High Clefs (so called "chiavetta") and Transposition


1 [01:52] Nicola Vicentino, L'antica musica ridotta alla prattica moderna (Rome, 1555), p.80 [imslp]; Adriano Banchieri, La Cartella musicale (Venice, 1614), p.146 [imslp]; Gioseffo Zarlino, Le Istitvtioni Harmoniche (Venice, 1558), part IV, chap.31 [imslp]; Ludovico Zacconi, Prattica di musica (Venice, 1592), chap.59, f.51v [imslp].

2 [02:16] Michael Praetorious, Syntagma Musicum II (Wolfenbüttel, 1619), TOMI SECUNDI, p.15-16 [imslp].

3 [07:30] This Corresponds with Banchieri’s connection between high clefs and sturmenti acuti/high instruments and also with Viadana's comment: ‘Sonando questo concerto co'l Cornetto 'l Organista sonarà la quarta alta’ (‘Playing this concerto with a cornetto, the organist should play a fourth higher’) [4th higher than the already transposed high clef piece].

4 [08:30] There is a strong harpsichord building tradition of instruments sounding a fifth higher than usual (6-foot-instruments), particularly in Flanders (see Grant O'Brien, Ruckers, 1990 Oxford University Press, instruments catalogue in the appendix). In 16th century Italy the case is somewhat different – apart from the usual keyboard ranging from C, there were important organs with extended keyboards ranging to a contra F. We refer to those instruments as 12 and 24-foot organs (the length of the pipe needed to produce a contra F even an octave lower). Those instruments were not transposing, but sounded in the normal pitch (for example the da Prato instrument in San Petronio, Bologna (1471-1475) or the Colombi instrument in the duomo of Valvasone (1532-1533)). This enlarged compass makes it possible to play chromatic bass lines without the limitations of a short octave. In case of a 24-foot-instrument, the basic register of the organ sounds like what we call today a 16' principale in the manual, but with an extension to the sub-contra F! Following this logic, Italian harpsichords reaching a contra G in the bass could be called "12-foot-instruments".

5 [09:19] [Johannes Keller:] The reason why Ruckers built all of their double harpsichords in this way can’t be explained properly. The most important research has been done by Grant O’Brien, Ruckers: a harpsichord and virginal building tradition, 1990 Cambridge University Press. To reduce the particular keyboard arrangement to a transposition aid seems not right, because the diversity of the sonoric possibilities are considerably bigger than with any other harpsichord disposition. Unfortunately there are no surviving playable instruments in their original state. Thanks to the initiative of Johan Hofmann (www.johanhofmann.com), Matthias Griewisch (www.griewisch.de) built a copy of an original state Ruckers double harpsichord in 2012. For the first time, musicians can experience the effect of this unfamiliar but once common instrument. The most influential musicians used these harpsichords, most prominently Sweelinck. There is definitely the need to investigate the reason for this lost building tradition, and the obvious convenience when it comes to the transposition of high clefs might just be a starting point. The instrument shown in the video was built by Matthias Griewisch in 2016 for Johannes Keller.

6 [10:26] The type of voices used in vocal music in the 16th century was different from today’s: The canto parts were mostly sung by boys or falsettists, the alto parts were mostly sung by what we nowadays call light high tenors, and the tenor part was sung by what we nowadays may call baritones.

THEORETICAL SOURCES asking for downward transposition of pieces with high clefs

Sylvestro Ganassi, Lettione seconda (Venice, 1543), chpater XXII [imslp]. See also Barbieri 1991, p. 39 [JSTOR].

Adriano Banchieri, Cartella musicale (Venice, 1601), p.22 [imslp]. For labeling of strumenti acuti in high clefs and per voci humane in standard clefs see the 1614 edition of La Cartella (see pp. 111-136) [imslp].

Michael Praetorious, Syntagma Musicum III, (Wolfenbüttel, 1619), pp.80-81 [imslp]

Silvio Picerli, Specchio secondo di musica (Napoli, 1631) [imslp], p. 192. He repeats the rules of Banchieri. See also Barbieri 1991, p. 44 [JSTOR].

Camillo Angleria, La regola del contraponto (Milano, 1622), p.81 [imslp]. He writes that the standard set of clefs should never be transposed ‘ma

fabbricate al suo loco cantabili’. See also Barbieri 1991, p. 44-45 [JSTOR].

Giovanni Battista Doni, Annotazioni sopra il compendio (Roma, 1640), p. 250 [imslp]. Doni analyzes a madrigal by Palestrina in high clefs and writes    that “because it is notated high, as they say, and would prove too uncomfortable if it were sung as it stands … the most usual type of transposition [in this case] is of a 5th.” See also Barbieri 1991, p.44 [JSTOR].

Wolfgang Schonsleder [Volupius Decorus], Architectonice musices universalis (Ingolstadt, 1631), pp.66ff [Google books]. Regarding high clefs he is “amazed to see the majority of musicians customarily writing many of their songs in them, although they know that if anyone wishes to sing them they will have to be transposed downwards”.

Lorenzo Penna, Li primi albori musicali (Bologna, 1672) [imslp]. He writes that basso continuo parts that are notated in C4 or F3 clefs imply            transposition of a 4th or a 5th (no specifics). p. 188: "Del suonare trasportato alla quarta bassa. In due modi si scrive la chiave dell basso continuo, quando la compositione è alla quarta"; p. 191: "Del suonare trasporatato alla quinta bassa. Quanto poi al suonare alla quinta bassa, questa composizione pure si scrive con una delle sopraddette chiavi" [C4 or F3-clef, with or without a flat in the signature].

Bernardo Pasquini, Saggi di contrappunto (1695, MS D-Bsb Ms.P.Landsberg 214), p.33. Music examples in high clefs (chiavi trasportate in his terms) marked with “si suona e si canta alla 4.a bassa”.

MUSICAL SOURCES implying downward transposition of pieces with high clefs

Pieces surviving in two versions (mid. 16th century): once in high clefs, and one in standard clefs transposed downwards. See examples in Johnstone 2006, table 2 and 3 [JSTOR].

Publications by Simone Verovio: Diletto spirituale (1586) [imslp], Ghirlanda di fioretti musicali (1589) [imslp], Canzonette a quattro (1591) [imslp], and Lodi della musica (1595) [imslp]. In the pieces with high clefs the keyboard intabulation of the harpsichord and the tablature of the lute are transposed downwards according to Banchieri’s rule, excluding few exception (10 out of 82 in these four publications). See more details in Barbieri 1991, p. 47 [JSTOR].

Giovanni Croce, Motetti a 8 (1594) “comodi per le voci, e per cantar con ogni stromento”. In the organ part 17 out of 19 items has labels of alla quarta or quinta bassa (also normal clefs get labels of transpositions of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th…). in the piece Percussit Saul it’s written "alla quinta bassa, e in tuono per sonare".

Thomas luis de Victoria, ... Missae, Magnificat, Motecta, Psalmi, & alia quam plurima... HAEC OMNIA SVNT IN HOC LIBRO ad pulsandum in organis (Matriti, 1600) [BSB]. Some pieces in high clefs are marked with “ad quartam inferiorem”.

Salomone Rossi, Primo libro de madrigali (1600) [imslp]. The pieces with the chitarrone intabulation (see Canto part pp. 14-19) are transposed a fourth lower.

Lodovico da Viadana, Cento concerti ecclesiastici (Venice, 1602) [imslp]. Pieces with high-clefs have the organ part transposed a fourth lower.

Serafino Cantone Vesperi a versetti, et falsi bordoni (1602). The organ part is transposed down by a 4th (not always according to Banchieri’s rule).

Adriano Banchieri, Ecclesiastiche sinfonie 1607. The basso seguente part has the pieces in high clefs transposed down: "trasportato alla quinta per le voci".

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Mottetti a cinque voci, Liber 4 (ed. 1608). The organ part is transposed according to Banchieri’s rule.

Caspar Vincentius / Abraham Schadaeus, Promptuarium musicum (1611) [imslp]. in the preface to the continuo part of part 2 [pars altra], it’s written that the pieces in high clefs were left untransposed, so people could choose whether to transpose them down by a 4th or 5th.

Giovanni Francesco Anerio, Antiphonae, seu sacrae cantiones (1613). The organ part has pieces in high clefs written a fourth lower. Pieces where only the bass the bass starts with C4 have “sonate come sta” - making sure that they will not be transposed and implying that otherwise they would have been.

Carlo G MS (ca.1600-1620) [imslp]: The piece "Sic parasti cor meum" [pp. 53v-55r] is a contrafactum and arrangement of the madrigal "Se bramate ch’io mora" of Luca Marnezio (Il quarto libro de madrigali a sei voci, 1587). While the original is written in high clefs, the arrangement is transposed down a fourth.

Praetorious, Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica 1619. Pieces with high clefs have the label “quartam vel quintam inferiorem”.

Heinrich Schütz:

- Psalmen Davids (1619) [imslp]: the piece Ich danke dem Herrn is a reworked version of Giovanni Gabriali’s madrigal Lieto godea a 8. Schütz’s version transposed the original piece that had high clefs a fifth lower.

- Musichalische Exequiem (1636) [imslp]: pieces written in high clefs are transposed in the continue part (the preface says that actually a transposition of a 5th would be better, but was avoided in order to make it easier for the inexperienced organist).

- Zwölf geistliche Gesänge (1657). Similar transpositions as in 1636, with the addition of the label “ad quartem inferiorem”.

- Kleine geistliche Concerte I (1636) [imslp]. Three pieces in high clefs have instructions for a downward transposition of a fourth.

- Psalmen Davids op.5 (the Becker Psalter, 1661; revision of 1628) have over 100 transposition instruction.

MUSICAL SOURCES implying that pieces in high-clefs should not be transposed, suggesting that otherwise they would have:

Lodovico da Viadana, Cento concerti ecclesiastici (Venice, 1602). Pieces with high-clefs have the organ part transposed a fourth lower, and pieces for solo soprano in high-clefs bare the comment “Sonando questo concerto co'l Cornetto 'l Organista sonarà la quarta alta”. That is, since the part is transposed, if played instrumentally with a cornet it should be transposed back up.

Giovanni Francesco Anerio, Teatro armonico (1619). Instrumental parts written in G2-clef are labeled “alla alta” so the wouldn’t be transposed.

Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il primo libro delle canzoni (Rome, 1628). Canzona prima for canto solo is notated in G2 with label “come stà”.

Claudio Monteverdi, Eighth book of madrigals 1638 [imslp]. In the Canto part of the piece Dolcissimo uscignolo (p. 25), which is written in G2-clef, there is the label “canto in tuono” to prevent the otherwise normal transposition.


Mendel, Arthur. "Pitch in the 16th and Early 17th Centuries" 

– Part I. The Musical Quarterly 34, no. 1 (1948): 28-45 [JSTOR].

– Part II. The Musical Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1948): 199-221 [JSTOR].

– Part III. The Musical Quarterly 34, no. 3 (1948): 336-57 [JSTOR].

– Part IV. The Musical Quarterly 34, no. 4 (1948): 575-93 [JSTOR].

Parrott, Andrew. "Transposition in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610: An 'Aberration' Defended." Early Music 12, no. 4 (1984): 490-516 [JSTOR]. And "Monteverdi: Onwards and Downwards." Early Music 32, no. 2 (2004): 303-17 [JSTOR].

Barbieri, Patrizio. "'Chiavette' and Modal Transposition in Italian Practice (c. 1500-1837)." Recercare 3 (1991): 5-79 [JSTOR].

Kurtzman, Jeffrey G. "Tones, Modes, Clefs and Pitch in Roman Cyclic Magnificats of the 16th Century." Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994): 641-64 [JSTOR].

Johnstone, Andrew. "'High' Clefs in Composition and Performance." Early Music 34, no. 1 (2006): 29-53 [JSTOR].