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8.572741 - BACH, J.S.: Orchestral Transcriptions by Respighi and Elgar (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Orchestral transcriptions by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) and Edward Elgar (1857–1934)


Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879 and studied the violin and viola at the Liceo Musicale there from 1891 with Federico Sarti. At the same time he took lessons in composition, at first from the musicologist Luigi Torchi, who had returned to Bologna from the Liceo Rossini in Pesaro in the same year, and later from the composer Giuseppe Martucci, who was director of the Liceo in Bologna until 1902. In 1899 Respighi completed his studies and the following year went to St Petersburg as Principal Viola at the Imperial opera. In Russia, where he spent the seasons of 1901–1902 and 1903–1904, he took lessons in composition and orchestration from Rimsky-Korsakov.

During the first decade of the new century Respighi won a reputation as a performer, while pursuing his growing interest in earlier music and in composition. In Berlin in 1908 and 1909 he attended lectures by Max Bruch, but to relatively little effect. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, however, remained with him, guiding his bold use of orchestral colour in the music he wrote. These years brought a series of compositions. In 1902 a piano concerto of his was performed in Bologna and his Notturno of 1905 was played in New York under Rodolfo Ferrari. In the same year his opera Re Enzo was staged in Bologna, to be followed five years later by Semirama. These operas proved successful enough to bring about his appointment in 1913 as a teacher of composition at the Liceo Santa Cecilia in Rome.

In 1919 Respighi married the singer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo and in 1924 he became director of the Academy of Santa Cecilia but he resigned two years later to devote himself to composition, although he continued to teach and to perform in concerts and recitals as a conductor and as an accompanist to his wife. He died in 1936 at the house he had named after one of his most famous works, I Pini, referring to the symphonic poems Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), one of three effective and now familiar works of his associated with aspects of the city, Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) and Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome).

In 1917 Respighi published his first set of arrangements of ancient dances and airs, the Antiche arie e danze per liuto, orchestral versions of earlier Italian lute music, transcribed from tablature. He made further arrangements from the same source for piano, but it was in his orchestrations that he was able to display his command of instrumentation in a series of revelatory orchestral versions of other repertoire.

Respighi’s Tre Corali (Three Chorale Preludes) are arrangements of chorale preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach, completed and first heard in 1930 under Toscanini in New York. The first of the three is a version of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659, (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), based on the plainchant Advent hymn Veni, Redemptor gentium, first written by Bach in Weimar in his earlier career and revised in later years in Leipzig. Respighi’s first transcription had been in 1918, but was revised for the final version in 1930. The second chorale prelude is an orchestration of Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn, BWV 648, (My soul doth magnify the Lord), one of the transcriptions published by Schübler (1748–49) taken from the fifth movement of Cantata No. 10. It is a shorter piece, with the direction by Respighi Andante con moto e scherzando and in 6/8 metre, the chorale melody given to the trumpet. The third of the group is a version of the chorale prelude Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (Awake, the voice is calling to us), a Bach transcription from Cantata No. 140, also published by Schübler.

Bach spent the earlier years of his career as organist at Arnstadt and at Mühlhausen, before his appointment in 1708 as court organist in Weimar, with the additional position of Konzertmeister in 1714. In 1717 he managed, with some difficulty, to extricate himself from Weimar in order to take on the position of Court Kapellmeister at Cöthen, where he remained until 1723. The remaining years were spent in Leipzig as Thomascantor, responsible for the music of the principal city churches. His Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023, belongs to the period between 1714 and 1717 and was originally scored for violin and continuo. Respighi’s 1908–09 transcription accompanies the solo violin with organ and strings. The first movement gives prominence to the rapid figuration of the solo violin. This leads to an aria and a third movement Allemanda, and the sonata ends with a Giga.

Bach’s organ Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532, was probably written during the years he spent in Weimar. Respighi’s transcription, made about 1929, is lavish in its use of orchestral resources and is scored for piccolo, two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, strings and piano duet. The imposing Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, is thought to have been written before Bach’s appointment to Weimar. Respighi’s version, written in 1930, makes use of similar resources, and adds a cor anglais, six horns, four trumpets, timpani and organ.

Elgar made his orchestration of Bach’s Fugue in C minor in 1921, a year after the death of his wife Alice, on whom he had greatly depended. This was performed with great success at the Queen’s Hall in London under Eugene Goossens. The following year Elgar added the Fantasia, which he had earlier asked Richard Strauss to undertake. The first performance was conducted by Elgar at the Gloucester Festival. His aim, he had explained, was ‘to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant he [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had had our means’. As an organist himself, Elgar had a practical knowledge of the instrument and its repertoire. His version of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, may reveal Bach as gorgeous, great and brilliant, but at the same time, a perceptive and subtle understanding of the work, shown from the outset with his treatment of the sustained pedal note that underpins the opening bars of the Fantasia, with other qualities displayed, in scoring that includes two harps, as the work proceeds to its brilliant conclusion.

Keith Anderson

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