Piano transcriptions and arrangements rendered on a digital stage

December 12, 2018
Tyler Cole Mitchell
First page of sheet music for Carmen transcription

The Stanford Music Library has begun digitizing portions of its vast sheet music holdings. This effort will offer immediate remote access to sheet music in various genres, including piano arrangements and transcriptions, popular song sheets, and (coming soon) art songs and arias. All works included are in the public domain and as such are freely accessible to anyone through the Searchworks catalog. The new digital records allow for a variety of on-screen viewing options and the ability to download files, while protecting the often fragile physical print. See the earlier post, "Scanning project makes piano works available," for more information on the mechanics of the pilot project.

Of the 150 pieces digitized so far, around half are piano transcriptions or arrangements of popular opera numbers, scenes, and overtures from the 19thcentury. Piano transcriptions seek to reduce as faithfully as possible the orchestral and vocal lines from an opera score to a single instrument—the piano. As seen in the works here, the transcriber has extracted only one scene or number from an opera. Stanford’s collection includes many such transcriptions by 19th-century pianist-composers, such as Sigismond Thalberg and Ferruccio Busoni. 

More freely adaptive than a transcription, a piano arrangement may contain a collection from several scenes in an opera, all presented under a single title. The arranger may take certain liberties with editorial marginalia that fall outside the strict parameters of a transcription. In other words, an arrangement is a broad term that can convey several compositional or editorial methods. Franz Liszt’s contributions to this genre of homage and adaption are well represented in Stanford’s collection.

Three examples follow that demonstrate the variability among arrangements.

Page 1 of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots piano score

Page 2 of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots piano score

Ex. 1: The first two pages of “Selections from the Opera Les Huguenots,” by Giacomo Meyerbeer; arr. by Max Spicker. Aside from the splicing of scenes, the piano arrangement is very close to a literal transcription.


A page from Elsa's Bridal Procession (Wagner/Lohengrin) arranged for piano

Ex. 2: The second page of a piano arrangement, “Elsa’s Bridal Procession,” from the third act of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin; arr. by Franz Liszt and William H. Sherwood. As can be seen, the arrangement of Wagner’s original score has undergone an interpretative process quite different from Spicker’s setting of Les Huguenots. The image viewer’s zoom-in feature is helpful with the tiny print!


The first page of Chanson Boheme, a piano arrangement on themes from La Boheme

Ex. 3: First page of “Chanson bohême, de l’opéra Carmen,” an arrangement of themes from Bizet’s eponymous opera by the German-Polish pianist Moritz Moszkowski. This setting of opera tunes seeks to mimic an improvised concert performance rather than a direct transcription of the Bizet’s opera.  

Hear pianist Christof Keymer perform Moszkowski’s Chanson Boheme (Carmen) arrangement via Naxos audio streaming (Stanford access required) or on Spotify, and open the image viewer to follow along with the score.


A photo of Tyler

Tyler Cole Mitchell

Center Services Supervisor, David Rumsey Map Center