• Tim Braithwaite

Thomas Morley on Transposition, and the Difficulty of Solmising Pieces with More than One Flat

‘The music is indeed good, but you have set it in such a key that no man would have done, unless it were intended to be played on the organ with a choir of singing men, for indeed organists are often required to make such transpositions for the ease of the singers. Some, however, have brought it from the organ into the common use of singing with bad success if they respect their credit, for take any of their songs written in this manner and you will not find a musician (however perfect he may be) who is able to solmise it correctly, because he would either sing a note in such a key as it is not usually, such as la in C sol fa ut, sol in B fa B mi, fa in A la mi re, or he would be compelled to sing one note in two keys in continual deduction, such as fa in B fa B mi, and fa in A la mi re immediately one after the another, which goes against our very first rule of singing the six notes or tunings. As for those who have not practiced these kinds of songs, the very sight of those flat clefs (which stand at the beginning of the verse or line like a pair of stairs, with great offence to the eye, but more to the amazement of the young singer) makes them misname their notes and therefore sing the wrong pitches, whereas on the contrary, if your song were notated in another key, any young student might easily and perfectly sing it. And what can they [the composers] possibly do with such a number of flats, that I could not do just as well by writing the song a note higher?’


‘The musick is in deed true, but you haue set it in such a key as no man would haue done, except it had beene to haue plaide it on the Organes with a quier of singing men, for in deede such shiftes the Organistes are many times compelled to make for ease of the singers, but some haue brought it from the Organe, and haue gone about to bring it in common vse of singing with bad successe if they respect their credit, for take me any of their songes, so set downe and you shall not find a musicion (how perfect soeuer hee be) able to sol fa it right, because he shall either sing a note in such a key as it is not naturally as la in C solfaut, sol in b fa b my, fa in alamire. or then hee shall be compelled to sing one note in two seueral keyes in continual deduction as fa in b fa b mi, and fa in A la mi re immediatlie one after another, which is against our very first rule of the singing our sixe notes or tuninges, and as for them who haue not practised that kind of songes, the verie sight of those flat cliffes (which stande at the beginning of the verse or line like a paire of staires, with great offence to the eie, but more to the amasing of the yong singer) make them mistearme their notes and so go out of tune, wheras by the contrary if your song were prickt in another key any young scholler might easilie and perfectlie sing it, and what can they possiblie do with such a number of flat b b, which I coulde not as well bring to passe by pricking the song a note higher?’


*Notes*

Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (London: Peter Short, 1597). My paraphrase.


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The examples below are the subject of this comment, with the first being the submitted exercise by Morley’s hypothetical student, and the second being the master’s correction.








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