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So, I am starting again with my arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite. I was debating whether or not to do the whole ballet but I decided on the Suite because it is shorter and more widely known than the entire ballet it is based off of.

Some movements such as the March fit almost perfectly into a piano duet not just musically but visually as well. On the other hand, there is the Overture that starts the entire suite at an approximate tempo of 114 BPM and is very complex, with multiple ideas happening at the same time. I couldn't possibly fit all the notes of the overture in a piano duet. That would require at least a quartet of pianists to acheive.

I myself haven't looked at the piano duet versions on IMSLP because that might tempt me to just copy the existing piano duets note for note when I know that not every transcription for the same instruments has the same notes. Yes, they will all have the same basic thematic ideas, but the note for note detail might differ considerably between 2 transcriptions.

I have seen that myself with transcriptions of symphonies, especially if I compare the Liszt transcription of a Beethoven symphony with another transcription of the same symphony.

I have mainly been looking at the orchestral score and thinking:

Okay, which instruments go on which staves? Do I need a treble clef and a bass clef on both grand staves or can I have one of them just be the treble clef and the other be just the bass clef? Will clef changes be required?

Wait, what clarinet is Tchaikovsky using for this movement? Did I just transcribe a bunch of wrong notes because I went into my default Bb transposition when really, I was supposed to do an A transposition or an Eb transposition? Okay, what note is that again? Reading alto clef and tenor clef is so hard when the only way you have learned them is relative to treble clef and bass clef.

As you can see, there is a lot of thinking involved in transcribing for piano duet and that is just a minority of all the thinking that is going on that I showed in the post. I have gotten advice to go from the orchestral score to an abstract score to avoid the distractions of the different instrument staves and then to my piano duet transcription. But, I don't really have software that can do an abstract score. And I have no idea how else I would do an abstract score.

So besides going first with the abstract score or looking at the existing piano duet transcriptions, how else can I more easily transcribe a complex movement such as the Overture for a piano duet?

  • What's an "abstract score", anyway? Would it be the condensed score of the entire orchestral version or what? – Dekkadeci Feb 17 at 7:22
  • Have a look what instruments have to play the same voice then you can ignore e.g. the A clarinet in the 2nd movement playing the same part as the trumpet. @ Dekkdeci: abstract score will probably mean the same as a piano reduction, leaving aside all less important filling voices. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 17 at 11:47
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When I transcribe things written for a lot of instruments, the first thing I do is unwrite it.

What this means, is that I do things in the reverse order as they have been done by the composer. Here's what the composer (usually) does:

  1. Think.
  2. Write a the score on four staves;
  3. Transcribe it for all instruments.

So what I would suggest you to do is:

  1. Transcribe on four staves. (This will likely be unplayable on the piano because of the range).
  2. Simplify.
  3. Separate the piano parts.
  4. Think and add what you feel like is missing.

And about the transposing problems, did you look for a midi or musicxml or whatever format you could put in an editor? That way, you could change the clefs so you won't kill yourself reading alto clefs.

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which instruments go on which staves? Do I need a treble clef and a bass clef on both grand staves or can I have one of them just be the treble clef and the other be just the bass clef? Will clef changes be required?

There is certainly no rule which instruments and parts will be assigned to which hand - except the bass voices you will probably reserve for the left hand.

Of course you have to decide whether you transcribe for two pianists playing on two pianos or a provide a four hand transcription for two pianists playing on only one piano.

In the first case you could pay attention that both have an interesting part, in the second case you have take care that they won’t hinder each one by playing.

You can chose all kind of combinations of clefs, this depends of the pitch of the music you are transcribing.

how else can I more easily transcribe a complex movement such as the Overture for a piano duet?

  • download the full score as pdf. If you want you even don’t have to print it out.

  • mark with a color all leading motives (by pdf-or foto tools) assigning it the 1st. Piano

  • assign the bass part (left hand / 2nd piano)

  • accompaniment and counterpoint (right hand /2nd. Piano.

  • All other less important motives or parts you can ignore or distribute to the to pianos as possible.

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