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The art of transcriptions and illustrations

Sala Nezahualcoyotl
04/24/2004 -  
Gustav Holst, transcription for orchestra of the J.S. Bach, Fugue a la gigue, BWV 577.

Granville Bantock, transcription of J.S. Bach, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stime, BWV 645.

Leopold Stokowski, transcription of J.S. Bach, Komm süsser Tod, BXV 478.

Elgar transcription of the J.S. Bach, Fantasy and fugue in C minor, BWV 537.

Cesar Franck, Rédemption, morceau symphonique.

Paul Hindemith, Nobilissima visione.

Bohuslav Martinú, Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H 352.

Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM

Kenneth Montgomery

The Belfast conductor Kenneth Montgomery leaded the OFUNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra) in an “extraordinary concerto” (out of program). Since its foundation, more than fifty years ago, the OFUNAM has been conducted by some relevant musicians like the conductor Eduardo Mata (who suddenly passed away in 1995) and the composer Héctor Quintanar. Since 2002 it is conducted by the Chinese Zuohuang Chen.

The permanent venue of the OFUNAM, is the Nezahualcoyotl Hall, a modern comfortable building located in the south of Mexico City, surrounded by a unique landscape of volcanic rock, formed with the lava expelled by the Xitle, more than 6000 years ago, and the rich vegetation of the zone, mainly composed of wild plants, flowers and cactuses. The building was designed by the Mexican architects Arcadio Artis and Orso Núñez, in society with the American acoustic expert Christopher Jaffe, who followed the model of the Concertgebow of Amsterdam and the Ushers Hall of Edimburg. The name of the hall, remembers the legendary Mexican Pre-Hispanic emperor Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), known as the Poet King, because of his advanced humanistic ideas and his beautiful lyric expressions.

The main theme of the Montgomery-OFUNAM extraordinary concert was decidedly interesting: transcriptions and “illustrations”.


A transcription could be characterized in different ways: it could mean the transfer of an original work to a different environment. It could also imply to expand or reduce the original idea of a composer, or to show new perspectives of the same musical image. Talking about transcriptions, the name of J.S. Bach (1685-1750), is an obligatory reference. First because his works have been the object of many transcriptions, some of them by other great composers and musicians, like Brahms (1833-1897), Busoni (1866-1924), Lizt (1811-¬1886), Rachmaninoff (1873-¬1943) and Saint-Saëns (1835¬1921), between a large list. Second, because J.S. Bach was also a great transcriber, particularly of his admired Italian composers: Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Corelli (1653-1713).

This time the OFUNAM performed four transcriptions by four different authors of four different J.S. Bach’s works:

a) The opening work was the Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) transcription for orchestra of the BWV 577, Fugue a la gigue. This oeuvre, originally an organ work, also known as Gigue a la fugue, is not completely admitted as a Bach composition. Nonetheless it has become quite a popular work thanks to its two best known transcriptions: one for a symphonic group and other for a military band. The OFUNAM performance of this work was really good. The conversation between the main strings, the cello, viola and violin at the beginning of the work was particularly warm. Also, the climax of the work was reached successfully with the brass section at the end.

b) The second work was the Granville Bantock’s (1868-1946) transcription of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stime, BWV 645, the first of the six choral works for organ, known as Schübler, composed by J.S. Bach approximately in 1747. Mr. Montgomery’s interpretation was also good, embellished by an added emphasis on the horns.

c) The third was the Leopold Stokowski’s (1882-1977) transcription of Komm süsser Tod, BXV 478. Stokowski, well known as an expressive conductor, was also one of the most famous modern transcribers of J.S. Bach’s works. His transcriptions have been some of the most popular and recorded, but also the most criticized. Stokowski’s philosophy of transcription was based on the idea of popularity. To make original works “attractive” to the non-classical “experts”, children included. Once he said “...the music appeals to me for what can be done with it.” That was the ideal showed in the Disney’s production Fantasy and other Hollywood movies, in which he was involved. Nonetheless, the musical quality of some of the Stokowski’s transcriptions couldn’t be avoided. The BWV 478 is one of the 69 hymns of the songs collection known as Schemelli, published for the first time in 1763. With the OFUNAM, Mr. Montgomery’s interpretation of the Stokowski’s translation was soft and sweet as the title notices “Come sweet death”. The cello phrases instead the human voice of the original work, were performed simply beautiful!

d) The fourth transcription was the Elgar’s (1857-1934) of the J.S. Bach’s Fantasy and fugue in C minor, BWV 537, a work of the orchestral genre, written in 1921. This mature oeuvre is an example of the great quality of Elgar’s transcriptions. The performance by Mr. Montgomery and the OFUNAM was strong and emotive.


We, music lovers, know how music could illustrate and describe images, ideas, stories, and almost every human fact. It could wonderfully recreate the past scenes of our lives, and make us to live again past experiences in the most intensive way. This time, the OFUNAM and Mr. Montgomery performed three good examples of music “illustrations”.

a) Cesar Franck’s (1822-1890) Rédemption, morceau symphonique. This is part of the original oratory Rédemption (then a symphonic poem) composed between 1871 and 1872, with a text written by Edouard Blau. It illustrates a complex theological idea: the redemption or evolution of human beings from the savage condition to the “illumination” through faith and religion. The complete oratory was premiered unsuccessfully in 1873. Then, during the next year, it was reviewed by Franck who added new choral parts and a symphonic interlude (morceau). This part was described by him as “the world that appears under the teaching of Christ”.

Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Nobilissima visione. It was composed as a ballet piece and “illustrates” the scenes of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, painted by Giotto on the walls of the Bardi Chapel in Florence, Italy. The OFUNAM-Montgomery interpretation of this interesting work was really good. The flute parts during the three movements were played carefully. Then the passacaglia of the third movement concluded vigorous.

The third and last “illustration” was the Bohuslav Martinú’s (1890-1959) triptych Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H 352, a musical interpretation of the fabulous frescos of the Saint Francis of Assisi’s Church at Arezzo, Italy, painted by Piero della Francesca (1420-1492). Two specific parts of the frescos were represented: The Queen of Saba speaking with Salomon (first movement, andante poco moderato), and the Dream of Constantine (second movement, adagio). The third and last part of Martinú’s represented a sort of poetry, deep and sentimental.

Salvador de la Torre



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