If mezzo punto was too high for the choir of St Mark’s, Venice, however, what transposition scenario might the organist (and indeed the cornetts and sackbuts) of King’s College with its Q+1 organ have needed to employ to find a ‘comfortable’ singing pitch when performing vocal music? Or indeed, using Exeter’s Restoration organ (at Q-2), would the organist have transposed up to meet the singers (and possibly the instruments) at Quire-pitch, and how does the primary transposition necessitated by the English transposing organ interact with these secondary adjustments in pitch? In light of the tessitura of contratenor altus parts in seventeenth-century choral writing – one of the most common concerns expressed when singers are asked to perform in ‘original’ keys – the pitch range of a minor third between the lowest and highest pitched organs shown in Figure 1 (reproduced opposite for convenience) has wide-reaching implications for the performance of such repertoire.
Questions of temperament also come to the fore when examining transposition practices in the context of non-equal tuning systems and become particularly acute when considered alongside Morley’s suggestion that playing in three flats might have been common practice when accommodating the pitch preferences of choirs. The St Teilo organ is tuned in a modified meantone temperament first published by Arnolt Schlick in 1511 but not widely used amongst historical performers on period instruments today, with quarter comma meantone being the temperament of choice for many performing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century repertoire. Examples 1–6 highlight the significance of this choice. These clips were recorded using a digital transposing organ (pitched at a'=492) and demonstrate original key, down-a-tone and down-a-third performances of the opening bars of a simple four-part Magnificat by Hugh Facy, a singing man at Exeter Cathedral in the early seventeenth century. The clips use quarter comma meantone and Schlick temperaments.8 To modern ears, the transposed Schlick examples (3 and 5) could probably still be described as uncomfortable, but are mild in comparison with the quarter comma meantone examples (4 and 6) perhaps indicating how transposition into more distant keys might have been less of a wild prospect than the modern performer might suppose. Indeed, Schlick himself built transposition into his own organ by way of a lever to shift the pitch of the instrument a tone in either direction, and his suggestions for tuning would have gone some way towards accommodating transpositions of this nature without the need for retuning the instrument between every change.9 Although a thorough investigation of subjects such as temperament and vocal performing pitch raised on this page is beyond the scope of the practice-led research discussed in this exposition, a clearer understanding of the flexibility with which historical performers approached their musical sources is created when seemingly fragmentary artefacts are considered in their wider context, and suggests that more practice-led work is these areas is long overdue.