7. Transposition in a wider context

As Figure 1 shows, of course, there are likely to have been many transposition scenarios at play when incorporating instruments into the English liturgical soundscape and it is worth considering the flexible approach to musical notation evidenced by sources from this period. Aurelio Virgiliano, whose Il dolcimelo (c. 1600) includes a comprehensive list of transpositions in which cornettists and trombonists might be expected to play, discusses not only those transpositions achievable by clef substitutions (primary transposition), but also secondary transposition down a tone and a minor third in C clefs, and up a tone in G2 clef.1 Girolamo Dalla Casa, whose treatise on cornetto playing certainly made it to London if not beyond, also describes how the cornett, the ‘most excellent’ of wind instruments, ‘is played […] in every sort of key, just as the voice’.2 Thomas Whythorne’s Duos, or songs for two voices (London, 1590), subtitled ‘made for two children to sing’ or ‘for two treble Cornets to play or sound’, has been identified by Jamie Savan as a source of English repertoire in which transposition techniques such as those described by Virgiliano are required for successful performance of the written materials.3 Although transposition tables of the extent included by Virgiliano do not appear in English instrumental treatises until the eighteenth century,4 transposition is addressed by a number of English theorists. Thomas Morley, admonishing his student for setting a counterpoint exercise in three flats, writes:


The musick is in deed true, but you have set it in such a key as no man would have done, except it had beene to have plaide it on the Organes with a quier of singing men, for in deede, such shiftes the Organistes are many time compelled to make for ease of the singers…5


By 1673, Matthew Locke tells us that ‘easiness of transposing Compositions from one Key to another, is a thing so frequent, that no one is esteem’d a Master who cannot do it Proper’,6 and it therefore seems reasonable to suggest that transposition at sight would have been a standard skill amongst English musicians at this time.


Further insight comes from organist and organ builder G.B. Morsolino who, writing to dispute the proposed lowering of the pitch of the organ at Cremona in 1582, describes how the widespread practice of maintaining organs at high pitch (A+1 on Figure 1) necessitates transposition by the organist:


This situation obtains because, not wishing to hinder the organs when playing with wind instruments, they leave them in the above-mentioned mezzo punto pitch, which is however too high for the chapel singers. Because of this practice, organists are always (or at least sometimes) compelled to play lower than the written key in order to accommodate the singers. This is what is done at St. Mark’s in Venice [emphasis mine].7

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.


Figure 1: Pitches of seventeenth-century English organs in relation to Quire-pitch and Italian-pitch transposition grids (after Haynes). 

Figure 9: Hugh Facy, Magnificat, from US-NYp Mus. Res. *MNZ (Chirk), ed. Ian Payne (click to enlarge).

Example 1: Hugh Facy Magnificat, original key, Schlick

Example 3: Hugh Facy Magnificat a tone down, Schlick

Example 5: Hugh Facy Magnificat a minor third down, Schlick

Example 2: Hugh Facy Magnificat, original key, quarter comma meantone

Example 4: Hugh Facy Magnificat a tone down, quarter comma meantone

Example 6: Hugh Facy Magnificat a minor third down, quarter comma meantone