Famous arrangers and transcribers

WEDNESDAY, December 4, 2019

(Be sure to choose which you prefer at the end. There are two recordings, one for piano, the other for full orchestra. )

Arrangements and transcriptions…

We do not usually, if ever, talk about an arranger from before the 1900s. If, for instance, I were to say, “Liszt was a great arranger”, it sounds a bit strange. That’s just not the way we normally look at things. Usually we think of arranging as adding, modifying and being rather free with someone else’s ideas, whereas “transcribing” is generally used for rewriting a piece of music, either solo or ensemble, for another instrument or other instruments. (Technically the human voice is included as “an instrument”.)

However, these convenient labels are a bit fuzzy in practice. For instance, when Liszt transcribed all of Beethoven’s Symphonies for solo piano, he had to rewrite many things. Boiling down something written for a whole orchestra into a version just for two hands is an incredibly difficult and creative process. In other words, there is not necessarily a clear dividing line between what is an arrangement and what is a transcription. Here are a couple really famous transcriptions, showing how they were originally composed and how they were transcribed/arranged.

Anne Queffélec is the artist playing…

You can, of course, listen to all of this, but the most famous Gymnopédie is the first one, which lasts less than four minutes. It is one of the simplest and most elegant small pieces ever written, and in fact was used by Blood Sweat and Tears, a rock band that became famous in the late 60s. In fact, although the title of the video says “Gymnopédies”, this is what you will actually hear, and all these little pieces are charming:

  • Gymmopedie No. 1.
  • Gnossienne No. 1
  • Gnossienne No. 3
  • GnossienneNo. 4
  • Gnossienne No. 2


Satie/Debussy – Gymnopédie III and I {Orchestrated}

Now here is Debussy’s view of Satie’s music. This is not just the originals simply adding more instruments. There is more to it, so they are arrangement, but Debussy attempted to stay very close to the original. You might call them “free transcriptions”. Debussy wrote his transcriptions starting with the third, then moving to the first. Among other things you might notice a gong, his choice, and arpeggiated harp chords. This is what makes his ideas more arrangements than just transcriptions.

Now, which do you prefer? Just piano? Orchestra? Or do you like both? Please leave a short comment expressing your choice…

4 thoughts on “Famous arrangers and transcribers

  1. I especially liked the orchestral version, the textures of the different instruments. I used to hear the start of the original piano version at the start of a nature show (Audubon wildlife…. ?) with a water scene and a heron. Now I can’t hear the music without seeing a heron.

    Transcribing and arranging – I was always iffy about the two words.

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