104. Whitwell Transcriptions

Not included here are numerous modern editions I have made of early original band music and which are all listed in my Resume.  Here I include only works where it was necessary to make a basic change in the medium itself.

Bach transcriptions

The organ music of J. S. Bach is a source of wonderful music when transcribed for wind ensemble because the organ itself is, and was in historical fact, also a wind ensemble.  This is providing the wind ensemble has a seating plan which is a logical personification of the overtone series – something the importance of which very few wind ensemble conductors understand.

Bach, Chaconne in D minor

This extraordinary Chaconne exists as the fifth movement in an autograph Partita for solo violin, dating from 1720.  The scope of the work, and its homophonic style, has interested later composers, including Busoni, to arrange the music for piano.  Like some other early works of Bach, it is often Romantic and chromatic.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann in June 1877, said about the Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

The characteristic of this composition which was the root of the impact on Brahms is the fact that the work is a virtual series of variations on a four-measure theme in which each four-measure often has an individual character of its own, like so many little four-measure compositions performed one after another. This is essential for the conductor to understand, that one cannot select a beginning tempo [quarter-note = 60 is about right] and maintain it throughout the composition. In many places, these four-bar little compositions require an individual tempo, sometimes a faster tempo, and in a few places, such as the moving soft passage for solo trombone and bassoon, a much slower tempo is necessary.  Over and beyond this is an over-all architecture that builds to a powerful final cadence.

Podcast episode about the Whitwell transcription of the Bach Chaconne

I pause here to point out that the structure Bach creates here became the fundamental understanding in the variations of Beethoven.  In most composers following Bach, including Mozart, the variations seem to grow organically, each one out of the previous variation.  In Beethoven, however, like Bach in this work, each variation really is like a little separate composition and in some cases each variation seems so individual that it seems almost unrelated to the previous ones.  In his Variations on Hail Britannica for piano, for example, Variation One seems miles removed from the Theme.

This style of thinking of each four measures as a separate character is difficult for players and conductors alike and it is essential that the conductor’s decisions on style and tempi are firmly in mind before the first rehearsal.

Bach, Capriccio, “On the Departure of a Friend,” BWV 992i.

I. An Affectionate Plea to the Friend not to Embark          
II. Reflections on the Misfortunes of Travel
III. Mutual Lamentations
IV. The Farewell
V. Aria and Fugue on the Post Horn Call

This is an early work of Bach and is thought to contain his very first Fugue. The composition is usually listed as having been written for keyboard, but the autograph score does not say this and it is not written on the usual two stave format for such an instrument. In fact the work is not quite finished, with some passages not fully written out (existing only in thorough-bass figures). I believe Bach had in mind a chamber work and for this reason it makes an easy adaption for the modern wind ensemble.

In any case an early authority believed the work was written upon the departure of his brother, Johann Jacob Bach, to join the army of King Carl XII of Sweden as an oboist. Bach supplied the titles and of particular interest is the Post Horn figure in the final movement. The Post Horn, as the name suggests, was an instrument carried by mailmen and blown to alert the next village of his arrival to speed up delivery. There is a remarkable tribute to this instrument in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, being a reflection of how he remembered as a child hearing this sound floating through the valley from the previous town.  Because this sound was common to persons living in the nineteenth century in Germany, one can also find this same figure in the Scherzo of the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and in the Mendelssohn Overture for band.

My scoring of this interesting composition for the modern wind ensemble has been performed throughout Europe and much appreciated by most listeners.

Bach, Prelude BWV 922

I dare say most of us in school were made familiar with primarily the late church music of J. S. Bach, together with a few keyboard and violin solo works. Gradually, as one has time, one discovers the remarkable variety of music contained in that vast output by the great master.   Some of the early more Romantic compositions are a surprise as we tend to forget that Bach did not always look like his Leipzig portraits, but was also once young and Romantic.

A recent discovery, and shock, for me was the Prelude, BWV 922, an extraordinary example of minimalism.  And as is usually the case, when one has come to conclude that one has heard all there is to hear in some style, such as minimalism, along comes Bach who casts the entire field into subservience by the genius of his harmonic vocabulary.  His seemingly endless variations on so simple a figure is itself a textbook of harmonic development.

To the eye, this composition may look difficult, but because of the slow tempo it is not.  Even the bravura beginning woodwind passage, which may look impossible to a conductor, is only typical of the rapid diatonic passages every woodwind player plays every day in warming up.  Thus in this passage we see not Bach’s challenge, but a testimonial of his own powers of observation.

The scoring for the modern wind ensemble is mine.

Bach, Gigue, BWV 828

From Partita for Keyboard No. 4 in D Major, Opus 1, No. 4, BWV 828.

Transcribed by David Whitwell.


Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)

“Song for the grave of my mother”

From the Suite No. 2, Op. 34a, BV 242 “Geharnischte Suite,” transcribed by David Whitwell.

The Ring of Wagner

First of all, I believe it is important to acquaint the reader with the fact that Wagner was very familiar with and often heard military band concerts and never had any aesthetic objections in doing so.  He did, however, have musical objections, particularly in the case of German bands and their conductors and he criticized them strongly, in particular regarding the tempi,  in his literary papers.  It is worthy of note that on one occasion, during the Winter of 1858–1859 in Venice, he was quite delighted to hear an Austrian band perform arrangements of his music.  He recalled this in his autobiography.

Strangely enough, it was the thoroughly German element of good military music, to which so much attention is paid in the Austrian army, that brought me into touch with public life in Venice.  The conductors in the two Austrian regiments quartered there began playing overtures of mine, “Rienzi” and “Tannhauser” for instance, and invited me to attend their rehearsals in their barracks.  There I also met the whole staff of officers, and was treated by them with great respect.  These bands played on alternate evenings amid brilliant illuminations in the middle of the Piazza San Marco, whose acoustic properties for this class of production were really excellent.  I was often suddenly startled towards the end of my meal by the sound of my own overtures; then, as I sat at the restaurant window giving myself up to impressions of the music, I did not know which dazzled me most, the incomparable piazza magnificently illuminated and filled with countless numbers of moving people, or the music that seemed to be borne away in rustling glory to the winds.  Only one thing was missing that might certainly have been expected from an Italian audience: the people were gathered around the band in thousands listening most intently, but no two hands ever forgot themselves so far as to applaud, as the least sign of approbation of Austrian military music would have been looked upon as treason to the Italian Fatherland.

A letter Wagner wrote at this time (October 24, 1858) thanking one of these Austrian conductors reveals, more than the passage from his autobiography quoted above, his genuine appreciation.

Honorable Conductor,

I could not find you in the Piazza yesterday to thank you for the wonderful performance of the “Rienzi Overture,” so today I do this in this written form.  I appreciated it very much that your musicians had noticed everything, had marked everything so well and brought everything out correctly.  From the very beginning it was perfect, with the tempo entirely correct.  [My only suggestion is that] four bars before the Allegro there should be more drums and very strong; that place is dull.

Once again, the best thanks and the assurance that you have made it very enjoyable for me.

 In terms of the history of the concert band, it is very interesting that there is extant one lengthy transcription for band of the “Brunhilde’s Awakening” scene from Siegfried, one of the four operas which constitute The Ring, in which Wagner himself participated in the transcription.  A note on the score reads, “This composition was arranged, with the approval and under the supervision [Aufsicht] of Richard Wagner.”  The text, which can be dated 1878,  continues,

for the band of the 7th Bavarian Infanterie-Regiment, by Anton Seidl and Gottfried Sonntag (“Kg. Rechnungsrat a.D. in Bayreuth”).  The new instrumentation [of this published version] was done by Oskar Junger, Kg. Obermusikmeister, 7th Bavarian Infanterie-Regiment “Prinz Leopold” in Bayreuth

The association with Wagner personally is strengthened by the fact that Anton Seidl was at this time the principal copyist and disciple of Wagner and was actually living with Wagner. The fact that this transcription was done for a local regimental band stationed at Bayreuth adds weight to the possibility of participation by Wagner.

The study of this work is complicated by the fact that Oertel published not the Seidl-Sonntag-Wagner version, but a later one revised by Junger. Further, the extant score is only a three-stave condensed score with no list of the complete instrumentation. Therefore whatever set of parts one might find is burdened by the fact that one is never completely sure if everything is complete. I am confident that the set of published parts I found in an attic in Graz, Austria, which is now in the “Whitwell Archiv” in the National Library in Trossingen, is not complete.

The question of the validity of transcriptions of Wagner’s music is not only encouraged by the several extant letters by Wagner praising bands he heard and their conductors but also by the fact that during his lifetime another transcription cycle taken from the Ring was also created.  These were made by Arthur Seidel, a military conductor and composer, who was born April 13, 1849 in Neisse and died March 28, 1910 in Breslau, and were published by Schott during the 1880s.

During the latter part of his life, Wagner accepted monies in advance from Schott with the promise of giving them future works to publish, a fact confirmed in his autobiography, My Life. I was told, while visiting the publisher in Mainz in 1977, that the engagement of Seidel to prepare The Ring band arrangements was an attempt on the part of the publisher to recoup some of the monies given the composer. The understanding at Schott, in 1977, was that Seidel had done these arrangements from the actual autograph scores, which disappeared during World War II and have not yet been found.

Seidel prepared a Fantasie, on Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Das Gotterdammerung, each consisting of twenty minutes, or more, each of non-stop music. Seidel had earlier published projects of this nature, but they tended to be traditional “pot-pourri” works consisting of rapidly changing excerpts and melodies. What makes the Ring Fantasies so much more successful is that they consist of much lengthy portions of the music. On the other hand, in my opinion, each of the Fantasies contains about fifteen-minutes of beautiful, inspired transcription, with the remaining five minutes or so suffering from awkward modulations, weak connection points, and some scoring which just doesn’t sound well.

But this is not to detract from Seidel’s accomplishment:  he was making band transcriptions of music no one had ever yet heard and within these vast operatic scores he certainly found the right passages to transcribe. We must also credit Schott, whose aesthetic ideals prompted them to publish these gigantic band scores at a time when German military bands were already traveling full speed on their long decline down to the lowest popular repertoire. Several large band libraries in the United States own copies of the Seidel transcriptions, including the Marine Band, Eastman School of Music, and the University of Illinois.

I have also made my own transcriptions of music from the four operas of the Ring. My original desire to spend some four months in the Summer of 1988 in making these transcriptions [about 15 minutes each of Walkure and Das Gotterdammerung, and about 7 ½ minutes each of Reingold and Siegfried] was the result of a rehearsal one day of the Trauermusik. In discussion with my ensemble it came to my notice that not a single member of the ensemble had ever heard any music of Wagner. I was quite shocked by this, even taking into consideration the environment of Los Angeles, because this is such beautiful music. While I had in the past rarely performed transcriptions, the history of Wagner’s appreciation of bands and his apparent contribution earlier in making a transcription from the Ring allowed me to feel less concerned over the debate on the validity of transcriptions in general. In addition, my frustration with the uneven quality of the Seidel/Schott publications had prevented me from performing them more than once and so I elected to make my own, which are available from Craig Dabelstein’s catalog “Maxime’s: Music of Distinction.”  These have proven in performance to be very effective, due again to the great musical quality of the music itself. Some reviews of my transcriptions from the Ring are given below.

Received your tape recording of the Ring today.  Thanks very much.  You have supplied the band world with another fine and practical arrangement.  I should like to do it.

Leon Bly, April 18, 1989, Stuttgart, Germany, Stuttgart School of Music

Just a note to thank you for your wonderful Wagner tape.  I really enjoyed it and was, as always, impressed by your ensemble and your musicianship.  Larry Sutherland just did your edition of “Gotterdammerung” at the Wind Festival last weekend – fine job.

Gregg Hanson, April 18, 1989, Salt Lake City, UT, University of Utah

Just before leaving Chicago I slipped your Wagner Ring tape in my briefcase.  I have just finished listening to the entire tape both sides.  What a tremendous job you have done.  Your band plays the arrangements exceptionally well.  There are many sections I have never heard arranged for band.  Did you do all the arrangements?  Regardless, congratulations on one mighty fine tape.

Ed Gangware, April 28, 1989, Nashville, TN

I played your arrangement of Excerpts from “Siegfried” on our Southeast United States Band Clinic Concert last week.  It was truly outstanding in every way.  It is a great transcription and without a doubt one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever heard.  Dr. Frederick Fennell and Dr. Jay Julian were at the concert and they really did enjoy it as well.  There was no question in anyone’s mind that Excerpts of “Siegfried” was truly beautiful.

You are very gifted, extremely talented and your transcriptions are some of the very best I have ever heard.  I hope that every effort will be made to have them published so that the really fine collegiate bands will have a chance to play them.  These arrangements have been long needed for the college repertoire and it would be unfortunate unless many of the university bands are aware of them.  You may be sure that I will do everything possible to make the conductors aware of your marvelous transcriptions and your truly great talent.

John M. Long, Feb. 12, 1990, Troy, AL, Troy State University

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

At some point in my experience at Northridge I was given a score and parts for a transcription for band of the famous Stravinsky Rite of Spring.  Since I was blessed with an ensemble which could play anything, I immediately programmed this work.  But it turned out there were so many mistakes in the individual parts that rehearsal was impossible.  I concluded that the only solution was to ask the members of the ensemble to go out and buy a recording of this composition, listen to it while looking at their individual parts and make the necessary corrections by ear.  They did this and we performed the work.

But the frustration remained that such a worthwhile experience was so impossible for most bands, so I determined to make a new error-free set of parts for a transcription of my own.  I had concluded that the original transcriber had used a Kalmas orchestral score, as the rehearsal numbers matched those of his score and parts.  So I took my copy of the Kalmus score and decided to make this a free-time project when traveling.  At this time I was guest conducting a great number of honor bands and the enjoyment of working with superb students was made uncomfortable by my inevitably being housed in a small room with nothing but a bed, desk and TV, in some poor motel in some small town, miles from a decent restaurant.  So I took my Kalmus score, together with the necessary manuscript paper for making parts and beginning with the piccolo during my free time in my next motel room I proceeded to make my own transcription.  This turned out to consume a number of motel stays and, in fact, I don’t think I finished the resultant 600 manuscript pages until a following period of two years when my family moved to Salzburg.

But it was done and I performed my new transcription several times.  For any reader who would like to program my transcription there are two problems.  First,  I donated my set of parts to the band library at the University of Illinois [and I know of at least one occasion when they copied or lent them out for a performance elsewhere], but there is no score.  I did not need one to conduct rehearsals and performances, but if one can obtain a Kalmus orchestral score it will suffice for use with my set of parts for, as mentioned above, my rehearsal numbers are in the same places as in the Kalmus score together with the fact that the original music is much more wind and percussion oriented than it is for strings.

The other problem is one regarding permission to perform this work.  It came to my attention when a friend at the University of Toronto in Canada who had been sent my parts had begun rehearsal only to be stopped by whoever had acquired the performance rights when the old Russian-American edition of the original 1913 music was made.  This London-based law held the work could be programmed in the US, but not in Canada.  In the subsequent more than 40 years I know there have been many changes in international copyright laws and I have a feeling that the Rite of Spring is now in public domain, but if a reader outside of the US wants to perform this version this issue should be investigated.  In addition, I might add that changes at the Library of Congress now bestow copyright automatically, with no money or paper work, on books created by an author.  In any case no permission nor fees are due me to use my edition.

Yes I did listen to your performance of the Rite of Spring. Schonberg and Strauss. I wrote several weeks ago how impressed I am with your performances.  Dave – I want you to know, these performances are tremendous.

William D. Revelli, University of Michigan, 1977

In addition to the above, there are two more subjects I wish to discuss.  The first is the matter of difficulty.  When one first opens a score to The Rite of Spring one is likely to be startled by the apparent difficulties.  However, any single line of the score, such as for example the first clarinet part, taken by itself is not so difficult looking and, in fact, contains very little which is out of the ordinary experience of the modern player.  So, in fact, the score is not that difficult to perform and the piece is an impressive selection if one has a scheduled performance before a gathering of musicians for whom one wishes to introduce the technical skill of his ensemble.

But for the conductor, it is a different story, for the work is out of the ordinary appearance of scores one usually conducts.  The conductor who is accustomed to just conducting what his eye sees on paper will never be able to conduct this score because the meter changes come so frequently and fast that it is impossible to communicate with the ensemble in advance unless one really knows what comes next.  But it is a wonderful challenge and education for the conductor to experience this.  If one is willing to spend the time to really learn the piece, it will no longer seem difficult.  Even though I rehearsed the work without a score, as was my usual custom, I never at any time thought I was doing something anyone else could not do.  This brings to mind an occasion when I received a phone call from a freshman student asking if he could come over to my house and be given 35 minutes of my time.  Of course!  This was Gary Pratt who arrived with an LP and proceeded to conduct the entire Rite of Spring without a score.  He wanted to prove to himself that he could do what I do.  Even though Gary was one of the most gifted students I ever had at CSUN, and is today a leading performer and conductor in Los Angeles, he as a freshman demonstrated what is possible.

The other subject I want to discuss is a question of musicality.  We have to remind ourselves that the Rite of Spring was composed for dancers and what one sees the dancers portraying on the stage is what really communicates the “story” of the Rite of Spring.  For this reason, I personally have never thought of this particular Stravinsky composition as being very interesting.   After performing it half a dozen times it began to sound rather boring to me, so consequently I never programmed it again.

Verdi Requiem

As was the case with the Ring of Wagner, one reason I took the time to transcribe some 15 minutes of the Verdi was just so my students could get to know this great music – there being in Los Angeles only the most rare occasions when it could be heard live.  And also, frankly, just so I could get to conduct this music.  Such is the power of this music that just the very act of writing the individual notes on paper was thrilling as I found myself singing each note!

There are two unusual stories associated with my rehearsal of this transcription at my university.  First, one of the vocal majors who happened by and listened to some of a rehearsal said to me afterwards, “My! Without the singers this is GREAT music!”  Whereupon it was necessary to beg the student not to repeat this before their vocal teacher!

Another story was associated with a dress rehearsal at a time before our real music hall was constructed and at which time we were forced to perform in a large, very resonant hall almost like a gym.  On the adjoining walls of the stage area were two gigantic industrial clocks.  My transcription ends with a great cadence following the mighty fugue and in this dress rehearsal the students became so excited that the vibrations of their final chord actually caused one of these clocks to explode!  We all sat in silent amazement as parts of the clock trickled down to the floor.  Obviously some additional rehearsal was necessary to achieve a sufficient ending but without causing the other clock to explode before the public.  But as we began again, I could see them looking at the clock on the other wall, with an evil look in their little eyes, so I had to beg them, “No, Don’t do it!!”

This incident reminded me of another occasion when I was adjudicating in Southern California when the performances were in a very large gym which also had one of these big clocks in the ceiling.  I was listening to a small band which had a conductor who was so sound asleep that she seemed unrelated to the performance of her band and subsequently the band members were also asleep.  The performance was so bad that I was wondering if I dared giving them a V.  Then, suddenly in the middle of their performance this great clock accidently went off, making a continuous sound as loud as the band.  This crisis caused the conductor to wake up and begin frantic cuing to keep the band together.  The band members also woke up, looking left and right and listening carefully to see if they were playing in the right place, etc.  The combined result was that this performance was suddenly first class!   But I was at a loss trying to think how I was going to explain to the conductor in my written adjudication form that it took a fire alarm bell to accomplish a goal of music education?

All my transcriptions, except the Stravinsky, are available in Craig Dabelstein’s amazing catalog, “Maximes’s: Music of Distinction,” at concertbandmusicstore.com.