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Transcribing Mendelssohn

I’m working on a variety of pieces for my spring recital program, “Music that Should Have Been Written for the Oboe, Part Two”.  It’s an ambitious program - the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Bach E Major Partita, Gershwin Three Preludes - and more works still to be determined, I’m sure.

When I did Part One of this program, ten years ago(!) I prided myself on performing from the original parts.  In other words, I was reading the Dvorak Cello Concerto in bass clef and tenor clef and with the original double and triple stops in place, and relying on my preparation to remind me where I had decided to jump up or down an octave or which of the multiple notes I had decided to play or how exactly I had modified a given lick.  I was reading a Debussy piano score and following my little penciled arrows from one interior line to another.  I had memorized a few pieces just to accommodate the page turns - and to show off.  All of this took a lot of time to prepare, and a lot of repetition to cement in my head.

Regrettably, that is not the kind of time I have to devote to my current program.  When I met with my awesome pianist to read the Mendelssohn for the first time, I discovered to my dismay that I was nowhere near being able to play through it, in spite of having worked on every page.  I just couldn’t keep track, in real time, of which octave I should start a phrase in, or how I had decided to cope with an unplayable lick, or which notes in a huge string crossing passage I had planned to leave out.  Granted this was a few months ago and I’ve spent more time on the piece since - but I have also come to terms with the limits of my time and my ten-years-older brain. 

There’s a LOT of pencil in there now, and a three-page pullout rewrite of the oboe version of the violin cadenza.  I’ve actually learned how to work in a notation program on the computer, something I was sure I would never need to do.  I’m pretty confident that the first movement will come together in time for my October preview performance, and that I know how to tackle the second and third once that initial show is under my belt.

See, I learn!  Ten years ago I put brute force practicing into my transcription recital - spending hours repeating and learning the tunes until I could not miss them, even in tenor clef, even with isolated notes that I had to bounce to different octaves, even with rolled double stops,  and THIS year I spent two evenings in front of my computer, adjusting inversions and articulations to transform material I couldn’t play into material I could.  Now that I have a legible version of the cadenza that is all within my range and playable as written, I can JUST READ IT.  Not that it doesn’t require practice, but it doesn’t require committing to heart, and that is going to save me HOURS AND HOURS of time.  I love it.

Why should I work so hard to play music not written for my instrument?  In some cases, I just love the tunes so much I want to OWN them.  Sometimes, I think that a certain piece will play well to an audience, and I don’t mind putting in the work to that end.  Sometimes, I’m just intrigued by the technique and I think “I could do THAT!”  I’ve experimented with pieces and reluctantly decided that they were NOT well suited to the oboe.  The Haydn Trumpet Concerto, for example - turns out that what makes that piece so awesome is the trumpet.  It doesn’t sound impressive or difficult when I play it, and after a few pleasant reading sessions I scrapped it. 

But I am loving the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, especially the passages that don’t work on the oboe.  Some are way too rangy or rely too much on string techniques like double stops, and some don’t allow for breathing.  It’s interesting to see how I can modify Mendelssohn’s music for an oboe, while also maintaining its challenge.

For every passage, there’s a way that I could rewrite it to be comfortable on my instrument.  But that’s not always the path I choose.  After all, if Mendelssohn had wanted to write an oboe concerto he could have done it.  Part of the point is the bravura aspect of playing technique I was never meant to play.  Some things were intended to be hard even for the violin - that’s why grown-up soloists perform it and record it.  If it were all easy, it would be in one of the Suzuki books and I wouldn’t bother. 

So my first tactic is to just practice the licks as written.  If I can get close to tempo after a day of work, I’ll just keep working and eventually conquer a difficult thing and be proud.  If the oboe just won’t do something - like slur effortlessly up to a double-high B or leap octaves within a fast triplet passage, I will change it, but I try to preserve the level of intensity and make difficult violin tricks into difficult oboe tricks by turning triplet octaves into triple tonguing, double stops into fast melodic slurs, long string crossing passages into long circular breathing ones.  It seems only fair. 

There are also melodic passages which are perfectly playable, but which sound weird because the highest register of the oboe is not as sweet and pretty as the E string on the violin. I have worked hard to be fluent in my altissimo range, but I have to admit that it is not the best part of the instrument.  We tend to get more and more labored and squeaky in the third octave, rather than more and more pure, so part of the transcription process is making choices about register.    Often I choose to bring melodies down into the clef - in these cases I am not exactly making the piece easier, but more idiomatic.  It’s not particularly hard for a violinist to sing in his extreme high register, so I don’t feel I’m cheating by playing the tunes where the oboe can make them sound good.  I save the high A’s for places where they are dramatically necessary.

It’s been an interesting challenge - sort of a combination of doing a sudoku, writing a novel, and practicing really intensively for weeks on end.  I’m proud of my work so far and can’t wait to show it off.

You can hear me play the first movement on October 4 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago - details HERE - and the entire piece at a few different Indiana venues in the spring.  Watch this space!


  1. Ooo, I LOVE that piece!!! It's been on my bucket list forever. Have you looked at the transcriptions for flute? You might find it interesting to see what they did. Of course, flute sounds good up high. I would love to hear the recording of you playing it.


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