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General questions about the alto and its use (1 viewing) (1) Guest
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TOPIC: General questions about the alto and its use
#2308
John Snow (User)
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General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 0  
Dear multi-string guitar community,

I've been entertaining the idea of purchasing a multi string guitar for some time now. As a classical guitar student, I think it would be a great opportunity to perform especially baroque music without having to raise the basses an octave every now and then, etc.
I rather wanted to get an alto, because of the tuning being more similar to the baroque lute, because I think that the guitar, as a quite low solo instrument, could be extended upwards as well as downwards when adding more strings (as opposed to the 10-string, where there are only more basses and the treble range stays the same) and because Göran Söllscher plays one, which makes his baroque recordings my favourite.
Now here's my question: When (one of) the purpose(s) of the alto guitar is to make the guitar more similar to a lute and therefore facilitate the "authentic" performance of repertoire of the baroque area, why are there still so many transpositions made?
E.g.
Weiss - Passacaille in D major transposed to C (performed in D on a regular guitar)
Weiss - Tombeau s. l. m. d. Mr. Compte de Logy in B-flat minor transposed to c
Bach - Suite 996 in E-minor transposed to g (performed in e on a regular guitar, in f# or d# (!) on a lute)
Bach - Suite 1006a in E-major tranposed to Eb (performed in E on lute and regular guitar, though allegedly easier in Eb even on a lute)

With some of those, one would be actually nearer to the original key when using a 10-string guitar and playing a transcription, which also has the neat convenience of not having to re-learn most of the piece because of different tuning of the instrument.

Also, I'm wondering about the common practise when using an alto guitar, like:
- How widely available are transcriptions of baroque repertoire to modern notation in a key in which the piece would be performed on an alto? Regular guitar transcriptions wouldn't be of any use, as e.g. the only Bach suites that are performed in the original key on the regular guitar are apparently transposed when played on an alto (996, 1006a). I see that in some cases urtext editions might be the best choice, but that wouldn't help with pieces that require transposing when performed on an alto (see above).
- Do you make your own transcriptions?
- Are transcriptions generally being shared between alto-guitarists to save time for everybody?
- Are there any editions which contain fingerings? I imagine that this would be helpful when starting out on an instrument with different tuning and amount of strings.
- How long did it take you, on average, to re-learn the pieces that you already played on six-string?
- How long does it usually take people, on average, to get used to the instrument, to be able to navigate through the additional strings etc.? Once achieved, how hard is it to switch back and forth between alto and regular? Is it possible to do so within a practise session, a guitar lesson, a concert?
- To the professionals or music students amongst you: How "accepted" is the alto guitar in general? What experiences did you make when playing entrance/final exams on an alto at music universities/conservatories, at competitions, with professors, in chamber music/ensemble playing?

I realise of course that for many of those questions there are no general answers. I'm asking anyway because for me, it is a decision about time and money, as well as a potential future professional use, so I'm trying to ponder the cost/benefit relation compared to, e.g. taking up the lute or learning to play continuo.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

All the best, Jonas
 
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#2309
Sten (User)
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Re:General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 4  
Hi Jonas,

Welcome to this forum! Here you can find a lot of information, as well as plenty of scores of alto guitar music.

I am sure that some of my friends here will answer your questions better than I can, but nevertheless I will give them a try, although I am only an amateur.

Q1. When (one of) the purpose(s) of the alto guitar is to make the guitar more similar to a lute and therefore facilitate the "authentic" performance of repertoire of the baroque area, why are there still so many transpositions made?
A1. Well, some pieces are transposed out of playing convenience.

Q2. How widely available are transcriptions of baroque repertoire to modern notation in a key in which the piece would be performed on an alto?
A2. I think that there is an abundance of transcriptions, for instance here in this forum. Under "Downloads", "Resources" you will find a post containing a link to the entire book "Altgitarren" with many scores, and here is the direct link to that book:
http://9giga.sfr.fr/n/50-17/share/LNK16324caf6f4a7f0eb/
There are also many other scores in this forum.

Q3. Do you make your own transcriptions?
A3. Yes, I have made a few transcriptions, but later I have found them in printed versions so I do not need my own ones.

Q4. Are transcriptions generally being shared between alto-guitarists to save time for everybody?
A4. Yes, here in this forum we happily share transcriptions, and some members make them often.

Q5. Are there any editions which contain fingerings? I imagine that this would be helpful when starting out on an instrument with different tuning and amount of strings.
A5. Yes, some editions contain fingerings, but generally it is easy to find your own fingering. Most editions state which string to play.

Q6. How long did it take you, on average, to re-learn the pieces that you already played on six-string?
A6. I think that the main issue is to get used to the alto guitar itself, and then it it easy to relearn the pieces.

Q7. How long does it usually take people, on average, to get used to the instrument, to be able to navigate through the additional strings etc.?
A7. I would say, about 3-6 months, if you play the 6 string before.

Q8. Once achieved, how hard is it to switch back and forth between alto and regular? Is it possible to do so within a practise session, a guitar lesson, a concert?
A8. For me, it is easy. I do so within practice sessions.
And I have done it in the few concerts that I have performed (I am an amateur).

Q9. To the professionals or music students amongst you: How "accepted" is the alto guitar in general? What experiences did you make when playing entrance/final exams on an alto at music universities/conservatories, at competitions, with professors, in chamber music/ensemble playing?
A9. Since I am an amateur, I can only state my own experience that here in Sweden the alto guitar is well accepted, and my impression is that it is gaining ground in many countries.


Best regards,
Sten
 
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#2310
tomzooki (User)
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Re:General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 0  
There is one thing you have to know: Bach's and Weiss's late baroque lute is tuned completely differently than late renaissance/early baroque lute. And Sollscher's 11-string alto is tuned like the latter. So you can read Dowland, Kapsberber and Piccinini straight from the original tabs, but have to arrange Bach and Weiss. But you could have TWO alto guitars: the 11-strings, and a 13-strings tuned for Bach and Weiss, and for them too read from the tabs....

For 11-string alto the tuning is g d a f c G F Eb D C B
For 13-string alto the tuning is f d a f d a G F E D C H A

Of course you can change the tuning as you want, but to go from one to the other constantly would be an ordeal.
 
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#2311
silvanig (User)
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Re:General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 3  
Hi Jonas,

It has already been mentioned, that there is a significant difference between the tunings of the renaissance and the (late) baroque lute and that, for the 6 main strings, the alto is tuned similar to the most common renaissance lute.

But this does not necessarily explain why there is a tendency to create extra transpositions of the (late) baroque pieces for the alto guitar.

One of the reasons to do this is that, in the context of playing from standard notation, the alto guitar is used as a transposing instrument: the sound is 3 semitones above the scores. So if you want to have a sound preserving arrangement of a late baroque lute piece, you have to compensate this effect by transposing the scores 3 semitones down.

Using the alto guitar as a transposing instrument is motivated by the great advantage, that as a consequence (for 5 of the six main strings) the transformation note -> fretting position is the same as for a 6 string classical guitar. So (in James's words) you don't have to learn a new note/fret relation for these strings.

Well, the transposing effect of the alto guitar also applies to renaissance music. So why are there no extra transpositions for renaissance music? The reason is, that the scores made from renaissance music for the classical guitar are usually made by <positional transcription>, which, for the typical renaissance lute, on sound level, corresponds to transposing three semitones down. I.e. that the sound of renaissance music played on a classical guitar usually lies three semitones below the original (provided that you don't use a capo). If you use the same scores for an alto, the sound is three semitones above the scores. The total effect is 3 semitones down plus 3 semitones up, which reconstitutes the original sound. So we already have the perfect notation for the alto.

Back to late baroque lute music:

There are different views whether it is desirable to create sound preserving arrangements or not ( see thread <Choice of arranging keys for the 11 string alto> ).

But there are still some other reasons for transposition, e.g.:

.. The playability in the original key may be bad on the alto. This especially happens if the original key is an inconvenient alto key.

.. Transposing 3 semitones down the fretting positions for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th baroque lute course can be preserved, provided that the musical context (namely the notes simultaneously played on other strings) allows this. So this approach may lead to arrangements with good playability and represent the best technical approximation of the original on the alto.

Now some remarks to the pieces you mentioned. If, in the following, a key for an alto arrangement is specified, it is always the key in the scores ( not the key you 'hear' ).

Weiss Passagaille in D:

I share the opinion that a D version is not workable on the alto without many compromises. A sound preserving alto version would be in B (and I prefer this version), but this requires a 13 string alto. So a C version may be the best compromise on an 11 string alto.

Weiss Tombeau sur la Mort de Mr. Comte de Logy:

The original key is bb. A sound preserving alto version would be in g, which is not a convenient alto key. A convenient key in between is a, this is the transposing key used in the Malmö alto book. I don't know an alto version in c, and this would not be a convenient alto key, either.

Bach BWV 996:

The original key is e. A sound preserving alto version would be in c#. According to Bruger, this suite was composed for the <Lautenwerk> and not the lute, so a special technical advantage of transposing 3 semitones down (to c#) is unlikely. I tried out alto versions in c# and d, but prefer to play it in e. I never came across versions in f# or d#, and d# would be an inconvenient alto key, either. Maybe the fact that the suite was composed for the Lautenwerk, explains that there are lute versions in f# or d#.

Bach BWV 1006a:

The original key is E. A sound preserving alto version would be in Db, again not a convenient alto key. The next <good> keys are C and D. I prefer to play it in C. I cannot imagine that Eb could be an alternative for the alto.There are two autographs by Bach, the first is for violin, the second without specification of the instrument. So it is not ascertained, that the suite was composed for the baroque lute. Maybe this explains that Eb might be better on the lute.
 
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Last Edit: 2012/11/23 16:28 By silvanig.
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#2312
John Snow (User)
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Re:General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 0  
Hello everybody, and many thanks for your replies!

I had indeed forgotten about the (drastically) differing tunings between the renaissance and baroque lutes. Which of course explains the different keys when performing late baroque music on an eleven-string alto - which still seems to be much more common than to play it on a 13-string alto in baroque lute tuning, if I'm not mistaken.
Also, I really wonder how one would play much of the repertoire with the baroque lute tuning, having experimented with open tunings quite a lot on both the classical (e.g. Domeniconi) and the steel string guitar (Andy McKee, Michael Hedges, Nick Drake), I would imagine it very inconvenient to play polyphonic music in a key of e.g. E-Major in a tuning close to Open D Minor (top strings a-d-f-a-d-f), even when talking only about the fingerings, not to mention the difficulties when adjusting to read the music when used to a regular classical guitar tuning.

As for the tunings of the example pieces that I wrote in my original post, I unfortunately don't have the time now to go over all of them in detail again, but thank you silvanig for providing some information, it will certainly be helpful for further reference and I'll certainly come back to that.
Just to say a few quick words about the discussion, I was always talking about the true pitch and not the one written when playing a transposing instrument.
So if I'm not completely mistaken, when I say 1006a was performed in Eb major (true pitch) on an alto and you say a convenient key would be C major (written), and the 11-string sounds one minor third higher, this would actually be the same pitch, wouldn't it?

Also, I don't know how much it would contribute to the topic and my original questions to discuss the instruments the "lute suites" were actually written for/intended to be played on, but I was always taught to be very careful when talking about "facts", because my professors always told me that most of them change every five years or so. My main sources are the Frank Koonce edition of Bach's Lute works edited for guitar, another edition which claims to be the first complete collection of Bach's Lute works, edited for the "modern lute", whatever that means, published in 1920. Unfortunately I borrowed the book to a colleague writing a thesis about the 996 suite, so I can't say much more about it's contents and can't recall the name of the author. Last but not least, Graham Wade's Guitarists Guide To Bach (2002).
Anyways, quoting Eichberg and Kohlhase (NBA) as well as Hans David and Arthur Mendel (The Bach Reader), he says about 1006a that it was very likely to have been intended for the lute (or maybe the harp) and not the lautenwerk, as much of the music (bass line, range, figuration, composition) "speak decidedly against instrumentation for keyboard".
About 996, he cites the NBA and says the inscription "aufs Lauten Werck" was not Bach's handwriting, as well as the range and composition "speaking in favour of a lute composition", although he himself believes the suite to be composed for Lute Harpsichord for some other reasons.

Maybe you are better informed than I am, or you have better sources, I just mentioned it because you were speaking about "the fact" that 996 was composed for lautenwerk, and I was always told that one cannot at that time make definite decisions about the intention.

Anyway, as the different tunings discussed above explain the different keys for the alto guitar very good, I don't think it's necessary to go much further into that.

Many thanks to Sten, too, for answering most of my practical questions about the alto guitar and its use.
 
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#2313
tenvec (User)
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Re:General questions about the alto and its use 5 Years ago Karma: 1  
Hello,
I have given up bothering about for what instrument the Bach "lute" suites may have been written. My very clear impression is that most musicologists believe they were written at the keyboard, even though some of the left hand stretches are impossible on a keyboard. Other proposals range from Yepes's that they were written for a specially tuned 14c instrument, essentially half a tone lower than a standard baroque lute, to Burguet's that they were written for an "angelique", with semitone tuning. One thing that is certain, is that no baroque lutenist believes they were written for a standard baroque lute. Baroque lutenists rearrange them robustly to fit on their instrument. A number of these suites do fit reasonably well on a 14c archlute(in G), ditto, a 14s alto.
On the whole, an instrument in G is useful for flat keys, an instrument in E or A for open or sharp keys. For example, trying to play something in E major on an instrument in G means dropping to C sharp. Easier to choose C which is gives a sound probably nearer to the original if dating from baroque or earlier times.
The 11s alto is the popular instrument. This can deal accurately with late renaissance lute repertoire, and with some compromises that for 11c baroque lute. For those who do not mind changing original key one can transpose up to accommodate the low A' of 13c baroque lute.
James.
 
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