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Perpetuated Genius: An Exploration of the Bach Legacy through Transcriptions by Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, and Leopold Godowsky

By Eliot Grasso

Nominated by Lisa Weiss, Artist in Residence

From the Author: "'Notation' ('writing down') brings up the subject of Transcription, nowadays a term much misunderstood, almost discreditable. The frequent antagonism which I have excited with 'transcriptions', and the opposition to which an oftimes irrational criticism has provoked me, caused me to seek clear understanding of this point. My final conclusion is this: Every notation is, in itself, a transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form."  - Ferruccio Busoni in A New Esthetic of Music (1907)

I began considering Perpetuated Genius in 2002 during my second year at Goucher College. As a piano and organ student, Bach’s instrumental music and the transcriptions thereof had become a growing curiosity of mine, so it seemed fitting to devote an entire thesis to the subject. Another impetus for selecting this topic was my interest in the transcribing of idiomatic Donegal fiddling repertoire and techniques to the Irish uilleann pipes. The idea that certain Irish tunes are suitable only for a particular instrument was one that I sought to rebut. All musics embodying elements of the eternal are suitable for any medium, hence my thesis. Bach’s Chaconne in D minor imbues the same profundity whether it is rendered by a violin, piano, organ, or orchestra.

Perpetuated Genius traces and discusses transcriptions of Bach’s music via three monolithic figures in the history of pianism: Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, and Leopold Godowsky. Each pianist’s transcriptions offer a unique perspective on Bach’s music while faithfully maintaining the original affect through the preservation of the composer’s foundation: harmony. Liszt’s conservative transcription of Bach’s organ preludes and fugues contrast delightfully compared to Godowsky’s rather free renderings of Bach’s works for violin and cello. Busoni’s virtuosic arrangements of Bach’s organ works display unique coloration against the stark renderings of Liszt’s.

The eternal nature of Bach’s music is manifested many times over throughout music history’s course. Perpetuated Genius is devoted to the efforts and examples of Liszt, Busoni, and Godowsky because theirs are the most creative, influential, and penetrating in keyboard literature.

From the Faculty Nominator: In “Perpetuated Genius,” Eliot Grasso makes a thorough and convincing case for the importance and validity of an ongoing legacy left by Johann Sebastian Bach: that of the numerous transcriptions of Bach’s works which composers ranging from Franz Liszt to Bela Fleck have been inspired to compose – both as a tribute to Bach’s genius and as a way of “expanding and reiterating Bach’s ideas in many different ways.” Grasso’s focuses on Bach transcriptions for piano by Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, and Leopold Godowsky, three composer/pianists of diverse personal and musical styles by whom “the most interesting, varied and creative arrangements (of Bach’s music) have come to light.” Grasso’s reverence for Bach is everywhere in evidence. An interesting component of this paper is the author’s discussion of Bach’s own experimentation with transcriptions, having used many of his predecessors’ works, including those of Vivaldi and Marcello, for material. Bach also frequently transcribed his own works for different instruments. Elsewhere, Grasso substantiates methods by which to distinguish talent from genius, with Bach placed squarely in the latter category, and speaks eloquently about the universality and longevity of Bach’s legacy. As music which transcends specific instrumentation and is therefore, “absolute music” without peer (according to Grasso), Bach’s compositions are particularly well-suited to the art of transcription. Grasso supplies the reader with informative analyses and comparisons between specific transcriptions by Liszt, Busoni and Godowsky, as well as those by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Respighi, Schoenberg, Holst and others, commenting frequently about the merits – or lack thereof – of the various compositions in relation to Bach himself and in relation as well to the overall historical development of music. In the back of the paper, the author supplies useful appendices denoting titles, dates, and editions of Bach transcriptions by Liszt, Busoni, and Godowsky.

Read:  Perpetuated Genius: An Exploration of the Bach Legacy through Transcriptions by Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, and Leopold Godowsky

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