Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

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Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by dmu3tem » Fri Nov 30, 2012 1:17 pm

Many thanks for the responses on my first thread with this title. I hope more keep coming.

As there are so many sub-topics I thought I might run a number of separate threads to cater for each of them. This is the next one - on transposition.

Here are my preliminary thoughts, based as before on my practical experience; but as before, I am sure there are numerous variations, additions and corrections that can be made.

Basically, transposition comes in two forms - (1) Transposition across the whole length of the piece (2) Transposition - or more accurately - key change for part of it.

(1) Transposition across the whole piece. Two principal reasons for doing this:

(a) If the melody as it stands is likely to be too high or too low for the congregation to sing:

Here are some variables to consider:
(i) As a general rule anything above top 'd' can be risky. Many older hymn editions, as a matter of course, have tunes going up to 'e', implying that the general tonality in earlier times was lower, or that even congregations in those days knew how to support their voices better, or perhaps something to do with variables in the ways Organs used to be tuned. More modern hymn editions, such as 'Laudate', often have 'lower' settings than ones in hymnals like 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'. So, whenever, I get given a hymn list, I find it useful to compare versions in different hymnals for this sort of reason alone.
(ii) Likewise, as a general rule it is risky to go below lower Bb or even C. Lower pitch ranges, I notice, are a more common feature with more modern pieces, often reaching as low as an A. Again, I find it useful to compare versions in different hymnals.
(iii) Another aspect to consider is the make-up of a congregation. If it is predominantly male, then lower pitches are more feasible, higher ones less so. The opposite applies with a female congregation. If the congregation is equally balanced between the sexes then I am inclined to favour the female side. Not only are there likely to be more of them, but, more importantly, they seem more inclined to sing (look at the male-female balance in many volounter choirs for example - regular more professional and saleried groups will be different of course).
I don't have much understanding of children's voices (i.e. those below the age of fourteen), so perhaps someone could add their experiences here. I do notice though that there is a difference between the sound you get in many primary schools compared with childrens voices that have had some training. The former seem to have a very limited range, and when they sing as a group they tend to shout rather than sing, often with very distinctive accents, which of course is a facet that can be exploited.
(iv) Of course some pieces have such a huge pitch range that at 'both ends' they exceed the limits outlined above. Transposition in such circumstances cannot help here.
(v) I am not inclined to regard any of the ideas expressed above as 'set in stone', as it were. Much depends on the way extremely high or low notes are 'approached' in the melodic line. So, a tune with a high E might actually prove to be perfectly feasible for this reason, whereas another with the same note and the same congregation might not. Judging which of these categories a tune falls into seems to me to be a 'judgement of Solomon'. For instance some schools of thought suggest that a gradual step-by-step approach to higher notes is easier to manage than 'jumps'. In the end, I often fall back on the old strategy of just singing the relevant passages through myself to see how difficult they really are.
(vi) Further ill-defined factors are such things as: whether this is the first piece a congregation is being asked to sing or have they had their voices 'run in' on previous items? how warm or cold the building is - ice-cold conditions amplified by colds and coughs are not a good recipie for high singing; how much supporting 'echo' there is in the building.

(b) If the melody - and parts - are unsuitable for the instrumentalists (and trained choral singers working in parts) at your disposal. If these factors clash with congregational requirements then I lean in favour of the congregation. If not, here are some factors to consider:
(i) Most obviously range. The parts must be playable on the instrument's pitch range and/or exploit and take account of the range of part singers (Soprano, Alto (variation between male altos and female altos here), Tenor, Bass).
(ii) Key. Stringed instruments (Violins, Guitars etc) seem to like 'sharp' keys. Woodwind and Brass (esp. those transposing into Eb and Bb) prefer 'flat' keys. If you have a 'mixed' group including both then you have to compromise: although the strategy of having certain instruments playing in particular parts can enable you wriggle round such difficulties. Don't forget Guitar capos (and they way they distort the Guitar sound).
(iii) Tone colour. A shift of key up or down even a semitone can sometimes make all the difference to the way particular instruments sound. So, to some extent 'select' your key according to such things as: the tone colours of particular strings on instruments like Violins and Guitars; the four tone colours on the Clarinet (Chalumeau, Lower Middle, Upper Middle, High registers); remembering that Flute sound 'weak' and 'wobbly' at their bottom end of their range and that Oboes 'quack' raucously at low pitches etc. Also, with strings, ask yourself whether you want to avoid 'open strings' at all costs or not; if you do, go for 'flat' keys. On the other hand, if you want members of the violin family to use double stops, it helps to be in a key where lots of 'open strings' become available (e.g. D major, C Major, G Major).
(iv) The capability of your players. Really good ones, obviously, can cope with more obscure or 'difficult' keys for their instrument. So, if you have a mixed ability group be kind to the beginners in your choice of key and leave the more advanced ones to struggle (and curse you).
(v) Writing easier parts for instruments likely to be in difficulties with the existing key can also help.

[2] Transposition, or key change, in only part of a piece - most commonly by raising the tonality by a tone, semitone or third in a final verse to give greater sense of 'uplift'.

Basically, I dislike such proceedures, if only because the move usually sounds pretty 'obvious' and therefore implies that the composition is too 'weak' to stand frequent repetition. However, there is no doubt that on occasion such treatment can prove effective.

When making such a switch I find there are two sets of things to watch for:
(a) All the issues itemised above - will the transposition make the piece unsingable (or easier) for the congregation and instruments? will it distort the tone 'colours' of particular instruments (and voices, if you have a choir)? etc.
(b) A key change of this sort can 'put a congregation' off its stroke, especially if people are not very familiar with the music.

Finally, there is one controversial issue you might consider before making any transposition:

Changing the piece's key can alter its character.
(a) Some people say that actually such a change makes no difference; but against this, at the very least, if for example a piece is taken down a tone, it will have a lower tessitura and sound 'duller', if it is raised by a tone the opposite applies and it might sound more 'shrill'.
(b) There is also the issue of fidelity to the composer's intentions, the argument being that the composer conceived the music in that particular key; so anything different will be a distortion from this and therefore be 'inferior'. For example the music may have been deliberately set in a high key to force singers and instrumentalists to perform under some degree of 'strain', which will affect the overrall sound quality.

Against this it can be argued that:
(i) if the music is difficult to sing, then people will be less inclined to perform it or join in.
(ii) that the composer may have selected a different key originally and then changed his or her mind.
(iii) they key setting you are given in your music may be the result of an editor's decision, and not the opinion of the original composer at all (iv) once the music is 'published', despite copyright claims, in practice - and especially in church - it is open for anyone to use (and abuse) as they see fit. No composer can expect - as perhaps might be the case in a concert or a professional recording - for his or her instructions to be adhered to in every detail, especially if they are to be followed by a body such as a congregation. Congregational singing is a pretty 'rough and ready' business a lot of the time.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by alan29 » Fri Nov 30, 2012 2:28 pm

Transposing at sight is dead hard.
I hunt through the books for hymns in suitable keys (tessitura etc) and then photocopy and file them. They are in a binder that travels around with me. I sometimes forget to check that my copy has the same number of verses as the peoples' copy :oops:
The only "cheap trick" I employ is to play "Silent Night" in A but then move it to B flat for verse 3. Only at Midnight Mass, mind. The singing of the people swells magically, and those in the congregation who know harmonies are able to follow. It fair brings a tear to the eye.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by JW » Sat Dec 01, 2012 11:37 am

It's worth noting that Catholic Hymns Old & New has a lot of hymns in different keys. So I'm able to play 'The Lord's My Shepherd' in Eb for a funeral and F for a wedding where there are confident singers. Hymns in Laudate tend more towards the heights.

I do rarely push the last verse up a tone, usually for tunes like 'How Great Thou Art (from A to Bb), Blaenwern (from F to G), etc. The choir half expects it from me - you can see them looking worried towards the end of the penultimate verse of a favourite hymn. The only comments I've had from non musical members of the congregation were: "I don't know what you did there but it was good." The greats are not above using this device. Stephen Layton, of Polyphony and Trinity College Cambridge fame, once told me that he has done when accompanying an evangelical congregation - sorry to name-drop but he got me through Grade 8 organ when he was Assistant at Southwark Anglican Cathedral. I was / still am a lousy transposer and only do it where I have the music written out.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by promusica » Sat Dec 01, 2012 12:46 pm

As much as possible, I try to avoid the key change up a semitone/tone for the last verse of a hymn. As previously stated, it gives the suggestion that the piece doesn't have enough musical merit to stand on its own. There are a few exceptions where a key change is written in by the composer with a subtle enough modulation. I'm thinking in particular of Chris Walker's We Love this Place, where the final refrain is a tone higher than the rest. It seems to work, especially after the meandering tonality in the preceding verse; Paul Inwood's Search for the Lord also has a such a modulation towards the end - and flows naturally out of what went before. The danger, I suppose, is that a modulation into the final refrain or verse smacks of something that is more naturally found on the stage. No disrespect to the popular music world, but such key changes seem to be obligatory in much boy-band music! Without naming names, of course...

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by JW » Sat Dec 01, 2012 1:50 pm

Promusica's post reminds me of the optional modulation - up a major 4th I think - for the final refrain of Chris Walker's Veni Sancte Spiritus.

The answer is probably lost in the mists of time but it would be interesting to know if last verse modulations were a religious or secular innovation. Presumably modulations did not exist anywhere in modal tonality?

However, I guess that under the 'lining out' tradition, it is possible that the precentor could have gone up a tone for the doxology? My Concise Oxford Companion states that "The maintenance of pitch under any system of 'lining-out' must surely have been very difficult."

Once we get into Western tonality then modulations become commonplace in high art compositions, both secular and religious. How commonplace were they in the Catholic community in, for example, the hymns of Fr Faber's time. I suspect they were thought of a Protestant innovation and unworthy of the restrained dignity of the Catholic liturgy. However, we became less restrained in the 20th Century

Much of the above is, of course, pure conjecture.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by mcb » Thu Jan 24, 2013 12:39 pm

JW wrote:Presumably modulations did not exist anywhere in modal tonality?

What about the repetitions of Ecce lignum Crucis on Good Friday and Lumen Christi at the Easter Vigil, sung (according to the 1961 Liber Usualis) "at a low pitch", "in a higher key" and "in a still higher key". (The present day Missal, on the other hand, seems to be silent on the question of key changes.)

Perhaps these are amply respectable precedents for last verse key changes? (We do it with Amazing Grace. :-))

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by alan29 » Thu Jan 24, 2013 2:16 pm

With Amazing Grace we repeat verse 1 at the end unaccompanied with harmonies from around the church from all the various choral society etc members. We are very fortunate not to have a choir. :wink:

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass (2) Transposition

Post by Southern Comfort » Fri Feb 01, 2013 6:38 pm

mcb wrote:What about the repetitions of Ecce lignum Crucis on Good Friday and Lumen Christi at the Easter Vigil, sung (according to the 1961 Liber Usualis) "at a low pitch", "in a higher key" and "in a still higher key". (The present day Missal, on the other hand, seems to be silent on the question of key changes.)

It certainly no longer mentions key changes for the two items mcb cites, but it does specify a key change for the Triple Alleluia at the Easter Vigil. Consistency is not the latest Missal's strong point, alas. :(

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