Thursday, January 7, 2010

Clefs and Keys

So, as I started saying last time, Alan Raph does an interesting little trick with (all but one of) his transcriptions of the Telemann Fantasias.

A transcription (re-writing music for different instrumentation) is often little more than merely transposing the music (i.e., changing to a different key). Certain pieces work better for certain instruments in different keys for various reasons. In one key the music may go to (or beyond) the high or low extremes of an instrument's range, but in another key it may sit perfectly in your comfort zone. Also, because of the way certain instruments are pitched, some keys are just easier to play. Brass players feel warm and cozy in the flat keys, while string players prefer the sharp ones. For many years on euph I was much happier to play in the key of D-flat major (5 flats) than I was in D major (2 sharps). You'd think that 5 accidentals would be much more daunting than 2, but the euph (and the trumpet and the trombone) are built around the key of B-flat major (2 flats), so D-flat major with its 5 flats is actually closer to our "home" key than D major.

It's the opposite with strings. The open strings on a violin are G-D-A-E, which happen to be the first 4 sharp keys on the circle of fifths. First position on violin is a walk through the sharp keys. It's no accident that orchestras tune to A (3 sharps) while bands tune to B-flat.

One other kind of transposition is Clef transposition. Tubas, euphs, and trombones generally read bass clef, while the higher pitched trumpets, flutes, and violins read treble clef. There are various tricks for reading music written for other instruments. For example, a bass-clef-reading trombonist can read off the alto sax part (the alto sax is an E-flat instrument) by replacing the treble clef with a bass clef and adding 3 flats to the key signature. A euph player who can read treble clef trumpet parts (which is keyed in B-flat), can read tenor clef in C by replacing the clef and adding two flats.

I told you this was going to get a little wonky.

What Raph did was simply slap another clef (sometimes bass, and sometimes tenor) in front of the flute part and change the key accordingly. There's a certain nice advantage to doing it this way. Often when you play music for a differently pitched instrument in the original key, you find a lot of the music falls many lines above or below the staff for your instrument, out of your instrument's comfortable, or even playable, range. Music written for a particular instrument will more-often-than-not stay reasonably close to the staff. That is of course not a rule, just a generalization. But there's a practical reason for it. It is just easier to write and read dots on the staff than to count six lines above or below. Our brains get confused when they see all those little lines stacked together. In fact, euphs and trombones and cellos often switch from bass to tenor to treble clef as their music goes higher and higher. That way, instead of trying to count lines for the B-flat four lines above the bass clef staff, we can easily read and write the B-flat that sits comfortably immeidately on the top of the tenor clef staff. (Tubists and Bass Trombonists would beg to differ. They earn their bread and butter hanging out many lines below the bass clef staff. The opposite is true of violins and other high pitched instruments).

So by changing the clef (and key signature), Raph kept the notes physically in the same place on the staff, basically "centering" the music appropriately for a low brass instrument. I imagine Raph as a young man bringing this flute music home to play and wanting to get down to business right away--he doesn't need to re-write anything, just change the clef and the key signature--instant transposition.

While I'm perfectly comfortable reading tenor clef, I prefer (with one or two exceptions) to play the Fantasias with a straight bass clef transposition--in some cases due to range issues (in a few of the Fantasias Raph's edition gets uncomfortably high for me), and in some cases due to key preferences (I don't mind playing in sharp keys; however, sometimes you come across some knuckle-buster fingerings, where you have a lot of fast valve work with the third and fourth fingers). I just made some practical decisions to make these more playable.

A picture here may be worth several thousand words. Take a look at the first measure of three versions of the B minor Fantasia (#3) on this image (I guess you click on the picture to see it close up). Louise Moyse's flute version (in the original key) is on top, Alan Raph's tenor clef transcription is on the bottom left, and my bass clef transcription is on the bottom right. (Ignore for now the fact that in Raph's edition this is number 4, not 3--I'll talk about numbering in another post). Look at the opening triad in all three. If you ignore the clef and key signature, the notes are identical. However, keep the notes in the same place and change the clef and key and you go from the original B minor (two sharps) to Raph's A minor (no accidentals) in tenor clef to my D minor (one flat) in bass clef. Instant transposition. See? Simple.

Seven of the transcriptions I use (Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, and 12) are Raph's bass clef transcriptions. Three (3, 8, and 11) are my own bass clef transcriptions (whereas Raph did tenor clef transcriptions for these). If you're keeping score that leaves two more (Nos. 1 and 9). In my arrangement of number 9, I just transpose from E major on the flute to A-flat major on euph (Raph did a tenor clef transposition for this one). A straight bass clef transposition for this one would have brought me to G major, which isn't necessarily a big deal, but it would have yielded some awkward fingerings in the Allegro movement--those knuckle-busters I mentioned above. So I picked a more friendly key. Does that make me a wimp? Perhaps, but you want your transcription to work well on your instrument.

That leaves us with one more. Number one. Get out the ibuprofen because that one's a little funky and gets a blog post all to itself.

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