The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Discussions relating to performance, interpretation, score preparation, musica ficta etc.
Oriana
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The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby Oriana » 18 Nov 2008 18:51

It has been suggested for some time that the pitch at which Tudor music, especially that of Taverner, Sheppard, Tallis and their contemporaries, was sung was higher than today’s pitch. David Wulstan, in his excellent Tudor Music (London: 1975, Chapter '8'), makes the case for this very clearly. Briefly, based on the pitch of organs known from the time, on the clefs used, on documentary evidence, and on the voices available at the time, Wulstan advocates a transposition upwards of a minor third for most Latin church music written in England prior to 1600.

The most important reason behind such transposition is that Tudor choirs had two types of boys’ voices: the ‘treble’ (abbreviated Tr), singing high parts which went repeatedly up to top A or B flat; and the ‘mean’ (M), a lower voice but above alto. In practical terms, this resulted in music which appears to be scored for SATTBB being actually scored for TrMAATB.

Without going into the theoretical basis for such transposition, there are practical arguments both in favour and against this arrangement. The main argument in favour is simply the sound and sonority of the music: the sound of high trebles is thrilling and adds hugely to the effect of this music. By contrast, the low pitch SATTBB scoring results in a very muddy sound and a loss of clarity. The effect of upwards transposition is rather like taking a 16th century painting and cleaning it: we suddenly see all sorts of things that were previously obscured.

Finding trebles (male or female) who can sing these parts is not really an issue. Top As and B flats are not really that high, and in my experience there are plenty of singers around who can produce the bright, clear sound required. The main argument against such transposition is that the transposed alto parts have a very wide range, and frequently descend to F or even E below middle C. This is perfectly reasonable for male altos, who simply go into chest voice, but unrealistic for female altos. This problem can be overcome either by putting a few tenors onto these along with the altos (a practice used by even the best early music groups today), or by the occasional swapping of parts between altos and tenors.

Of course, there is no ‘right’ pitch for such music, and contemporary choirmasters performed at whatever pitch was convenient to them, even transposing down a fourth or a sixth when it suited them. Therefore, today’s choir directors should feel justified in performing at any convenient pitch. However, I would urge editors to produce versions at both the ‘original’ (i.e. low pitch) and at a higher pitch (up a minor third), and I would equally urge choir directors to try out both versions.

To hear the effect of the higher pitch, follow this link to the Hyperion website: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/tw.asp?w=W3853&f=sheppard the first few bars of Sheppard’s sublime Libera nos, salve nos can be heard in three different recordings, by Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and The Sixteen. The first two are at low pitch, the third at high pitch. To me, the luminous sound of The Sixteen is the best advocate I can find for singing this music at the higher pitch.

Oriana
November 2008

carlos
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby carlos » 18 Nov 2008 20:46

Hi Oriana,

I've just heard the three sample recordings you cited. Wow, what a difference in sonority! Listening to The Sixteen's version, when the high voices start singing their "Salva me" in G, it certainly made me thrill! Thank you for the valuable info.

Carlos

CHGiffen
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby CHGiffen » 18 Nov 2008 20:48

Transposing up a whole tone from the written pitch might be a better solution, since today's A=440 is already higher than the diapason normal A=435 of mid 19th century to 1975 (when A=440 became the international standard), and a full semitone higher than contemporary "baroque" standard A=415 used by modern ensembles.

Indeed, the Tallis Scholars recorded the Taverner Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas up a whole tone from the original sources, thus sending the highest voices up to high A and basses only down to low E (instead of G and D respectively). I have performed (and concert recorded) the same work at written pitch with the early music ensemble Zephyrus, with excellent results - the high soprano lines don't cut through the texture so sharply, making it a more balanced reading over all voices than the Tallis Scholars recording, whose sopranos are almost laser-like.

Chuck
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Oriana
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby Oriana » 18 Nov 2008 21:03

Hi Chuck

You are absolutely right, of course - transposing up a tone will often be sufficient. And, as you say, there is a danger of the treble parts cutting through the texture too much. I think each piece needs to be considered carefully, depending on the effect you want to create - for example, I think that the Tallis Lamentations are much more atmospheric at written pitch for men's voices than transposed up to include sopranos.

My plea was really to ask editors to give us performers a choice of pitches, either by producing more than one edition, or making the source files available (preferably in Sibelius or Finale).

Oriana

CHGiffen
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby CHGiffen » 18 Nov 2008 21:10

Hi Oriana,

Point well-made regarding alternate pitch versions being made available.

Chuck
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vaarky
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby vaarky » 19 Nov 2008 08:31

I'm with you in wanting multiple transpositions. The examples you provided were excellent indeed.

Based on both my ear and my preference for where I want my voice to play, I want soprano parts arranged so sops reach a high of G. Above that, most sop voices are too bright compared to the other voice parts; also, many sops have trouble singing higher while keeping a restrained, early music voice.

DaveF
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby DaveF » 19 Nov 2008 22:42

I would say that the work done by The Cardinall's Musick in their Fayrfax series and the earlier volumes of their Byrd makes a very persuasive case for performance more-or-less in the written key, and does away with (for example) a lot of those awkward baritone parts that go from c to f' or g'. To my ears anyway, the Cardinalls' recording of Fayrfax's Magnificat Regali beats the Sixteen's (up a tone) in every department - likewise their incomparable recording of Byrd's Plorans Plorabit in the dark dark published key of G minor when compared with other transposed ones.

As far as transposed editions are concerned, I'm always happy to make them available on request, but as for providing multiple editions of every piece... well, unlike my cat, I have only one life...

I hope this discussion runs and runs - it promises to be very interesting and enjoyable.

DF

Lewis Jones
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby Lewis Jones » 22 May 2010 21:07

Sorry to not let sleeping dogs lie, but is anyone aware of the findings of Haynes (2002)? He says that the "up a minor 3rd" transposition is a spurious transposition for early to mid Tudor music, as the organs pipes of the period have been remeasured, and provide a pitch ranging from A=440 to a tone higher (approximately, of course). In regards to the singing of the music at "high pitch", I don't really see the attraction: Bowers (1980) traces a clear development from the quartet/trio of early English sacred music (Dunstable, etc) into the sonorous "Eton Choirbook" type scoring, of TrMCtTB, or as we would understand it, SATBarB. This also makes a tidy comparison with contemporary European sacred practises, where an SATB group consisted of a falsettist, a tenor, a bari-tenor and bass: the only difference between this and the English scoring is the English addition of a treble part on the top (and then, only in earlier English music). According to Ravens (1998), references to English trebles singing in a particularly high register in Tudor times are non existant. The high pitch theory also presents the problem of having trebles screaming, altos singing in extremes of their range (Phillips, 1978 says that the only really effective way is to have two singers on this part, one petering out when it goes beyond its comfort zone), and bass parts that because of their new higher tessitura tend to dominate the texture. In the light of Haynes' findings, and using a little common sense, it is hard to see why the zeal for the minor 3rd transposition lives on...when Fellowes said in 1921 that Tudor pitch was a minor 3rd higher than written, his pitch standard was A=435.4 (Ravens, 1998), so when compared with Haynes' recent findings on early English organ pitch, it seems that he was right all along - just not in the way Wulstan and his followers thought.

Anyway, food for though.

pml
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby pml » 29 May 2010 13:09

I'd like to inject one idea, which is that transposition for the sake of transposition can be annoying - the way a piece reads on the page (especially for pieces which aren't really in the major/minor key system, and are modal) can be distorted by the process, especially if the separate parts are in different modes to begin with and the editor has decided on a "compromise" key signature for all the staves. Undoubtedly the reason to do any upward transposition on the Tudor corpus is to brighten the potentially muddy sound especially of the inner parts.

I had a related problem when performing Brumel's Missa Et ecce terraemotus a few years ago (and there's no consensus on what pitch is suitable for it: I have recordings at modern A=440 Hz written pitch; down a tone; up a semi-tone, tone, and minor third: five different opinions). It's a work I know like the back of my hand, and I was rather perturbed to be given a copy transposed up a tone. I had no problem with the piece being sung at the higher pitch in order to clarify the sound: I had more of a problem with all of the intricate voice leading, chordal progressions etc looking very unfamiliar notationally on the page.

I soon arranged for a copy at the written pitch and found it much more easy to accustomise myself to thinking of the translated pitch, without it causing problems when swapping to other pieces that were being sung in written keys. If you think this is a non-issue, perhaps think of trying to read a piece of orchestral music that you've known for a very long time on a familiar basis (I mean from reading the score, not listening), but in a different key, e.g. Beethoven's 5th symphony in B minor, rather than C minor. Obviously there is a sonic difference but also the appearance of the music noticeably changes (and I am very familiar with reading unusual clefs, and it's more than just that; the issue is more like reading parts for transposing instruments).

CHGiffen
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby CHGiffen » 29 May 2010 15:43

Injecting yet one other aspect to transposed editions and singing transposed from the written score in front of you. While I have little or not difficulty singing music transposed from the score in front of me, I know singers with perfect pitch who find this difficult - seeing a written F and having to sing an A-flat! I've long suspected that people ask for transposed editions (of a cappella works) so that they can play their parts on a keyboard instrument while learning the piece and, frankly, thought the exercise was on of futility for the contributor/editor of the score to CPDL. This all begs the question of appropriateness of singing a piece transposed from the original (whether from a transposed edition or by sight transposing). I've expressed my thoughts on this previously in this topic.

Chuck
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DeCapo
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby DeCapo » 10 Nov 2010 20:06

I read that tomkin's church music would have been sung a third higher than written

cjshawcj
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby cjshawcj » 13 Feb 2011 00:12

I have recently been reading transcriptions of some of the documents produced by Greene, Boyce and others that eventually became the collection known as Boyce's Cathedral Music. Admittedly these deal with 17th more than 16th century composers, but they tend to suggest a further degree of ambiguity of pitch. The key in which a piece was transmitted is not necessarily that in which it was cutomarily performed. Consider the case of Jeremiah Clarke's "Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem" (included in Vol. 2). The manuscript has a figured bass in Greene's autograph. Boyce has appended the comment "This must be put in G a flat 3rd lower, Tis always performed in that key". That is the key in which it was printed. An early owner of the manuscript, Joseph Corfe (organist at Salisbury Cathedral 1792 - 1804) insists in the margin that at Salisbury this item was customarily performed in A. The number of keys in which manuscripts survive is restricted but comments such as those above suggest that in performance the full gamut of keys was contemplated, to suit each respective choir's peculiar capabilities. And even more so in organless establishments.

baklazanek
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby baklazanek » 20 Jun 2013 13:13

carlos wrote:Hi Oriana,

I've just heard the three sample recordings you cited. Wow, what a difference in sonority! Listening to The Sixteen's version, when the high voices start singing their "Salva me" in G, it certainly made me thrill! Thank you for the valuable info.

Carlos


Indeed, it's so much difference :shock:

vaarky
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Re: The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby vaarky » 24 Jun 2013 16:28

Those are indeed excellent examples, wow. The higher version sounds sublime if you have the lovely voices of the professional singers in The Sixteen at your disposal. Sadly, many choirs don't have sopranos who can sound nearly as good on high G entrances, much less the high A later in that key. But the great example in the recordings helped seal my preference for the higher key when forces permit, thanks!

Shellykn
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The Pitch of Tudor Church Music

Postby Shellykn » 18 Aug 2016 14:02

I just try to hear what is being made right now, and with a few exceptions I can only discover composers like Finissy or Sciarrino along with the ones mentioned above, and after reading and thinking a lot about the subject I would like to know the opinion of the pianophilians, having in mind probably the most of them have more musical experience than me.

I am not saying the modern music has no quality, but why it seems that suddenly its all about making "non-friendly" sounds to our hears...
I mean, one thing is to try to discover new sonorities and try to evolve the methods of composition, and I even understand atonalism.. but serialism? Really?... Sorry if I offend anyone but for me its torture being obligated to hear a full performance of a piano piece by Stockhausen or Bussotti or Boulez..etc.. Just my point of view


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