On June 16, 1858, the great Belgian violinist, composer and conductor Eugène Ysaÿe was born. A well-known icon to most violinists, he was a major transitional figure in the development of modern violin performance practice.
In addition to his compositional work, Ysaÿe was also an advocate of transcription, and made interesting forays into that world. The Library of Congress possesses a relatively unknown manuscript of one of these arrangementsYsaÿes version for violin and piano of Frédéric Chopins first Ballade, op. 23.
Transcription is a creative endeavor that presents practical, ontological problems for the arranger. There is the question of fidelity to the musical text vs. the musical idea; which is more respectful and successful? For the performer/composer like Ysaÿe, the goal tends to be to create a different version of the original that is compelling and natural in its new medium.
A look at the very opening of Chopins Ballade provides an excellent example of the practical problem of making a highly characteristic piano gesture make sense in a violin/piano duo context. In Chopins original, the first five measures of the piece are played with both hands playing a single line in octaves. If the arranger wants the violin to be involved in this passage, as Ysaÿe did, the fact that the opening line is out of the violins range must be overcome. Ysaÿes solution is to have the piano play only the lower octave, add a filler chord for the pianists right hand, and have the violin enter at an appropriate moment to ultimately take over the entire line. As a result, a nod is made to Chopins original octave presentation of the musical idea, but the arrangement possesses its own internal musical logic that renders it effective in performance.
You can page through a high quality scan of Ysaÿes manuscript on the Librarys website by clicking here. A fun aspect about this manuscript is that you can easily see how Ysaÿes ideas developed; many of the ideas (especially in the piano part) are scratched out in the manuscript, displaying his ability to adapt to the balance considerations of a chamber setting of Chopins work. Transcriptions and arrangements offer a fun way to take a fresh look at music you already knowoften one gains new insights about the original.