16 measures from Eine Alpensinfonie

Organ transcriptions are a bit like black magic. Not just because they're mostly done after midnight, but because the results seem to accomplish the impossible. Notwithstanding Franck’s statement “my new organ… it’s like an orchestra,” you’d expect there would be some limit to what a single person can accomplish. With this in mind, let me present to you, dear reader, 16 measures that are giving me stress. 

Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is a monster of a symphony—written for a monster orchestra, almost an hour long, and sounding about as awe-inspiringly grand as a piece legally can. It is also, to me, a sort of holy grail of transcribing. If the organ can handle this Scylla, it might as well be able to cope with Charybdis (Charles Ives and Ravel come to mind). And it can, with a few exceptions. Here is the most annoying one, starting at rehearsal 95:

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(thank you IMSLP)

(thank you IMSLP)

This is essentially the climax of the whole piece. It forms the end of a section called “Vision,” right after the “Summit.” I have puzzled and puzzled as to the meaning of “Vision,” but the tangible result of this section is a massive intensification of the preceding Summit, adding both tension and instruments (including an organ within the orchestra!) until the texture bursts at rehearsal 96 with the recapitulation of the opening “Mountain Motif” against hair-raising strings and woodwinds. A proud moment for the orchestra, not to mention a glowing example of what late romantic excess can accomplish emotionally! Here’s how it looks on the organ:

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The success of this passage is really dependent on the specific organ in question, and this is dangerous—if the specific instrument doesn’t have all these characteristics, the piece’s climax is sullied a little. The pedal division is relatively easy to register here: just tons of sound, and maybe adding a 32’ reed at 96 just to increase the overwhelming character (also couple the Solo reed, of course). The right foot part is really tricky, so I leave one or two notes out… The left hand starts on Swell, not necessarily because it needs to be expressive, but because the Great is occupied. The sound needs to be a little more “wood” than “fire,” and this is tricky because most Swell divisions become extremely fiery at the top dynamic level. I’ve tried coupling in some heavy flutes and woodwind reeds from the Solo, and that works pretty well, especially with the tremulant on (and I always give the tremulants a workout during transcriptions). The brass at 96 should be spectacularly loud, and that’s not particularly difficult on a large, well-equipped instrument. What I find tricky is making the right hand sufficiently hair-raising. In general, organ builders voice trebles to NOT scream, which is usually fine by me, but in practice, the right hand part lacks a little energy. Furthermore, it goes very very high in the orchestral score, up to the F above the organ’s keyboard, and as a result I have needed to transpose the whole mess down an octave. (My upcoming portable pipe organ includes that upper octave, but that's a story for another week...) This slightly lower range is a more typically “cantabile” range for the organ, and unless the organ is hugely out of tune (which is actually a good thing here), I don’t love the result of this passage. 

As things happen, writing this blog post gave me an idea of a rewrite! Strauss didn’t write tremolos or broken chords here, but I can:

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Feel free to try it for yourself, but I think this works much better! The broken chords are familiar from Mahler’s orchestration technique; it’s a rush of extremely intense transient sound, so these grace notes need to be played as quickly as possible, and feel free to add extra notes to give the right impression. The tremolos serve two purposes: to liven up the heavy texture, and to destabilize the wind a little. Playing more notes means the wind system of the organ has more work to do in ensuring a stable supply of wind at a constant pressure, so this inevitably degrades the tuning and gives me the screaming sound I am looking for. Notice also that some of my tremolos involve “non chord tones,” which creates even more dissonance and tension. Feel free to add even more notes if you end up transcribing this yourself; I’m sure there’s a point at which it sounds messy and awful, but we haven’t reached it yet, so pile on those notes until the top line sounds right! I would also consider adding the Great tremulant at some point, maybe in the third bar of 96 (not on a beat preferably), if there is one. And of course, at some point before the end of this passage, I’d add any Great stops that aren’t already out, preferably one at a time, so we’re using full organ by the last measure. Just make sure not to let the piston-pushing affect the rhythm.

This all goes to show, a good organ transcription is more about capturing the spirit of the original than obsessively including as many notes as possible. This rewrite, on a fiery organ with a thunderous pedal, incandescent great mixtures, well-adjusted tremulants, and a nice apocalyptic solo reed, is just as good as the original, but you don't need to hire a 100-piece orchestra. Sorry Richard (neener neener). 

Heading to Kansas, and the 737 MAX