Arrangements, transcriptions and covers
In Tuesday's NEPR classical music, we'll play several selections to honor the birth anniversary of the eminent Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936, above left). A couple of them, the "Trittico Botticelliano" ("Three Botticelli Pictures") and "Feste Romane" ("Roman Festivals"), are entirely original works. The others, including the Suite No. 2 from Respighi's "Antiche arie e danze per liuto" ("Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute") and his"Rossiniana" Suite are transcriptions of works by earlier composers. Or are they arrangements of works by earlier composers? And what's the difference between an arrangement and a transcription?
The answer depends on how much of a stickler you want to be, as the separate meanings of the two have blurred over time. "Transcription" is the more "inside" term, not generally used outside the cozy confines of classical music. By contrast, "arrangement" crosses all musical boundaries and covers a broad range of musical transformations. But analyze their musicological-etymological DNA under a microscope, and you'll see that, though there has been considerable interbreeding, the transcription and the arrangement are really separate species. (Sorry for the bizarre analogy; I was just listening to a fascinating interview about the discovery of another long-lost variety of human being.)
So, let's start with the more circumscribed term: What is a transcription? Actually, the term has a few musical meanings beyond the one we're looking for. One is a now mostly-obsolete synonym for "recording," as in "transcribing" a live concert for later broadcast. Veteran listeners may recall references to the "Boston Symphony Transcription Trust" which transcribed (i.e., recorded) and distributed BSO concerts by tape to radio stations from 1957 to 1991. Another meaning, from the relatively young science of ethnomusicology, is to capture in written form, through either manual or mechanical means, the sound of live music.
But what we're after here is this meaning of "transcription" from our handy online Merriam-Webster: "An arrangement of a musical composition for some instrument or voice other than the original." In other words, you take a piece of music originally scored for some voice, instrument or group of voices and/or instruments and "transcribe" (i.e., cross-write) it for another voice, instrument or group of voices and/or instruments. In this sense of transcription, the original work is kept more-or-less intact in every way other than its performing forces. Good examples include J.S. Bach's transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto for four violins, Op. 3, No. 10 as a Concerto for four harpsichords, BWV 1065, and, to turn the tables on old Sebastian, his Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ as transcribed for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Transcribing something for orchestra is also known, by amazing coincidence, as "orchestration.")
Arrangement? Once again to the dictionaries, this time the New Grove: "The reworking of a musical composition, usually for a different medium from that of the original." If that sounds rather general, it should. By contrast with the narrowly-defined "transcription," "arrangement" could refer to just about any time someone picks up a piece of music, or even just a melody, and reworks it into something new that nonetheless retains a recognizable resemblance to the original. You'll typically hear several arrangements each weekday evening on NEPR's "Jazz a la Mode," especially if Tom Reney is spotlighting one of the great big bands, playing arrangements of the hit tunes of the day. My favorite example? It would have to be the Artie Shaw/Lennie Hayton arrangement (or "chart" as the musicians would call it) of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," rendered magnificently by Shaw (above right) and his Orchestra. Simple, eloquent and elegant, true to Hoagy's glorious melody while also transforming it into high art — this is on my list of perfect tracks.
To sum up: A "transcription" keeps the original work intact, while re-writing it for different performing forces. An "arrangement" takes a piece of music, or some component of it, and makes out of it something both new and recognizably related to the original. Every transcription is a kind of arrangement, but not every arrangement is a transcription. And by the way, to answer the original question, I'd place the Respighi works we're featuring today in the arrangement camp. They're too fanciful and far-flung to be regarded as mere transcriptions.
OK, we've covered transcription, and we've covered arrangement. But how about covering...cover? Back online we go, this time to Wikipedia: "In popular music, a cover version or cover song, or simply cover, is a new performance or recording of a contemporary or previously recorded, commercially released song, usually by someone other than the original artist. It can sometimes have a pejorative connotation, implying the original recording should be regarded as the definitive or "authentic" version, and all others merely lesser competitors, alternatives, or tributes (no matter how popular). " That's thorough enough to need no further explanation. But it does give me a chance to pay memorial tribute to that great connoisseur and chronicler of the hilariously pejorative cover, the late Jim Nayder, host of "The Annoying Music Show." You might recall his many conversations on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, who paid tribute to his friend and fellow Chicagoan a few weeks ago. Jim, I'm sorry you've gone too soon. But thanks for the memories, and for the godawful music. This cover's for you!