I used to think that Bach's music was so magically universal that it could be transcribed into any format at all. Well, yes ... to some extent. But I was misled by the quality of Stokowski's superb orchestral transcriptions. There actually are bad transcriptions.

    Joachim Raff, a teacher and third-rate composer of the mid-19th century, made a hideous transcription of the towering Chaconne in D minor. Its texture is so thick and muddy --- a remarkable perversion of a piece written for a solo violin --- that it sounds like Brahms trying to imitate Bach. Not as awful, but still pretty bad, is an orchestration by Arnold Schönberg of the St. Anne organ Prelude and Fugure in E-flat. The lines aren't as muddy as Raff's, but the fin de 19iéme siécle rhetoric makes it sound like a mash-up of Bach with Mahler or early Schönberg. Schönberg the egomaniac --- who imagined that his sterile 12-tone system was a whole new musical universe --- couldn't imagine himself into Bach's universe.

    Interestingly, there are much better Bach transcriptions for orchestra by Schönberg's contemporary Ottorino Respighi. Respighi's own pieces, like the familiar "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome," are colorful and cinematic, but he was also a lover of early music who respected the traditions he delved into in his transcriptions. For example, his three Ancient Dances and Airs suites, based on Renaissance lute pieces, are absolutely beautiful, and deservedly among Respighi's most popular works. He transcribed a Bach sonata for violin and continuo by simply and effectively rescoring the continuo part for string orchestra, in much the way Bach himself might have done. His orchestrations of chorale preludes are suitably restrained and moving. His version of the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is powerful without being garish, with every line clear in the final double fugue. It is as good as Stokey's version, and I'm sure either one of them would please JSB.

    --- Dr. Phage
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