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Saturday morning quote #30: Transposition

December 17, 2011

There has recently been a flurry of discussion on the lute list about the virtues and perils of transposing.  It was generally discussed – if not agreed – that transposing fingerings for the lute is the province of the professional musician, while those who believe they are recreating historical sounds by playing the historical tablatures as they stand feel there is something virtuous about not straying from the surviving evidence.

Of course, the middle way is always the best way.  We can presume that professional lutenists of old were not limited in their approach and used written tablature for what it was always intended, a system of scoring polyphonic music.  We can also presume that composers played their compositions at any pitch that seemed suitable and with whatever fingering they desired or were capable of.  But, as least as far as lute music goes, printed music has always been aimed at amateurs.

We think the middle way is to honor the historical evidence but, as professional musicians, use the skills we possess to make the music and text as convincing as possible.  Sometimes this involves transposition and, as we hope to demonstrate, it can be done sensitively and in a way that is historically appropriate.

First, to support the idea that both the voice and the lute have always been transposing instruments, we offer a few quotes.  Kenneth Kreitner in Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music discusses flexible pitch standards:

When singing a cappella, singers would take a pitch from their chapelmaster or a tenorista, who, so far as we know, found this starting pitch without recourse to a musical instrument…The notated pitch and the performing pitch of a piece would thus have been quite independent, their relation flexible according to the capability and preference of the individual choir.

Next, we hear from Christopher Page from his book, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, here discussing the development of early notational systems:

[Hucbald of St-Armand] knew far better than we do what these notations could convey, and he has some interesting things to say on that count; nonetheless, he did not believe the virtues of the neumes absolved the serious musician from pondering ways to circumvent their imprecision in the matter of pitch and to guide singers better.

What we hope to point out here is that notation does not necessarily describe pitch but rather offers a pictorial representation describing intervals as they outline the shape of a piece of music.  In terms of 16th century lute songs, most are arrangements of polyphonic music with the cantus set in musical notation with text underlaid,  and with the lower parts arranged in tablature notation to be realized on the lute.  There are plenty of  historical examples of lute solos and lute songs having been transposed.  For example, the Edward Paston manuscripts in the British Library contain some pieces that are intabulated in different ‘keys’ with the lute parts transposed to odd and sometimes awkward fingerings.

Getting back to our own music, generally we decide where to pitch a particular song after trying it out in several different ‘keys’ with lutes tuned to different pitches.  We usually stick with an arrangement after making the decision.  However, circumstances can arise that demand flexibility, and it occurs to us that we have a ready example, or rather two of them, on our YouTube channel.

The piece in question is ‘Quando Amor i begli occhi‘ by Philippe Verdelot from Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto (1536), setting the poetry of Francesco Petrarch.  As can be seen by the facsimile score reproduced in our first video of the piece from our recording, Sfumato, the cantus part is in a ‘C’ clef with no sharps or flats, while the lute part is fingered in f-minor position (assuming a lute tuned to G).   Already, this arrangement presumes a certain amount of transposition must occur just to perform the piece.  For our recording, we used a bass lute in E and tuned to the pitch of A=440.

For the televised performance, we performed the same piece with the lower parts arranged from the part-music in relative g-minor, this time with the lute tuned to G but at the pitch of A=415.

The primary reason for the transposition in this case was the need to submit a detailed program to the TV station in advance so that they could process closed-captioned titles, etc.  Since our bass lute was in the shop pretty much up to the wire, we had to consider how the pitch, or ‘tonality’, of the piece would fit when it was placed next to other pieces in a concert performance.  We made the choice to transpose based on the historical fact that the part music was published in G, so we could jolly well play the lower parts with that fingering and with no historical compromise.

Is one more successful than the other?  What do you think?

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