they learn to always hear with their mind's ear what they wish to achieve before they play. As this becomes habit, the process of piano playing is set on a course that will allow students to teach themselves rather than be taught. They become self-sufficient artists who truly understand their craft and can impart the process of their knowledge to those who are beginning the musical journey.

The Art of the Transcription for Piano - CD Notes

Mozart / Liszt - Don Juan Fantasy

Reminiscences de Don Juan après Mozart, commonly called the "Don Juan Fantasy" was composed in 1841 and shows Liszt's zest and élan at their most audacious. It is a free yet disciplined resume of the opera's essence, concentrating on the character of Don Giovanni. Its somber opening is the awesome music in the dramatic closing scene with the Don's shouts of defiance as the Statue menaces him. This then evolves to the seductive duet of La ci darem la mano and later to the final Finch han dal vinowhere Liszt ends up bringing them all together in a startlingly resourceful manner. Liszt “takes over" Mozart's music in a sense and his personality is so obvious that the composition becomes novel and original.

Some have found Mozart and Liszt an unlikely pair but others, including George Bernard Shaw, have applauded Liszt's realization of an otherwise impossible task. It is an affectionate tribute from one genius composer to another.

Gluck / Sgambati - Melodie D'Orfeo

The genius of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was recognized by no less a master than Beethoven, who greatly prized his works. In Gluck's compositions for the musical theater, Gluck sought to restore unity to the operatic form and break the tyrannical ascendancy which the virtuoso singer had gradually acquired in the operatic field. Gluck was the leader of a new movement, preaching a return to the purity and form of Greek art. His Orfeo (1762) reveals this aim and marks a departure in operatic technique. Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) who became a celebrated pianist in Rome, where he also studied with Liszt, arranged the Melodie (one of its most celebrated arias) for piano, with rare tact and gentleness.

Chopin / Liszt- Four Polish Songs

Between 1829 and 1847 Chopin composed a group of songs subsequently collected together to form the composer's Opus 74 in a collection called "Seventeen Polish Songs". The "Six chants Polonais" are very free transcriptions of some of Chopin's otherwise little known songs and were made by Liszt slowly and with much care between 1847 and 1860. Four songs are heard here. (The Maiden's Wish, Springtime, Little Cradle and My Joys). The Maiden's Wish was a favorite of the great pianists Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Paderewski and Cortot.

Saint-Säens / Horowitz - Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre was originally composed as a song. Saint-Säens had read a poem by Henri Cazalis, based on an old myth and decided that the orchestra would much better describe these nocturnal images, and so he revised the work, com­pleting it in 1874. His musical treatment closely follows the action of the poem.

Inspired from the Liszt transcription, Wladimir Horowitz one of the greatest pianist of our times, went even further pouring his imagination and skill as a composer and extending the mechanical and musical resources of the piano. Horowitz's transcription was made in 1941 and was often performed by him to wildly enthusiastic audiences.

Delibes / Himy – “Viens Malika" from Lakme

Few music-lovers today know much of Leo Delibes's music outside of his great ballets Sylvia and Coppelia and of course the opera Lakme especially the Bell song. This opera (his last) remains popular in France having received more than 1,500 performances at the Opera Comique since its premiere in 1883. The story of Lakme, written by Edmond Goninet and Philippe Gille, is based on Pierre Loti's Le Mariage de Loti and is a familiar tale of the conflict between divergent cultures and the problems it creates for a pair of star-crossed lovers. The action is laid in one of India's large cities in the 19th century, occupied by the British. This charming duet is sung by Lakme and her slave Malika in Act I where they are seen bathing in a beautiful garden.

Chopin / Michalowski / Rosenthal (Arr. Himy) - Waltz Opus 64 N°1 (Minute Waltz)

The famous "minute waltz" has always been a favorite and consequently there have been many personalized versions that were heard by great virtuosos of the turn of the century such as De Pachmann, Moszkowski, Hofmann, Ferrata and others. In an attempt to continue the tradition of the art of trans­cription and to pay homage to these great pianists, I have interwoven the versions of two Polish pianists who were indeed very close to the authentic Chopin tradition. The first is Alexander Michalowski, a Warsaw-based pianist who taught Sofronitzki and Landowska. Born in 1851, this esteemed pianist. was a pupil of Tausig and a friend of Mikuli (who was a pupil of Chopin). The other is Moritz Rosenthal, born in Lvov in 1862 and who also studied with Mikuli and later became one of the great pupils of Liszt.

Ravel / Dusmenil - Pièce En Forme de Habanera

This song was commissioned in 1907 by A.L. Hettich, a professor of voice at the Conservatoire in order to create some new vocal etudes for the students. Among the many composers who responded there was Fauré, Ibert, Roussel and Honneger. This Vocalise-Etude by Ravel reveals his Basque roots as well as his feel for color and sensuality. The Composition later achieved considerable popularity in a violin transcription, and in fact has been adapted to many other instruments such as cello, flute, and saxophone. This version was made by Maurice Dumesnil in 1955.

Bizet / Horowitz - Carmen Variations

This most famous Horowitz transcription is ba­sed on the gypsy song (Chanson Bohemienne) and dance from the second act of the Bizet opera. He apparently had first considered making his own set of variations, after performing Sarasate's violin and piano arrangement of Carmen with Milstein during their Russian tours. His version is inspired from Moszkowski's piano transcription of the same material and was made in 1923 and later revised. The result is an irresistible tour de force with an élan that was Horowitz's own.

Albeniz/Godowsky -Tango

Some of the most fascinating and challenging transcriptions in the early 20th Century were provided by Leopold Godowsky. He loved to interweave melodies, and perfume the original harmonies sometimes in a mischievous and daring fashion. The famous and alluring Tango is further spiced up by Godowsky though with a precision for detail and subtlety resulting in a richer texture than the original.

De Falla (Arr. By Composer) - El Amor Brujo

De Falla composed El Amor Brujo in 1914-15 for Pastora Imperio, the Andalucian gypsy who was the most celebrated of all the flamenco dancers. She asked the dramatist Martinez Sierra to write a single song and dance for her in collaboration with De Falla, but when the composer visited the gypsy's family - and especially on hearing her equally famous mother, Rosario "La Meorana” sing the characteristic songs of the gypsies - his imagination was fired on creating something more ambitious.

It resulted in a ballet, to libretto by Martinez Sierra derived from the ancient European folk-story of the dead lover's ghost which always appears when a new lover tries to take his place. In the ballet the lovers, Candelas and Carmelo, outwit the Specter which haunts, by having another girl distract the ghost's attention. They are able to exchange a perfect kiss which breaks the evil spell forever. This adaptation from orchestra to piano has been made by De Falla himself.

Haendel/Kempff - Minuet in G Minor from Suite No.1

"The piano for me is an entire orchestra…my orchestra." declared the great German pianist Wilhem Kempff , bom in 1895 who made this beautifully moving transcription and who passed away in 1991. It is a fitting end and tribute to the piano and to all the artists who make it live on.