Updated: Dec 13, 2020
A few years ago I said I would play Schelomo, a cello concerto, on my senior bass recital. I'm not sure how serious I was when I said that, but with my senior recital (finally) looming in the near future and not being one to eat my own words, I've decided to give it a shot.
Schelomo is probably my favorite piece of music ever written. I stumbled upon it by accident in 11th or 12th grade when I found a copy of Yo-Yo Ma's The New York Album in a CD cabinet at my parent's house. At the time, it contained some of the most interesting writing I had ever heard: strange scales, dense orchestration, complex harmonies, etc, and it was one of the pivotal pieces that made me want to pursue music as something more than a hobby. I also discovered it during a rather ...tumultuous... time in my life, so transcribing and performing this piece (plus getting a music degree at all) feels like the ultimate accomplishment.
Bloch wrote Schelomo in the midst of World War I during his Jewish Cycle (1911-1926). Using the book of Ecclesiastes as inspiration, he initially sought to create a vocal work, but indecision over language and a meeting with the cellist Alexander Barjansky ultimately persuaded him otherwise. He replaced the vocal part with a more "universal" voice, a cello that represents King Solomon, and he dedicated the resulting piece to Barjansky and his wife. This article is worth a read if you want some more info on Bloch and the circumstances that led to Schelomo. There is a short analysis of the piece at the end, too!
Arguments for Bass Transcriptions
Transcription is something of a touchy subject in the classical music world. Some musicians view it as total heresy and some view it as valid means of expression. Even bassists, a group for whom most of the standard rep is transcriptions (cough Eccles cough), seem divided on the matter. I take a pretty libertarian stance on transcription: I think you should be free to play whatever rep you want to play, regardless of the original instrument. I especially believe this if like bassists, you play an instrument that has long been neglected and underserved by composers.
I think it's also important to remember that transcription, in some form or another, has been a part of music for centuries. Many of our most beloved composers transcribed or adapted existing works into new settings and Dragonetti, the bassist who himself wrote a number of bass works, was known to play violin parts on bass.
Bass transcriptions of Schelomo also already exist: Boguslaw Furtok, Nate West, Nina Descare, and Jeff Bradetich all have recordings on Youtube. Knowing all this makes me feel a bit better about attempting this project. At least what I'm doing isn't completely out of the ordinary...
And let's not forget what King Solomon said:
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
Tuning and Register
As is the case with many bass transcriptions, determining the best register in which to play the transcribed music is going to be an issue with Schelomo. Most of the cello part can be played at pitch on bass, but the highest note on my fingerboard is D5 and the piece regularly calls for notes up to a fifth higher than that. I think a good transcription involves balancing the original musical intention with what's technically feasible on the new instrument, so I have decided to take a hybrid approach to this transcription: some passages will be taken down an octave while the rest will be played at pitch.
Deciding which passages to transpose is the next issue, however. I mentioned above that my highest note is D5 and that the cello part frequently goes as high as A5. What I didn't mention is how often those high notes consist of either Eb5 or E5: two notes that manage to be simultaneously easy and difficult to play with a standard-length fingerboard. Figuring out how to handle those notes and the passages in which they occur brings me to another concern, tuning.
As I see it, I could use one of these three tunings for this transcription:
Standard/Orchestral Tuning: G, D, A, E (plus extension notes)
Pros: No need to restring, I can take advantage of the resonance of the open G and D strings, familiar harmonics to guide intonation and finger placement, no need to transpose the entire piece by a whole step
Cons: High notes are harder to play- especially the oft-occurring Eb5 and E5, makes a few other passages in D-centered tonalities more difficult, not really the usual choice for solo recital tuning
Solo Tuning: A, E, B, F#
Pros: Eb5 and E5 are on the fingerboard, G5 and A5 are harmonics, enhanced sonority from solo strings, high A string like a cello, conventional solo tuning
Cons: Solo strings are hugely inconvenient when you only have one bass and other responsibilities, transposing, loss of familiar landmarks and open strings, orchestral or solo extension strings??
Hybrid Tuning: A, D, A, E (D with extension)
Pros: Perfect fifth between top two strings facilitates some string crossings and allows me to use cello fingerings, tons of resonance, high notes are mostly on the fingerboard or harmonics as with solo tuning, I can still take advantage of the open D string and the extension notes, highly unconventional and kinda pretentious
Cons: Highly unconventional and kinda pretentious, might make notation in a custom edition difficult, solo and orchestral strings generally don't mix well on the same instrument