Transcribing for organ: A historical overview

June 30, 2018

Yves Rechsteiner studied organ and harpsichord in Geneva and specialized in fortepiano and basso continuo at the Schola Cantorum of Basel. A prizewinner in several international competitions, including Geneva, Prague, and Bruges, he was appointed basso continuo teacher and head of the early music department at the Conservatoire Supérieur of Lyon in 1995. He has recorded various projects involving a transcription process: Bach on pedal harpsichord in 2002, Rameau in 2010 (awarded “Diapason d’or”) and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the Puget organ of la Dalbade in Toulouse in 2013. Rechsteiner has founded a duo with percussionist H. C. Caget and developed further arrangement of Frank Zappa’s music to rock progressive music including an organ version of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. He is the artistic director of the Festival Toulouse les Orgues, France.

Since the Renaissance, keyboard repertoire has included pieces originally written for other instruments. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the transcription became a genre of its own. Arrangements for organ have been popular since the nineteenth century, and they belonged to the virtuoso’s repertoire. From Edwin Lemare to Cameron Carpenter, arrangements range from spectacular showpieces to well-known tunes, treated so as to make use of the most up-to-date instruments.

Adapting pieces originally for other instruments to the organ (or another instrument) was not limited to the nineteenth century. Bach played his sonatas and partitas for violin on the clavichord. Earlier, Jean-Henri D’Anglebert made beautiful harpsichord pieces out of Jean Baptiste Lully’s best-known tunes. In the other direction, Jean-Philippe Rameau converted some of his harpsichord pieces into dances, airs, and choruses in his operas; these same pieces were played later by his pupil Claude Balbastre on the concert organ for Le Concert Spirituel in Paris. Haydn’s music was already arranged for organ in his lifetime, and from Liszt onwards, organ transcription became a strong tradition.

My interest in this transformative art form—whether called transcription, arrangement, or adaptation—has led me to focus on J. S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin, Jean-Philippe Rameau and the French Classic organists, Franz Liszt, and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. This essay will describes some features of these period transcriptions, especially the surprising liberties that were sometimes taken with the original musical text, and will give a few examples of my own attempts at transcription.


Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s arrangements for organ or harpsichord are well known. In his youth he arranged several of Vivaldi’s concerti grossi for organ, and others for harpsichord. Much later he edited what are known as the Schübler Chorales, which are in fact movements from his church cantatas. But the most fascinating examples are the keyboard versions of part of his Three Sonatas and Three Partitas for Violin, BWV 1001–1006, because of the richness of the new parts added in the transcription. Examples 1–3 show various techniques. Reducing an orchestral texture for an organ implies other techniques than expanding a violin texture on the keyboard. Transferring a trio for voice, oboe, and continuo on the organ requires nearly no effort, since each part can simply be played by one hand or foot. 

Let us examine Bach’s way of playing Vivaldi on a baroque German organ. One approach Bach used was “interpreting” the original writing with little changes. Example 1 shows Vivaldi beginning his concerto (RV 565) with a duo of two solo violins. In Example 2, Bach takes the repeated bottom D notes and makes a continuous new “cello” part with it. He does not really change the notes, but reorganizes them slightly.

Another technique involved changing notes, adding ornaments or embellishments. Example 3 shows a short passage from a Vivaldi continuo part, with Bach’s version shown in Example 4. Examples 5 and 6 show again how Bach ornaments Vivaldi’s line and how he does not hesitate to add new material, if the musical logic suggests it. Analyzing Bach’s version, we find that he:

­• frequently plays a motive one or two octaves higher or lower than written

changes notes in order to fit into a compass limit

does not respect all of Vivaldi’s tutti/solo indications. 

The same liberties can be found in Bach’s keyboard version of his sonatas for violin. Bach’s transcriptions can reveal a “hidden polyphony.” This can be seen in Examples 7 and 8. An original violin part is shown in Example 7; its keyboard version is shown in Example 8

Changing of notes and adding ornamentation can be seen in comparing Examples 9 and 10. In the latter, Bach does not only embellish a cadence, a common practice in the Italian Corellian style, but he also adds entirely new figuration in place of plain notes. Bach would also add new parts, voices, or accompaniments. The original violin opening of the Sonata in C Major for violin, BWV 1005 (Example 11), becomes under Bach’s hand the passage shown in Example 12. Clearly “Bach the transcriber” makes no attempt to respect the characteristics of an original piece. On the contrary, in each transcription one is astonished by the creative hand of “Bach the composer” and “Bach the organist.”

Johann Friedrich Agricola gives this wonderful testimony: “Bach would often play them (the violin sonatas) on the clavichord, adding as many harmonies as he found necessary. Thus he recognized the need for a harmony of sound which he could not fully attain in that composition.”1 


Rameau, Daquin, and Balbastre

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) began his career as an organist in central France. He was employed in several cities, including Avignon, Dijon, Lyon, Clermont, and Paris.

He published harpsichord pieces with some success and later gained respect for his complex and rich theoretical writings. His impressive Traité de l’harmonie [Treatise on Harmony] was published in Paris in 1722. But it was only at the age of fifty that he begun his career as an opera composer!

Rameau left no music for organ, but his pupil Claude Balbastre (1724–1799) was already playing airs from the composer’s operas in 1757 on the organ in the Tuileries Palace, used for the Concert Spirituel, one of the first public concert series. This institution, which had been created in Paris by Anne Danican Philidor in 1725, housed the first French concert organ. Audiences appreciated the organ in its secular role, moreover, to the point that some listeners, though used to the virtuosic feats of other instruments, were literally “lifted out of their seats” by what they heard. 

Thanks to detailed programs, we know precisely what Balbastre played for his public. Apart from his own organ concertos, his favorite pieces were by Rameau—the overtures to Pygmalion and Les Sauvages. A couple of other overtures are mentioned among other pieces by Rameau, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, and Pancrace Royer. Since no music is preserved, one can only guess how Balbastre treated Rameau’s melodies. In order to get some ideas, one must understand how the classical French organist used to play. The great names from that time include Louis-Claude Daquin (1694–1772) and Balbastre, both mainly known today for their Noëls, tunes that were traditionally played around Christmas by organists. Publications of Noëls appear regularly through the entire eighteenth century.

Interestingly, Daquin’s Noëls for organ look very similar to Rameau’s variations on “Les Niais de Sologne,” an air found later in the opera Dardanus. Both composers develop variations, called “double,” every time in a shorter note value. Examples 13 through 15 by Daquin show the theme, the first double, and the second double. Daquin also utilizes the various divisions and registrations of the organ to achieve dynamic effects, including interesting use of the French Grand Jeu, Petit Jeu, Cornet, and Echo. Compare them with the similar technique used by Rameau in Examples 16 through 18.

Regarding the lively dances like gigues, gavottes, or the pastoral musettes, one remembers Charles Burney’s testimony about Balbastre’s playing all these dances during Mass at Notre-Dame.2 Luckily Dom Bedos de Celle helps us in giving detailed registrations for these typical pieces, recording again a regular playing of dance movement on the organ.3

Balbastre’s own descriptive pieces of battle, with clusters, rapid scales, and quickly repeated chords, anticipates the fashion of orage one or two generations later. It is therefore not too difficult to play a similar effect with some of the orchestral orages (storms) already present in Rameau’s operas. Examples 19 through 21 show the author’s version for organ of the “Air for the African slaves” from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, realized in the same spirit: simple two-voice writing at the beginning, then a double, and finally a new harmonization.

Finally, if one looks into Rameau’s own way of transcribing his harpsichord pieces into orchestral movements, one is struck by the importance of melody. The Air is the only musical element that remains unchanged. Rameau seems to like composing new basses, changing arbitrarily the harmonies, and adding new counterparts when he needs it—using a simple melody successively as a solo aria, then in duo form, before becoming a quartet and a chorus! Again, “Rameau the transcriber” cannot be detached from “Rameau the composer.”


Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt

It seems rather provocative to play Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the organ. This music was very innovative in its refined and rich orchestration, but Berlioz is known to have had no interest for the organ. The impossibility to swell the sound was considered by Berlioz to be barbaric, and he considered the mixtures to be a series of parallel fifths and octaves. . . .4 

It must be remembered that most of the French organs at the time of Berlioz’s composition of the Symphonie Fantastique (1830) had no swell boxes, and that the (de)crescendo possibilities were very limited. Departing from that evidence, it seemed necessary to imagine Berlioz on a later instrument equipped at least with a swell box and some appel d’anches. (See Examples 24–26.)

Let us examine some period transcriptions for organ, in order to again have some models. In France, Edouard Baptiste played a lot of arranged pieces (especially Beethoven) on the monumental organ at Saint-Eustache in Paris, but despite precise and inventive registrations, his organ transcriptions remain surprisingly similar to piano reductions. Obviously Liszt, a close friend to Berlioz, is a better model. Not only was he the first transcriber of the Symphony Fantastique on the piano, but he left an organ version of his own Orpheus, showing directly how he would proceed. Example 22 shows a passage from the orchestral version of Orpheus, while Example 23 shows Liszt’s organ transcription.

Like Bach, Liszt takes numerous liberties, which would not be prescribed today:

no attempt to respect the orchestration through similar colors on the organ

playing the melody an octave lower as soon as the limits of the keyboard are reached, without making further effort of registration to keep it entirely at its proper place

modifying entire accompanying patterns. Some complex arpeggios on the violin and the harp are replaced by one slower arpeggio taken in the left hand. This new compositional element can even be used longer than in the orchestral version, in a measure where the orchestra pauses under the soloist

abandoning secondary musical elements

adding new measures in order to get a better crescendo

composing entirely new passages when the orchestral version seems to be too difficult to reduce.



In all historical examples, we see a rather creative approach in the transcription process. During the Baroque period, few details had to be abandoned from the orchestral score; but sometimes, to enliven this keyboard version, various ornaments, embellishments, or new parts needed to be added. Obviously these additions were made in the style and according to the character of the piece.

In any case, when the complexity of the orchestral writing did not allow exact transposing on the keyboard, one chose carefully the parts to be kept, according to their musical importance. A subtle hierarchy existed between the main melody, important counterparts, the bass, and some accompanying material. These secondary parts, like broken chords and florid fast notes, were likely to be radically transformed in order to sound better on the keyboard instrument. It was also a way to make a passage more comfortable to play and avoid any useless difficulty due to its origin on a foreign instrument.

In this process, the transcription is no longer a reduced version of an original piece, but it becomes literally a new organ or harpsichord work, using the same idioms, techniques, and musical possibilities as the best pieces written explicitly for the organ. Bach’s versions of Vivaldi’s concerti grossi show that, on one hand, Bach loses some of the sound qualities of the concerto grosso for strings, without mentioning the stiff sound of the organ compared to the violins. But on the other hand, Bach introduces sufficiently new elements that enrich his keyboard version and make a proper organ piece of it.

This approach seems to be still alive at Liszt’s time, but the increasing development of transcription in the nineteenth century also created a rejection of it. The defense of the proper organ repertoire became until recently the rule; the transcription was despised because it would only be some virtuoso’s amusement and not suited to the character of the organ.

The above examples show that, on the contrary, a good transcription fits the nature of the instrument by using the right means, playing techniques, and registrations according to the style of music.


1. Johann Friedrich Agricola, Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek, Berlin, 1755.

2. Charles Burney, Music, Men and Manners in France and Italy, Paris, 1770, quoted in Preface to Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Pièces de Clavecin d’Orgue et de Forte Piano, ed. A. Curtis, Huegel, 1973, p. viii.

3. Dom Bedos de Celle, L’art du facteur d’orgue, Paris, 1766, pp. 523–536.

4. Hector Berlioz, Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration, Paris, 1844, see chapters “Organ” and “Harmonium.”


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