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Another possible approach

I might have tried to transcribe something as awesome as the first movement of Mahler's 5th Symphony decades ago - I might have even thought it would have been successful.

The truth is, it takes years of experience learning from successes and, more importantly, failures before a project like this can be successful.

While working on this transcription (which I seem to be doing more of these days), I tried a few new approaches which I believe helped me understand the piece better, and my own work.

The observations (as viewed through the lens and hubris of a brass player) that informed the approach for a transcription of the First Movement of Mahler 5 are:

  • It is already a significant work for brass.

  • The first trumpet part is mostly a solo voice throughout.

  • Horns are awesome.

  • I'm not sure why trombone players like to play this movement.

  • Much of the string writing is textural.

  • Some of the woodwind writing is purely for color.

How this organized my work

The first order of business was deciding on an instrumentation for the transcription and setting up my score template.

This only required a few decisions regarding the horns (3rd observation) - Mahler wrote for six of them, but it's important to understand why. Clearly he liked the horn (duh). He was writing for a very big orchestra, but all six horns are often in unison presumably so the horn voice cuts through the density of his scoring. There are only a very few moments where he writes a six-voice texture for the horns. He does split the section up in recognition of the fatigue factor for horns - not just for this movement but for the entire symphony. Some of these problems solved by the use of six horns are not necessarily a problem to be solved in a 'smaller' ensemble. So I 'simplified' for four horns while still being considerate of the demands of the high horn parts (spelling them when practical with Horn 2 & 4).

Next - because the brass is prominent throughout the movement the brass and percussion parts were entered verbatim into the score (except for the aforementioned simplification of the horn parts).

I left the Trumpet 1 part mostly as Mahler wrote it (2nd observation), using the player for other stuff only when I absolutely needed the extra voice.

At this juncture, the Trumpet 4, Euphonium, and Tuba 1 staves are completely empty.

Because Mahler's tuba part is primarily a contrabass tuba part, I mostly kept that part in Tuba 2, leaving Tuba 1 for more soloistic moments and as a bridge in the bass register to handle music too muddy for Euphonium (see below). There are moments when I used Tuba 1 an octave above Tuba 2 to reinforce the pitch of some very low writing.

After entering these parts and listening back to it through midi, referring often to well produced orchestral recording for comparison, I began to determine where and how things could be colored and how to account for the 1000's of notes in the winds and strings. Putting the brass parts in first, also allowed me to see (and hear) the windows of opportunity for scoring wind and string parts.

As should be evident from previous blog entries, I am fond of the euphonium and flugelhorn and they almost always have a place in my scoring. These are also brass colors that are unlike the color of Mahler's own brass scoring in the 5th Symphony. Understanding that some of the string writing was texture and not necessarily 'to the fore' of Mahler's sound palette, I decided to experiment with a quasi virtuoso and obbligato euphonium part that plays a lot of the busywork, passed off occasionally to Flugelhorn when it was too high, and Tuba 1 when it was too low. Trumpet 2 also doubles on Piccolo Trumpet for those moments when there is important music written in a high register with a particularly piercing quality.

Incidentally, I started this transcription well over a year ago and made a lot of progress. But I got stuck problem solving the busy string writing and some of the higher tessitura stuff, and life got in the way. Had I been hellbent on finishing it a year ago, I might have made different decisions, but letting it sit for a while and then coming back with fresh eyes and ideas, really helped to finish it with some revelatory moments.

It looks good on paper, and I'm pretty happy with the result.

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