Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor
The term "transcription" can mean several things in music. Writing down a live or recorded performance or transferring a piece from one notation system to another are forms of transcription, but transcription also includes shifting music from its original performing medium to another, such as playing a choral piece on the piano or adapting a keyboard work for orchestra.
In Western music, transcription in this third sense began as early as the 14th century. By the Baroque era it was a common practice, for teaching and performing. Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed his own music from one medium to another, as well as works by other composers, such as Antonio Vivaldi.
So it is not at all beyond tradition that Bach's own music has been transcribed for every possible performing medium, from computers to (very) full orchestras. As interest in Baroque music boomed in the 20th century, many composers and conductors transcribed works by Bach for the symphony orchestra, a medium that did not exist in Bach's own time.
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was justly admired for his flair with Bach transcriptions, best known in the mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, as used in Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). His first recording of that transcription, however, was made in 1927. Two years later he orchestrated the equally imposing Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 - continuous variations of astonishing variety over a repeating bass line, with the main theme of the ensuing fugue based on the first half of that bass line.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.