Transcription, or the act of taking a piece of music and rewriting it for a new instruments or set of instruments, is a very old practice, and it usually happens because a performer says “hey, that’s really cool! I wish I could play that.”). William Primrose and Lionel Tertis, for example, are responsible for a big chunk of the viola’s repertoire even though they themselves were not well known for their compositional prowess.
We have Nordic violinist Johan Halvorsen to thank for this transcription of a passacaglia written by Georg Frederic Handel. What’s a passacaglia you ask? A passacaglia is a kind of music which ornaments and invents on top of a repeated bass line – which is called a ground bass. It’s different from a theme and variations in that the theme is in the bass line, rather than in the melody, and that the tempo and style of the work is usually static throughout.
Here’s the original composition written for harpsichord…
… And here is Johan Halvorsen’s re imagining of the work for violin and viola.
OK, so it may not be a true passacaglia. You can hear some subtle tempo adjustments for the various ornamentations, especially at 3:50, 6:05, at 6:40, and the ending. Maybe we can cut Halvorsen a break – after all, he wrote this transcription in 1897 over 150 years after the passacaglia fell out of style as a form! Why bother transcribing something that was no longer cool? It’s a technical showpiece – a chance for the performers to say “hey, look at what I can do!” This gets at the heart of one of the prime conflicts inherent in most professional musicians – is it more important to honor the music that you’re playing (or in this place transcribing), or to tweak the edges so as to play to the audience? This transcription is undoubtedly a showstopper featuring tons of unusual techniques – in conservatories around the country, it has earned a reputation as Halvorsen’s Impossible Passacaglia.
Just for fun, here’s one more rendering of Handel’s old passacaglia – it’s actually the same Halvorsen transcription, just with a cello in place of the viola.