Radical reassessments of the Gibbons consort anthems. No.1: performing pitch and its implications for voice types.
We are using a performing pitch of A465 (a semitone above 440) for the sacred anthems and a major reason for choosing this is the consistency of the vocal ranges. Some decades ago in the 20th century scholars such as David Wulstan remarked upon this factor but they proposed that the pitch should be considerably higher, a minor 3rd higher than 440. However, this was largely based upon an interpretation of 17th century written evidence (referring to the so-called 'Tomkins organ pipe') which has now been shown to be mistaken. Andrew Johnstone, in his article 'As it was in the beginning' (Early Music, November 2003) demonstrates clearly how the still prevalent practice of transposing the whole 'Tudor' sacred repertoire up a minor 3rd came about through a combination of misunderstandings over how the Tudor organ developed and simple convenience for the voice ranges of the modern SATB choir. And the research of the Early English Organ Project, to which Johnstone's article refers, showed that the surviving physical evidence points to a standard organ pitch, in so far as there was one, that was significantly lower than previously proposed. In fact it seems to have been about A473. (The A465 pitch that we are using is a near compromise, which is much more convenient for modern reproduction organs and wind instruments, as well as for singers).
Why does any of this matter? Is it relevant to Gibbons' consort anthems anyway? Well, the fact is that when you perform the music in its original key at this theoretical 'church' pitch, so many things seem to fall into place immediately. The whole vocal sound picture is transformed in comparison to the 'minor 3rd' transposition that is normally heard in choral performance today. The bass has a proper grounding, instead of sounding baritonal. The top line sounds more gutsy and crucially has much clearer text. But, most of all, the Contratenor lines (typically the 2nd and 3rd lines in a 5-part scoring) are, or should be, sung by a particular kind of light, high tenor, giving them a brilliance and sheer intensity in the upper middle part of the consort. In standard choral performance, by contrast, these lines are typically sung by falsettist altos, required to sing in the most inconvenient part of the voice. The light, high tenor - the 'real' Contratenor voice of this period, as Andrew Parrott and others have long argued - is by far the most difficult role to fill, and that was evidently always the case, as Charles Butler wrote in 1636 (see facsimile below): "sweet and shrill", when sung with the right delicacy, but "too rare". Happily, we have some of this rare breed in our project!
As for whether Gibbons expected his consort anthems to sound at this 'church' pitch and with these vocal colours, we can never know. There are issues concerning the Christ Church source for the anthems (upon which our performances are based) which continue to provoke disagreement, and some argue for a lower 'domestic' pitch. We think that there are strong reasons for choosing A465, and since (to our knowledge) the music has never been recorded this way before, it is high time for it to be heard.
The implications of A465 for the consort instruments are also significant, and that will be the subject of the next post.