Palestrina and Performance Pitch

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Palestrina and Performance Pitch

Postby philadams » 13 Jun 2009 10:58

I am planning a performance of Missa Papae Marcelli in the fall. What key should we perform it in?

The recordings that I have heard on YouTube that are at the printed pitch sound screechy to me. Most choirs seem to opt for one step down, which I am considering. Surprisingly enough, I believe that Tallis Scholars sing it a perfect fourth DOWN!

I look forward to your feedback,


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Re: Palestrina and Performance Pitch

Postby CHGiffen » 13 Jun 2009 12:49

Unless one has the right singers trained for the task (and a very large space in which to sing it), attempting a "historically informed" performance is probably not advisable for a work such as the Missa Papae Marcelli, which has been sung countless times since its composition and therefore has a long history of different performance practices. This mass is scored at a high pitch in all parts, which suggests that a downward transposition is (and always has been) appropriate. That the Tallis Scholars (whose scholarship is to be trusted) sing the work down a fourth suggests that any downward transposition from a whole tone to a perfect fourth is alright. Depending upon the singers you have and the sound you wish to create, I would opt for either the whole tone or perfect fourth transposition.

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Re: Palestrina and Performance Pitch

Postby vaarky » 13 Jun 2009 18:22

Ditto on the transposition--I believe transposition was common even at the time the piece was written, and is certainly common now.

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Re: Palestrina and Performance Pitch

Postby pml » 14 Jun 2009 10:53

Hi all,

bear in mind that defining A as 440 Hertz is a comparatively modern innovation, and it is more for the convenience of singers (and ease of playing by keyboard accompanists) that modern scores are transposed. Anyway, my copy of the Tallis Scholars' recording is only a semitone below modern written pitch (i.e. "A" ~ 415 Hz), so I don't know where the transposition by a fourth comes into it; yes, there are instances of historical transposition (which was usually accomplished by changing one hexachord for another, e.g. so that fa becomes ut) often involving high clefs, but that is a separate issue to finding an appropriate performance pitch. The Chester version score edited by Henry Washington is down a tone (2 flats) which is a nice compromise between a usable modern pitch and a fairly convenient key signature. I don't know which edition Peter uses for the Papae Marcelli; I know the Scholars use Washington's edition for the Assumpta est Maria mass which is likewise rather high in pitch and is also transposed down a tone.

Regards, Philip

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Re: Palestrina and Performance Pitch

Postby Jaquick » 07 Dec 2009 20:02

It's not Tallis Scholars you're thinking of, it's Pro Cantione Antiqua, Bruno Turner's group, that did it down a 4th. That was a common transposition for pieces in high clefs (treble top, tenor bottom).

I did this for a wedding mass summer before last, and I had to grapple with this issue, which was complicated by the fact that he also wanted the Laetatus sum from the Monteverdi Vespers! People are used to hearing it high, and it has a different affect that way, even though I think it sounds better low. So we found 4 high tenors, plus sopranos to match. Down a 4th, you have 2 normally-low bass parts, 2 baritone parts, 1 high tenor and a top part that anyone female (and some males) can sing.

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