Choice of Clefs and Keys

Discussions relating to performance, interpretation, score preparation, musica ficta etc.
RMD
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Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby RMD » 15 Feb 2011 15:30

Given that most users probably don't want to have to edit the scores they download (even if they have the software), might I suggest contributors use the normal treble clef for Alto parts? An example of an impractical choice (chosen at random from very many) is to be found in Byrd's 4-voice 'This sweet and merry month'. Even if there is some musicological convention involved here of which I am ignorant, I still think it is more useful for contributors to post straightforward, practical editions here.

Practical considerations also apply to the choice of key in 'early' music: by all means post a piece in the original key with prefatory staves etc. (even if they do go completely haywire when transposed, along with editorial accidentals!), but do please also post a transposed version with practical clefs for mixed choirs to enjoy. Obviously this doesn't apply to pieces which are clearly composed for men's voices!

In spite of these mild criticisms, many thanks are due to all editors for sharing their work - I don't know how my choir would survive without you!
Robin Doveton
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CHGiffen
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby CHGiffen » 15 Feb 2011 17:04

I just took a look at the score you mention, and I'm not sure what the problem is. The parts are clearly labeled Cantus primus [Alto], Cantus secundus [Tenor], Tenor [Tenor], and Bassus [Bass], with the top (Cantus primus [Alto]) part in the usual treble G-clef, and the next part (Cantus secundus [Tenor]) in the usual 8va tenor G-clef. This second part is NOT an alto part, but really a tenor/countertenor part (with a nearly two-octave ambitus!) - I know of a (very) few altos that can sing down to a low D, but this is the exception, not the rule. Perhaps you are looking for a higher transposition? - but anything higher than a minor third up would make the Bassus and Tenor parts very high. Could you please clarify?
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anaigeon
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby anaigeon » 15 Feb 2011 19:37

I'm always surprised to hear that unusual clefs are a problem for some singers ; aren't the intervals the same, whatever the clef ?
The problem, of course, is different for instrument players who have to deal with fingerings.

DaveF
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby DaveF » 16 Feb 2011 17:30

As the editor of the edition in question, I'm not sure there is a "practical" solution to providing an edition of this piece. As Chuck says, a range from d to c'' is hardly kind to any human voice. My choice was based on the consideration that all the altos I know, even those with professional training, are unhappy below f, whereas I know a few tenors who are never happier than when floating up to c''. Any altos wanting to sing this line will have to acquire the difficult but not unattainable skill of reading up an octave.

DF

RMD
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby RMD » 17 Feb 2011 09:57

My point was really a general one, but I do believe the Byrd piece I cite is most likely to be sung SATB, untransposed, as I find it unlikely that choirs are going to choose to sing pieces in which the altos have nothing to do. The Cantus Secundus is perfect for a counter-tenor and, in any case, an alto (male or female) who can sing a low D is surely commoner than a tenor who is comfortable on top C (and if the singer is comfortable, it doesn't follow that the audience is!). A 'normal' treble clef makes it easier for most altos to read. I'm talking about providing accessible editions for normal (amateur) choirs. I do realise, of course, that a group of 4 solo professional singers is the ideal solution! Incidentally, I have almost always found that Edmund Fellowes is the best source of practical solutions in Byrd's music - does anyone dare disagree with that..?!
Robin Doveton

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DaveF
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby DaveF » 17 Feb 2011 10:50

I'm second to none in my admiration for Fellowes - his industry and enthusiasm in rediscovering and making available the work of Tudor composers were phenomenal. If it were not for him, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion as we wouldn't even have heard of Byrd. However, his editions are strewn with errors and misreadings/misunderstandings of 16th-century notational practice (compare for example bars 91-101 in my edition of Laudibus in sanctis with the corresponding passage in Fellowes', if you have access to it. Or look at his edition of the Great Service - practical, sure, as it reduces the music to 5 parts, but in doing so makes a travesty of Byrd's 10-part antiphonal scoring.). Also, his editions aren't, well, free. (I'm surprised than not more of them have been posted on IMSLP, as his editorial work is in the public domain in Cananda (in copyright until 2022 in most other places)).

DF

RMD
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby RMD » 17 Feb 2011 11:15

We really should get back 'on topic', but you are quite right, Dave, Fellowes was pretty cavalier when it came to Dec and Can etc. etc.. However, I am at this moment holding TCM Vol 2 in my hand (it weighs a ton!), and, if you look carefully, it is possible to discern Byrd's intentions in spite of the compression onto a max of 8 staves. He seems, unfortunately, to have tried to simplify it even further for the 'popular' paperback edition. Incidentally, I must take this opportunity to thank you for the work you have done on behalf of my favourite composer - very much appreciated. Now all someone needs to do is transpose your scholarly versions of Byrd for the plebs like me!
Robin Doveton

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Cdalitz
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby Cdalitz » 02 Mar 2011 10:54

anaigeon wrote:I'm always surprised to hear that unusual clefs are a problem for some singers ; aren't the intervals the same, whatever the clef ?
The problem, of course, is different for instrument players who have to deal with fingerings.

When the piece is indeed sung a capella, I fully agree with anaigeon that there is no point in transposing the music edition because the choir can sing it at any pitch that is best suitable. This assumes of course that the choir director actually is interested in finding the best fitting pitch and takes the time checking each voice about its ambitus...

For some choirs there might be the problem that the choir director uses an instrument, typically an equally tempered piano (uh, shock, horror!) during the first rehearsal phase. But is it then not the homework of the choir director to make an appropriately transposed keyboard intavolation for his own needs, rather than the task of the editor to foresee all possible pitches?

As a side note, I do not consider a mere transposition satisfactory to make most 16th century music both accessible and fun to sing for modern mixed choirs. A really "practical edition" should include some rewriting and exchange of parts (these changes should be made clear in a critical comment, of course), because otherwise either the Alto has too low sections for female singers, or both the Tenor and the Bass have too high sections (having the basses permanently sing in their upper register is no fun for the rest of the choir ;-). Why should however not the choir director do this job and then post the version at CPDL that worked well for his choir?

Chris

CHGiffen
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby CHGiffen » 02 Mar 2011 14:05

Oddly (?) enough, transposition (especially sight transposition) can be most difficult for those with perfect pitch, particularly so if the transposition is up or down a second or a fourth, since that requires interchanging space notes and line notes ... it is not quite as bad for transpositions up or down a third or fifth, since one can simply "move" (mentally or with a scribble in the score) the clef up or down one or two lines.
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D-fished
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby D-fished » 19 Apr 2011 20:41

I must confess that although I do not have perfect pitch, I find that if I am aware that the piece has been transposed from the written key I can have trouble singing it. This happens for two reasons. 1) If, for example, the piece is notated in C and I know that I'm actually singing it in B-flat, I can misread intervals such as g-b as a minor third because in the back of my mind there is a key signature with two flats. 2) If the transposition is a substantial interval (say, a minor third or even a fourth) the notes I'm reading 'feel' wrong in my voice--either too high or too low for what my eye tells me my voice should be doing.

Despite this, I don't advocate transposing scores of purely a cappella early music. For me, the distortions introduced in the notation outweigh the inconvenience of having to think harder when I sing. Of course, if the music is doubled by an organ or has a continuo part, the player needs an intabulation in the necessary key. We know from Diruta and others that 16th-17th century organists were expected to be able to transpose into quite remote keys like A major if the singers required such an adjustment from the written pitch.

Where I do recommend transposition is in the case of chiavette where, for example, the cantus is in g2, the altus in c2, the tenor in c3 and the bassus in c4 clefs. There is still some disagreement about what exactly the composers intended, but it makes no sense to have sopranos screeching high gs and as while the basses never go below tenor C. It seems clear to me that the notation in high clefs was used to avoid leaving the hexachords of musica recta in the written parts while informing the singers that they would be singing in a key that would involve flats or sharps if it were written at performance pitch. Too many choirs sing pieces like Monteverdi's Cruda Amarilli in the notated key of C (and sound very unpleasant doing so) either because the director is unaware that the original clefs indicate a downward transposition (not necessarily of a fourth or fifth, but possibly of a minor third) or because of a misguided loyalty to the composer's 'intentions' in having written the piece in that key.

Cheers,
D-fished

pateceramics
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby pateceramics » 07 Feb 2013 22:42

I know that the original post in this thread is a million years old, but I wanted to add the opinion of an alto (one with a low E, if not a low D). I agree with the original post-er. Yes! It is distracting to read music in an unfamiliar clef for singers! Even though we are not staring at keys on a keyboard! Instrument players who aren't primarily singers seem to think it makes no difference to us. That's like telling a violin player that they should be able to play the viola with no problem by just spreading their fingers a bit farther without much practice.

I do not have perfect pitch, but I know where my voice breaks from chest voice to head voice. I know the particular sweet spot that is a C. I know that I have to start modifying vowels anywhere above an E. So even when I'm reading an unfamiliar piece of music and scrambling a bit with the sight reading, I can tell from the feel, vocally, whether I'm in the right neighborhood of the note.

I sang what was actually a tenor part in a trio with a couple of guys a while back, and my sight reading was pitiful. Since all the parts (mine included) were written in bass clef, which I don't generally read, being an alto, I didn't have that instinctive feel for where the notes were in my voice. I lost that way to double check my sight reading as I went. There wasn't time to think, okay, we're in bass cleff, not treble cleff, so that's an A, so yeah, that feels correct. I beat my part into my head eventually, but it took more work than it would have if it had been written in the clef I'm used to. Even though it would have meant a lot of ledger lines if it had been written as an "alto" part.

I'm always amazed at how much more smoothly a piece is performed, regardless of the amount practice, if the music is written with consistent markings, in a reasonably large size, with the words placed consistently. This is the same sort of thing. So yes, standard modern clefs are very helpful for choirs that don't perform ye olde music very frequently.

Best,
Maggie Furtak

RMD
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby RMD » 25 Oct 2013 16:47

I note with regret that distinguished contributors sometimes post editions of wonderful and interesting music using the wrong clef for the altos and in unperformable and/or unlikely keys. I presume the music posted here is meant to be sung and listened to, not just looked at, so why not make life as easy as possible for the performers by sticking to some well established conventions?
OK, I may like to believe that anyone with a modicum of intelligence will understand my latest edition and transpose an 8ve or whatever, but the acid test comes when I try it out with my choir; if they make heavy weather of relatively easy music it's usually my copy that's to blame!
Apropos of which, and however environmentally friendly it may be to save paper by having a fewer pages, a cramped copy is another hindrance to accurate performance and is a common cause of singers' complaints.
Robin Doveton

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Cdalitz
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Re: Choice of Clefs and Keys

Postby Cdalitz » 27 Oct 2013 10:59

RMD wrote:Contributors sometimes post editions of wonderful and interesting music using the wrong clef for the altos and in unperformable and/or unlikely keys.


Hey, the wonderful thing about the sharing economy, of which CPDL is a part, is that you can make your own edition and post it again. What you find an "performable key" is dreadful to the next choir, who find singing from transopsed editions with b's or even #'s less fun than your singers.


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