Nineteenth-Century Transcriptions of Works by Fryderyk Chopin

by Barbara Literska (Author)
©2020 Monographs 310 Pages
Open Access


This book is the first monographic study of nineteenth-century transcriptions of Chopin's music. The work is based on the quantitatively and qualitatively rich source material, which formed the basis for considerations from the perspective of social history, music analysis and aesthetics. Thanks to these multiple perspectives, as well as the time range and the source base, this study may contribute to the history of the reception of Chopin’s work in nineteenth-century culture; it may also prove significant in overcoming the attitude that aesthetically deprecates transcriptions and in adopting a different stance, regarding such adaptations as valuable texts of musical culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1 Transcriptions of works by Chopin as sources for research into the reception of his music in nineteenth-century musical culture – methodological issues
  • 1.1 The subject and terminology
  • 1.2 The source material
  • 2 Composers, publishers and receivers: transcriptions of works by Chopin in nineteenth-century cultural communication
  • 2.1 Works by Chopin and their transcriptions in nineteenth-century musical culture – quantitative aspects
  • 2.2 The musical professions of the transcribers of Chopin’s works
  • [1] Performers: instrumentalists, singers
  • [2] Composers
  • [3] Organisers of musical life
  • 2.3 The economic and legal conditions behind the dissemination of transcriptions during the nineteenth century
  • 2.4 The cultural contexts of the social reception of transcriptions of works by Chopin (taking nineteenth-century Wrocław as an example)
  • 3 Between adhering to substance and trivialising content: a systematics of nineteenth-century transcriptions of works by Chopin
  • 3.1 The adopted criteria of the systematics
  • 3.2 Substantial transcriptions
  • 3.3 Structural transcriptions
  • 3.4 Syntactic transcriptions
  • 3.5 Recontextual transcriptions
  • 3.6 Functional transcriptions
  • 3.7 The diffusion of ‘ideal types’
  • 4 Nineteenth-century transcriptions of works by Chopin as a form of the manifestation of artistic values in the musical culture of the nineteenth century: Trivialmusik?
  • 4.1 The category of Trivialmusik and its effect on the valuation of transcriptions
  • 4.2 The value of transcriptions of Chopin’s works within the context of the adopted criterion
  • 4.3 Transcriptions of Chopin’s works as documents of stylistic changes in nineteenth-century European music
  • Conclusion. Contemporary transcriptions of works by Chopin: prospects for further research
  • Appendix
  • 1 Selected literary texts from vocal-instrumental transcriptions
  • 2 List of Michał Biernacki
  • List of figures
  • List of examples
  • List of tables
  • Sources
  • Literary sources
  • Musical sources
  • Cited literature
  • Primary subject literature
  • Secondary subject literature
  • Auxiliary literature
  • Encyclopaedias and lexicons
  • Index of names and musical titles


The practice of drawing on other composers’ ideas and works is a universal phenomenon in the history of music. Many composers have enhanced their knowledge of the art by studying and copying the works of other masters. That engenders a desire to imitate the musical ideas of others and to recompose them in a more or less creative way. The process of transcribing the works of Fryderyk Chopin began in the 1830s and continues today, albeit in a modified form.

The subject of Chopin transcriptions, although present in the awareness of musicologists, has yet to be treated to a monographic study, being merely signalled in studies of a limited scope.1 This state of affairs may explain the lack of relevant documentation enabling the subject to be addressed from a broader research perspective. The first work to present the huge volume of Chopin transcriptions published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the Katalog dzieł Fryderyka Chopina / A Catalogue of the Works of Frederick Chopin by Józef Michał Chomiński and Teresa Dalila Turło, published in 1990.2 That unique source of valuable information formed the inspiration and foundation for research into the little-known subject of Chopin transcriptions.

The present book is the first monographic study of Chopin transcriptions. For two main reasons – the specificities of the processes in music history and the huge amount of source material – the issue has been confined to nineteenth-century transcriptions.3 This book is based on the quantitatively and qualitatively rich source material, which formed the basis for considerations from the perspective of social history, music analysis and aesthetics. Thanks to these multiple perspectives, as well as the time range and the source base, this study may contribute to the history of the reception of Chopin’s work in nineteenth-century culture; it may also prove significant in overcoming the attitude that aesthetically deprecates transcriptions and in adopting a different stance, regarding such adaptations as valuable texts of musical culture.

This work is informed by several main aims: (1) to define the qualitative and quantitative economic, legal and socio-cultural conditions in which transcriptions functioned in nineteenth-century musical culture; (2) to present a systematic approach to nineteenth-century transcriptions; (3) to evaluate transcriptions on ←13 | 14→the basis of axiological criteria. My extensive discussion of nineteenth-century transcriptions and proposed approach to them merely outline the subject. This book, the fruit of several years’ research into nineteenth-century transcriptions of Chopin’s compositions, is not the only possible approach to the subject, but it is the first proposition for tackling the phenomenon.

* * *

The present book is a considerably abridged version of my doctoral dissertation, prepared at the Institute of Musicology of the University of Warsaw. The public defence of that dissertation took place on 18 December 2002, and its outcome was confirmed by the Board of the History Faculty of Warsaw University in January 2003. A year later, this book was published in Cracow by Musica Iagellonica. Over the many years during which this work took shape, I was helped at every stage by many kind individuals. I am sincerely grateful to Teresa Lewandowska (Library of the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw), Mariola Nałęcz (National Library in Warsaw), Bożena Jankowska (Toruń University Library) and Marek Romańczyk (Wrocław University Library) for all their assistance with documenting sources. For their valuable hints, I am grateful to Professors Zofia Helman, Irena Poniatowska and Jeffrey Kallberg. For their evaluation of my dissertation, I am grateful to its reviewers: Professors Małgorzata Woźna-Stankiewicz, Alina Żórawska-Witkowska and Andrzej Tuchowski. Their comments inspired the ultimate shape of this book. I am particularly grateful to Professor Maria Zduniak, who gave me access to unpublished source material collected in preliminary library searches over many years. My greatest thanks go to my supervisor, Professor Maciej Gołąb, who accompanied me with great dedication and commitment in the realisation of this difficult undertaking and also helped bring about the publication of this book, fifteen years later, in an English translation.

←14 |

1 See ‘Primary subject literature’.

2 CT, 338–397.

3 The reasons for this limitation will be discussed in more detail in the second chapter.

1 Transcriptions of works by Chopin as sources for research into the reception of his music in nineteenth-century musical culture – methodological issues

1.1 The subject and terminology

The word transcription comes from the Latin transcriptio. Its equivalents in other languages are transcrizione (Italian), transcription (French) and Bearbeitung (German). A transcription is a rewriting of a musical text by means of other ‘musical meanings’, depending on the performance apparatus or the artistic competence of the transcriber. One basic aim of musical transcriptions is to obtain an artistic reworking that sounds different to and departs from the original to a specified degree. Similar terms are ‘arrangement’ and ‘paraphrase’. Whilst an arrangement involves reorganising and recomposing a piece, transcription is devoid of that creative element. In musical reality, the two terms both involve reworking a musical composition, treated as a model for successive transformations. There are also elements that differentiate the two terms; these can be found in encyclopaedic and non-encyclopaedic definitions.4 Polish terminology is inexact: the meanings of the two related terms transkrypcja and aranżacja are not sufficiently specified and there is no reference to their etymology. Each of them is perceived as signifying a reworking of a composition for concert or artistic purposes. The words aranżacja and aranżowanie are often used in relation to popular music,5 while in relation to ‘classical music’ one speaks of transkrypcja and transkrybowanie. The lack of cohesion is evident in definitions of aranżacja and transkrypcja in Polish music encyclopaedias,6 from ←15 | 16→which it is difficult to determine which term has the broader semantic range and whether transkrypcja is a variety of aranżacja or vice versa. In the definition of transkrypcja, two basic features distinguishing this phenomenon from aranżacja are given: the artistic aim of a transcription (this argument is unconvincing, since the same aim appears in the definition of aranżacja) and the fact that the object of a transkrypcja is a whole work, whereas aranżacja involves merely parts of a work (this argument is also deflated by the definition of aranżacja). There are also contradictory opinions regarding a transkrypcja itself, now defined as the effect of rather uncreative procedures (in the definition of aranżacja), now as a rich creative practice (in the definition of transkrypcja). So the definitions are cross-explained and indistinct. We find similarly unclear definitions, equating one term with the other, in general lexicographic publications.7 Non-lexical sources carry similarly descriptions, invoking the above-mentioned encyclopaedic definitions. The difficulty with separating these two basic notions (and derivative terms) stems from the source – from Romantic times. It turns out that the nomenclature employed in those times was also marked by a lack of clarity. This was pointed out by Irena Poniatowska, evoking the figure of Franz Liszt, who used many different terms for his reworkings.8 This gave rise to two ←16 | 17→meanings of the term ‘transcription’, functioning on an equal footing during the nineteenth century: as a synonym of all reworkings and as a literal transferral of an orchestral, ensemble or vocal composition to piano.

The terms transcription, arrangement and paraphrase also function in English. The key word, with the broadest semantic scope, is arrangement, which is ‘an adaptation: the musical counterpart of literary translation’.9 It is also defined as ‘the reworking of a musical composition, usually for a different medium from that of the original’.10 The term arrangement can be understood in many different ways: as the transferral of a composition from one performance medium to another, with the composition either enhanced or expanded or else simplified, and with or without a change of forces. An arrangement can be a literal reproduction of the original, and transcription can signify adapting a work to a new performance medium while preserving the features of that new medium, admitting of changes to the original, but not as great as with a paraphrase.11 So in each case the effect of the recomposition procedures may vary: it can be a simple, almost literal transcription or a complicated paraphrase. However, in the opinion of Malcolm Boyd, definitions of ‘arrangement’, ‘transcription’ and ‘paraphrase’ are not universally accepted.12 Polish lexicographic sources are also supplemented by Boyd’s remarks concerning yet another meaning of the word ‘transcription’, understood as a copy of a musical work ‘translated’ from entablature into modern musical notation.13 Such a definition of musical transcription is close to a linguistic definition, signifying the rewriting of an old text in orthography that is as close as possible to present-day usage.14

A somewhat different solution to the problem of reworkings is advanced by Hans Engel, who used the single term Bearbeitung for around a dozen varieties ←17 | 18→of the compositional practice of refashioning works – a practice that has varied down the ages.15 He treated Transkription, understood as an artistic adaptation of instrumental or vocal music for keyboard instruments, as one of the kinds of Bearbeitung. Engel used the term Bearbeitung in relation to refashioned works, themes, melodies and movements, and above all in relation to multipartite works. A Bearbeitung can represent a new compositional form (a whole work), a new version of a musical composition (part of a work – a theme, melody, movement or section) or an arrangement of a musical work for different forces. In each of these cases, a reworking can either be reduced to a simple, technical arrangement, retaining the form of the original composition, or else considerably transform the reworked composition into an individual form contrasting with the original version of the work. Engel distinguishes eleven categories of reworking. The first of them comprises reworkings in a contrapuntal style (Bearbeitungen im kontrapunktischen Stil), parodies and paraphrases. This category covers not only reworkings of other composers’ works, but above all reference to compositional practice as broadly understood. Consequently, it is the least relevant to our study. The second category consists of Baroque reworkings of other composers’ works which present a literal rewriting of a composition for different forces (these are primarily ‘translations’ from one instrument to another). One special example here is that of so-called self-transcriptions, where composers borrow from their own works; this involves the adaptation not so much of entire works as of individual themes. Engel also distinguishes reworkings which represent an artistic refashioning of instrumental or vocal music for keyboard instruments (organ, piano) and those which are instrumental arrangements of vocal music (e.g. a French chanson); the latter influenced the emergence and development of sonata form. Another category comprises arrangements for piano and organ which mainly discharge two basic functions: research (reductions of large-scale vocal-instrumental works) and popularisation (versions for piano for four hands). The sixth category is formed by compositions representing vocal arrangements of instrumental works. Another category comprises reworkings of instrumental works for a larger performance apparatus with the addition of a text (e.g. for choir, for orchestra or for choir and soloists), and this is juxtaposed with the category in which the forces are reduced – e.g. from orchestral to chamber. Engel gives a number of examples involving the modernisation of existing orchestral versions (these are arrangements from orchestra for orchestra). The enlargement of symphony orchestras during the eighteenth and nineteenth ←18 | 19→centuries gave rise to new versions of works, with considerably enhanced sound. A separate type consists of dual versions of a single work; reworkings of existing compositions made by the same composer (e.g. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte for piano and for orchestra) or by a different composer (e.g. Franz Xavier Süssmayr’s version of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626). The last kind of Bearbeitung distinguished by Engel consists of scholarly arrangements involving the palaeographic ‘translation’ of an old notation into a new notation.

The term Bearbeitung is presented differently by Gesine Schröder,16 who employs a problematic key, rather than an historical key like Engel. She gives a definition of the notion itself, discusses different forms of the phenomenon and accounts for the causes and aims of its functioning in musical practice. This rich approach is complemented by Thomas Bösche’s legal conditions relating to the existence of reworkings as broadly understood.17 According to Schröder, the term Bearbeitung means varying, supplementing, reconstructing, improving, decomposing, creating a new composition and changing the sound of the original work (model).18 Arrangement and Transkription are among the modes of existence of Bearbeitung, and they are strictly linked to a change of forces. According to Schröder, arrangements were usually motivated by social stimuli, whereas transcriptions resulted from a demand for compositions characterised by superior artistic qualities.

The above definitions treat the question of reworkings or adaptations in a broad and detailed way, describing all the possible forms of their functioning. Importantly, however, these changes as a whole are subordinated to the key terms arrangement (Eng.) and Bearbeitung (Ger.).

1.2 The source material

The basic material for research into Chopin transcriptions consists of 324 music prints.19 These are direct sources which speak for themselves. That material is ←19 | 20→complemented by indirect sources, comprising opinions published in nineteenth-century music encyclopaedias, concert guides and the press or contained in Chopin’s correspondence. Indirect sources form the basis for research into Chopin reception. Thanks to transcriptions, we can study musical reception,20 which, unlike the reception of music, concerns other areas of human activity: literature, art and academic thought. This is a new field of research into the resonance of Chopin’s music, previously overlooked. Research to date has been based on reception as broadly understood – as the ‘history of a work’s impact’ on social awareness,21 artistic creation (music, literature, theatre, film, art), concert life and scholarly work.22 There is also a perceived need to study Chopin reception in his epoch, at a given historical moment and cultural location.23 Of primary importance to research into the scope and quality of reception are comparative procedures, which concern concert life and the world of publishing.24 The publishing of Chopin’s works,25 related to a certain social context that had a great effect on the composition and form of his works, and consequently on the production of their various social meanings, is a crucial aspect of nineteenth-century Chopin reception. The existence of two kinds of sources – direct (musical) and indirect (literary) – provides grounds for a wide-ranging approach to the subject, enabling us to present the musical features of transcriptions while taking account of the crucial historical-social context, as well as entitling us to pass judgment on particular transcriptions.

Transcriptions are the main source on which our knowledge is based and to which the present work is devoted. Yet that source replicates events that have already existed, namely, Chopin’s first editions, which should be considered as the primary sources. Their existence was the sine qua non for the creation of the huge open collection of transcriptions. Given such a large number of transcriptions, it is difficult to establish the primary sources on which composers based them – Chopin’s first editions or perhaps existing transcriptions. Hypothetically, we ←20 | 21→can assume that transcriptions produced within a short period of time from the date of the first edition referred directly to that edition, whereas transcriptions representing further links in the chain of existing copies could have been based either on first editions or else on those copies. Also hypothetically, we may consider that transcriptions issued by French publishers, for example, referred to first editions published there. And although it is impossible to indicate a secure source for each and every transcription, there is no doubt that they must have been works in circulation.26

Given these difficulties with unequivocally establishing primary sources, my analytical research procedure drew on comparative (auxiliary) sources, namely, Chopin’s originals published in the Complete Works of Frédéric Chopin edited by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Ludwik Bronarski and Józef Turczyński. All 324 transcriptions were dated on the basis of five catalogues:

Otto Erich Deutsch, Musikverlagsnummern. Eine Auswahl von 40 datierten Listen 1710–1900 (Berlin, 1961),

Adolf Hofmeister, Handbuch der musikalischen Literatur oder Verzeichniss der im deutschen Reiche und in den angrenzenden Ländern erschienenen Musikalien auch musikalischen Schriften, Abbildungen und plastischen Darstellungen mit Anzeige der Verleger und Preise (Leipzig, volumes from 1852–1919),

Anik Devriès and François Lesure, Dictionnaire des éditeurs de musique français, ii: De 1820 à 1914 (Geneva, 1988),

The Catalogue of Printed Music in the British Library to 1980 (London, 1982),

Józef Michał Chomiński and Teresa Dalila Turło, Katalog dzieł Fryderyka Chopina / A Catalogue of the Works of Frederick Chopin (Cracow, 1990).

Two of them (Deutsch and Devriès) make it possible to establish the publication date on the basis of plate numbers and the publisher’s address (Devriès). Two others (The Catalogue and Hofmeister) are catalogues of music publications containing information on approximate publication dates, the publisher’s name and address and the price of the print. Chomiński and Turło’s Catalogue was helpful in dating copies not included in the other four catalogues.

The research material of the present book comes from the holdings of the following Polish libraries: the university libraries of Cracow, Toruń and Wrocław, ←21 | 22→the libraries of Katowice Music Academy, Warsaw Music Society and the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw, and also the National Library in Warsaw. The initial characterisation of this material given below is intended to show how representative it is with regard to the phenomenon under analysis (nineteenth-century transcriptions). The characterisation is based on two basic criteria: the forces for which a transcription was produced and its publisher. With regard to forces, the collection of 324 transcriptions falls into four main groups:

piano transcriptions (106),


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (December)
Trivial music Salon music The systematics of transcriptions Musical transcriptions Chopin in Wroclaw Chopin’s reception
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 310 pp., 75 fig. b/w, 46 tables.

Biographical notes

Barbara Literska (Author)

Barbara Literska is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of Musical Education at the University of Zielona Góra. She specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music history and theory, reception of Chopin's music and the works of the eminent Polish composer Tadeusz Baird.


Title: Nineteenth-Century Transcriptions of Works by Fryderyk Chopin
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