Evangelos Assimakopoulos has enjoyed a long and successful career as guitarist, arranger, and teacher since he and his wife, Liza Zoe—together they play as Evangelos & Liza—burst onto the international guitar scene in the mid-1960s. Among the masters the pair studied with were Dmitris Fampas, Presti & Legoya, and Andrés Segovia.
Since 1991, the duo have also helped put on the Patras Guitar Festival in Greece’s third largest city. At last year’s event, Evangelos delivered a talk on the subject of Arrangement & Transcription, and he was nice enough to send a copy of his fascinating talk with us and allow us to share it with all you! (This has been edited somewhat.)
Since transcriptions and arrangements constitute a major part of the guitar repertoire, I thought it would be useful to adopt a broad approach to the subject, given that we know most students of the instrument have sizeable gaps in their knowledge and/or often hold flawed opinions on the subject.
One such issue, for example, is the impression that transcription and arrangement are roughly the same thing, whereas in reality the only thing they have in common is that they both merely process or modify a composition —generally one that is well-known.
In the course of this detailed analysis I shall, of course, also refer to the evolution of the guitar, its distinctive character, its complexity, its repertoire, the controversies surrounding the instrument, its composers and performers, etc.
Starting with guitar arrangements, which comprise only a small part of the music written for the instrument, I should like to point out straightaway that a basic prerequisite for a successful arrangement is that the arranger should be a competent composer.
A gifted composer knows how to give a musical work an additional dimension by enriching it with fresh ideas, ingenious inventions and imaginative ornamentation—in other words, a procedure that demands complete freedom of movement, without rhythmic or melodic constraints, so that the end result is in effect a totally new composition. You will all, no doubt, have heard groups of musicians who borrow a simple tune from a classical composer and breathe new life into the music, often most impressively.
It is a totally different matter where transcription is concerned—and this represents the bulk of the guitar repertoire. A successful transcription is considered to be one that remains faithful to the original writing and does not alter the composer’s creative vision or conception, does not sidestep the tonal and rhythmic values of the piece and finally does not distort the acoustic and aesthetic qualities of the work.
Thus we can see how diametrically opposed the requirements for transcription and arrangement are. A transcription should follow the original composition closely and consistently, whereas an arrangement may diverge from the original piece as much as the writer wishes.
On that basis, I believe any attempt to transcribe a piece of music is an extremely difficult task—for a variety of reasons which frequently lead to objections and dissent.
I have in mind a number of both successful and unsuccessful transcriptions. Some of them highlight not only the performer but also the instrument itself, while others maltreat the original composition and fail to stand up to criticism.
Let us look now at the reason why guitar players are obliged to resort to transcriptions—something that rarely happens with other instruments.
As we all know, the guitar fell into decline for a considerable period in recent centuries, and as a result the major composers of the 18th and 19th centuries largely ignored it. Thus the guitar, the popularity of which has increased since the mid-20th century and is now more widely enjoyed than any other instrument, found itself virtually without a past, with no musical legacy and little or no repertoire; players of the instrument had to perform pieces that had been transcribed from works originally written for the lute, the harpsichord or the piano, in order to supplement programs that were sadly lacking in authentic compositions.
This lack of musical history may well have been the result of a widely-held belief that the guitar was just a folk instrument, or that it was useful only as an accompaniment and had little potential. Perhaps that view had established itself because of the guitar’s feeble voice at a time when music was flourishing, and because of the lack of important composers and performers who would have provided the necessary impetus to raise the instrument’s artistic status.
Whatever the reason, it was only with the dawn of the 20th century that the guitar assumed its rightful place. I have often written about the contribution to this development made by the rapid rise in technology and also by Andrés Segovia, who gave the guitar validity as a solo or concert instrument. Segovia was the musician who, for almost a whole century, undertook the weighty task of resurrecting an underrated folk instrument and through his own personal successes establishing its presence in major concert halls.
Now that the instrument has achieved a permanent place in the world of music, with an abundance of works written for it by young composers, there is widespread recognition of the fact that much of the guitar’s repertoire is based on transcriptions. It is true that the guitar player of today finds it hard to turn his back on the great composers of past centuries, whose works have at their disposal an abundance of other concert instruments.
There is thus a rational explanation for the need for guitar transcriptions. The first to have appreciated that was probably the Spanish composer and guitar player, Francisco Tárrega, who ventured to transcribe piano works by some of his fellow countrymen and other pieces from the Baroque or Romantic periods. The success of his endeavor not only spotlighted Tárrega’s own personal abilities but, more importantly, also served to promote the instrument’s enormous potential in other musical circles from which the guitar had hitherto been absent. Works that include Bach’s Fugue for Violin, Mendelssohn’s Barcarolle and Canzonetta or Albéniz’s Granada, all skilfully transcribed by the leading guitar player of the period, brought the instrument to public awareness.
Unfortunately, this fruitful endeavor was somewhat marred when Tárrega later went too far by transcribing pieces that were inappropriate for the guitar: The works of Beethoven, Wagner, and Bizet were not only unsuitable for such treatment but, on the contrary, they actually increased the resistance of an unwilling public to the guitar as a valid concert instrument.
Later, a prominent pupil of Tárrega’s, Miguel Llobet, who was more careful than his teacher, transcribed and performed only pieces by Spanish composers.
However, even stricter in that regard and in his choice of guitar pieces was Andrés Segovia. Discerning a distinct paucity in the guitar repertoire very early on, he wrote: “Let us be perfectly honest: Sor, the most significant composer for the guitar of his time, was very far from being considered significant in the history of music as a whole. Unfortunately, the instrument never had a Bach, a Beethoven, a Mozart, a Haydn, a Schumann or a Brahms, compared with whom Sor’s work is negligible. As for Tárrega, he was more of a saint than a musician, more an artist than a creator; his lightweight pieces are merely pleasing proof of his refined taste…”
Although Segovia himself failed to avoid some awkward treatments of pieces by Scarlatti, Weiss, and Frescobaldi, he was extremely attentive to his transcription work. In his effort to establish the guitar as a serious concert instrument, he took great care to choose pieces that showed the guitar to good advantage—pieces mainly from the Baroque or Romantic periods or from the repertoire of well-known Spanish composers.
Moreover, the guitar possibly provides a better rendition of certain compositions by Albéniz, Granados, or de Falla than the piano does, since these Spanish composers appear to have had the guitar in mind when writing for the piano.
The most common instruments played during the Baroque period were the harpsichord and the lute, both of which are acoustically related to the guitar: Many works by Scarlatti, Bach, or Weiss sound wonderful when performed by solo guitar or guitar duo.
Here I should like to make a small digression and remind readers/listeners of the invaluable contribution made by the two leading guitar musicians of the 20th century, Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream. In addition to their chosen transcriptions, they also enriched the instrument’s repertoire with authentic works dedicated to them by such major composers as Villa-Lobos, Britten, Rodrigo, Walton, Turina, Arnold, Tedesco, Ponce, Berkeley and others, thereby giving the guitar greater status and bestowing a new dignity on both the instrument and its teachers.
To return to our subject, I should point out that such attempts to transcribe pieces for performance on the guitar can be an enormous hassle for anybody trying it, often resulting in a good deal of bad temper and aggravation. True upholders of the faithful rendering of a piece of music, on the basis that the composer’s original idea regarding the instrument and tonality chosen should be respected, supposedly refuse to accept any form of transcription or intervention in the original.
Actually, from time to time I may hear negative comments on a transcription by Bream, say, because he omitted certain bass notes, or set a particular phrase an octave higher; or because Brouwer changed the original key of a Scarlatti sonata. There are people who complain when a guitar player inserts a legato into a Bach fugue, or plays trills with his right hand, while others maintain they dislike the sound of a piece played on the guitar purely because they are used to hearing it performed on the cello.
There might be a degree of validity in these views if the end result of the transcription distorted a piece of music, as is the case with the irresponsible work of some amateur musicians. However, this conviction pertains not to the maltreatment of a piece of music, but to the arguments put forward by those who advocate original composition and repudiate transcription.
These people have probably never set eyes on Bach’s original manuscripts, which abound with legatos, and they are almost certainly unaware that Bach himself transcribed several of his own compositions for performance on various other instruments, often in a different key using different notes, or in another octave. Moreover, the great genius himself used to transcribe and perform works by other composers of his day—an era in which it was unusual or even rare for a musician to perform pieces written by someone other than himself.
However, there is no doubt that hearing a work played on a different instrument for the first time is always startling: that sense of surprise goes some way to explaining and even excusing the negative reactions of many people to guitar transcriptions.
Trying to be as objective as possible, and casting aside my own personal love of the instrument for the time being, I wonder how I would have felt hearing a Scarlatti sonata, a Bach prelude, or a piece by Albéniz played on the bouzouki.
The analogy is an apt one, because that is more or less how the guitar must have sounded to music-lovers in centuries past. It was basically a folk instrument with metal strings and a harsh sound, and was almost exclusively identified with revelry and with providing an accompaniment to the voice—just like the bouzouki nowadays.
I remember a recital of works for two guitars—the majority of them transcriptions—that Liza and I gave in Athens in the 1960s; it was a bold undertaking, considering the general perceptions and listening habits of the time.
One leading music critic, who attended a lot of concerts and had some very flattering comments to make about our performance, put forward at the end of his review a number of reservations he had about the transcriptions we had made of pieces by Bach and Scarlatti.
Completely by chance, I ran into him two weeks later during the interval of a piano recital in the same concert hall. I took the opportunity to thank him for his kind words and at the same time to ask him about his reservations concerning the transcriptions:
“It would be helpful to know the reason why you disliked our transcriptions …”
“Well, you know, these pieces belong to the piano repertoire and that’s how we’re used to hearing them played…”
“But the guitar is more closely related to the harpsichord, the instrument for which they were written, than to the piano.”
After a short embarrassed silence, the worthy critic replied, somewhat perturbed:
“Oh yes, of course… that’s true… you’re right …I hadn’t thought of that…”