Wednesday 9 April 2008

In Transposition

Recently I've been listening to a disc of songs where the vocal line is transposed an octave (downwards) from what we normally are used to. Listening to Konrad Jarnot singing Elgar's Sea Pictures made me think, over again, about song in transposition.

If a male singer appropriates female repertoire, or vice versa, the critical comment seems to mainly be about how suitable the appropriation is and how convincing the singer. It is now relatively common place to hear female singers in Schubert's big song cycles and we have even had a man singing Schumann's Frauen Liebe und Leben.

Now my objections, my questioning do not relate to sex but to vocal tessitura, (I'd be quite happy to hear a counter-tenor in Frauen Liebe und Leben or a low contralto/tenor singing Schubert at pitch). My question is related to what the composer actually wrote. When writing songs myself, I have always been concerned about the piano part obscuring the voice, or vice versa, and also it supporting the voice as necessary. I find that when you simply transpose the vocal part up (or down) you completely alter the relationship between the vocal line and the piano part.

Perhaps Schubert or Schumann did not mind this, after all Schubert sang his own songs to his friends. But most song writers take a great deal of care with their songs and I feel that we transpose the vocal parts in a willy-nilly fashion which may not always be suitable. There are moments in the new Sea Pictures where the voice descends to depths which mean that he is barely supported by the piano; a distinctive effect which may not have been what Elgar wanted.

Now most composers are keen to encourage performance so Schumann, Schubert et all might have been entirely happy for this process to happen, if it brought more performances. But surely there is a beau ideal at which we ought to be aiming and that when commentating on a performance which alters the balance between vocal line and piano, we ought to at least comment that this may not be what the composer ideally wanted.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month