‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ ( some thoughts on transcription)

Posted on October 28th, 2019 by

Rehearsing the transcription in Dover, 26 10 19

In my travels through the literature for solo instrument, it becomes clearer to me that the barrier between solo and chamber works is not only porous, but imaginative. At ever time in history, including our own, composers have been practical and fascinated by the opportunities offered by hearing and playing their works in different formats, scales and levels of intricacy. Think of the relationship between Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the eponymous piano variations, the Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, the Kontretanze where the full theme first appeared, and even the Rondino for piano and violin, which is both one of the first shoots and most interesting triburaties of this sharing of an idea. And I have not even begun to talk about the transcriptions which the composer authorised. LINK

On the practice desk. My solo version of the anonymous passacaglia on “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

This summer, I spent some time with the anonymous 17th century sonata for violin and continuo – “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”. The chorale on which this is becased was written by Philipp Nicolai in 1597 and first published in 1599. I wanted to play it alongside a number of ground-bass/division style works from the period in a series of concerts in the autumn.

Over the past few years, it had become clear to me that, from my point of view, quite a number of division or variation-form works do not always gain from being played with continuo. Tartini’s remark about preferring to play his sonatas ‘sin basetto’, and that such performance was ofter his ‘true intention’, speaks to me, not just of his practice, but the likely preference of many virtuosi (both his successors and antecedents). Curiously, in the early music world, this practice is far more common/accepted in the ‘gamba-world’, than among violinists.

I think that part of the problem, is that a sizeable majority of fiddlers come to what they often call ‘unaccompanied’ music by way of Bach, Paganini and more recent solo works. A significant tranche of the popular solo repertoire treats the violin by itself as if it an exercise in plate-spinning – trying to keep as many things in the air as possible, or making the very centre of the activity some sort of musical (or unmusical) apology for so much being ‘missing’. This is not Bach or Paganini’s fault but rather that of the ‘massive’ approach to the medium that emerged in the early to mid twentieth century.

This has never been the position taken by, for instance, fluteplayers, who look back at history through the delicate lenses of the Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’, the 12 Flute Fantasias of Georg Phillipp Telemann, and indeed, the light-food Bach A minor ‘Partita’ for their instrument.

Indeed, if one looks at the most significant bodies of music for violin by itself, published in any century, it is music intended for dancing, and this pragmatic use of the solo instrument gently found its way from the collections of Playford in the 17th Century, through to the extensive transcription of solo violin folk music from the mid 1800s onwards, which continues to this day. If there is one thing which links these approaches together, it’s a lack of worry about the presence, or absence of a bass line, a continuo, or of accompaniment, if we must use that word….

It has been fascinating, over recent years, to, if you like, reverse-engineer from the last of the Biber ‘Mystery Sonatas’, no 16, which is the only one for violin alone, and to speculate on what the composer might have done, when and if he found himself with reduced forces for the earlier ones. Here’s my version of the 4th sonata-recorded during the process of building a solo reading.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Sonata 4 in D minor, ‘The Presentation’/Scordatura dada/Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Violin (Anon. Brescia ca. 1570)/Workshop recording 31 3 19 Wapping

Taking an absolutist view of instrumentation would be counter-intuitive with pretty much any music, but especially with the works of the 17th/18th and early 19th century, which were written by performer composers who were primarily professional improvisers. There can be no violinist who has not at some point obliged a request for a work in their ears and fingers, but in a situation where there’s no piano, orchestra or ensemble, to flesh out the ‘correct’ instrumentation.