Transcriptions have always fascinated me. I grew up listening to them, collecting them, and practicing them (what a wonderful way to build technique). This part of the repertoire is something that feels very natural to me and something I will always enjoy. Chopin, for whatever reason, is one of the least transcribed composers. Other than the extraordinary étude transcriptions by Leopold Godowsky and several other examples by pianists like Balakirev and Michalowski, there really is not much out there. Perhaps that’s why this particular example interests me so much.
Unfortunately, transcriptions are one of the most controversial and hotly debated parts of the repertoire. Some say: “Why play transcriptions when you can enjoy the real thing - for instance, why play Chopin/Liszt when you can enjoy Chopin in all his (untouched) glory?” Well, the easy answer to that question is that it allows pianists the chance to enjoy music that we otherwise would not be able to enjoy. This includes transcriptions of opera, orchestral works, and songs. What a wonderful feeling it is to have a glorious operatic tune flowing through your fingers - and what excitement and joy they can bring (when played well) to audiences! Another incredibly interesting and even important thing about transcriptions, is that they give us a glimpse into a composers world THROUGH the eyes (not to mention heart and soul) of another. So, in other words, we’re not just getting Liszt’s rearrangement of a Chopin or Schubert song - but we are seeing and experiencing Chopin or Schubert through Liszt.
Liszt made piano transcriptions of six of Chopin’s songs. The one I have been performing recently is titled My Joys. It lasts but a few minutes but contains some of the most gorgeous writing for the instrument I have encountered - and in complete pianistic glory in Liszt’s sensitive and evocative treatment. Something that is especially interesting about this piece is the vocal quality of the writing. Chopin’s piano music is always very vocally conceived, even when the writing is not always, in my opinion, pianistically comfortable (more on that in a future post). In this transcription we have not only another piano piece, but a song capable of being sung on the piano (after all, that’s what it’s all about) - and all thanks to Liszt.