Monday, December 07, 2009

[Open Comment Thread] Why Are Original Keys So Darned High?

Often readers send me questions to ask publicly on the blog, since the superior hive mind of the CPB readership is incredibly diversified and eager to hold forth on matters of interest to the collaborative field.

Doug MacNaughton asked the following question about composers and key choices in art song:
Why is it that the default original key tends to be for the high voice? For women, I understand, as the Soprano is the most common voice type, but for men about 70% of singers are Baritones. Why did Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Faure, Debussy et al write so much of their rep for the high voice?
Leave your answers below in the comments. If you don't feel comfortable disclosing your identity, you can either invent a nom de plume or comment anonymously...


  1. Maybe it's because if sopranos don't get what they want, they throw AWFUL tantrums.

    Jokes aside...I think that because the soprano voice is flexible and generally can be trained to have a wider range than other voice types, it is perhaps the most ideal of the voices to portray emotions and to tell stories.

  2. Mike J9:57 AM

    Maybe it's because they all wrote for their girlfriends...

    Personally, I think the baritone is the most ideal voice for telling stories.

  3. Mike J9:59 AM

    Also keep in mind that higher melodies carry better, and are easier to distinguish from the accompaniment. Therefore, it makes sense to perform a song in as high a key as is comfortable.

  4. To make us feel bad about ourselves!!! This is the musical equivalent of the fashion industry. All I see in the media are skinny chicks wearing clothes that would make me look like a stuffed sausage...and in university, everything was in super-high registers, and as the "sultry alto" (as I was, er, known as back in the day) it was tough finding songs in my range. If I attempted those stratospheric keys, I'd sound like the Chicken Lady from Kids in the Hall.

    So, it's all a conspiracy theory. That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it. SQUAWK!

  5. Doug MacNaughton10:11 PM

    Well, it's one of those interesting things. If composers of art song had really intended one voice type as ideal, they would have said so, don't you think?

    It's worthy of investigation - when did the first transposed editions of, say, Schubert, come out? In his lifetime? I seem to remember reading somewhere that the original Schubertiads involved various of his friends singing his material, and this involved Franz S. sight-transposing things into different keys. Can't provide a cite - I don't get a library trip until early next week, I'll see what I can come up with then.

    It's unfortunate that someone decided to call it the 'original key', instead of the 'high', 'medium', 'low', 'tenor', etc. It gives some folks the idea that somehow that key has more legitimacy. I say that as a baritone, who is not going to take it lightly if some people are going to object to a transposition into a register that works well for me.

    I think the 'Ideal Interpreter' has more to do with someone who understands the poem, the relationship between the poem and the song and who makes their choices based on their understanding of that relationship. Just my two cents.

    So has anybody ever found any letters between an early 19th century Lieder composer and their editor/publisher that says something one way or another about the range/tessitura/voice type? I barely even know where to start...
    Doug MacN.

  6. Doug MacNaughton5:13 PM

    Okay, so now here's something even more odd - Schubert's favourite singer, was a baritone! And not just any baritenor wannabe, he sang the first Don Pizzarro in Fidelio.

    So all that stuff in the Peters Edition about 'original key'? Highly suspect, unless you imagine the same voice that did Don Pizzarro floating high 'G's and 'Ab's...

    Still investigating, D. MacN.

  7. Anonymous9:42 PM

    Could it also be the tuning system back then? There are historical performance people who play baroque at A-415, a semitone lower than today's A-440.

  8. Mike BR3:29 PM

    The main reason that the "original" keys are for the high voice is solely one borne out of financial necessity. The greatest consumers of print music at the time were women, and as was stated above most women are sopranos, so it makes good sense to publish songs in high keys. And as to the question of the vocal qualities of Johann Michael Vogl, Schubert's friend, and the man with whom he premiered many of his songs - The fact of that matter is that contemporary accounts actually do put him closer to a "baritenor wannabe" than anything else. Among his roles were Oreste in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride - A role that is often taken by tenors, and not just domingo........