A pianist’s perspective on song transposition, focusing on Robert Schumann’s Liederreihe nach Kerner Op. 35

Low, J. (2020) A pianist’s perspective on song transposition, focusing on Robert Schumann’s Liederreihe nach Kerner Op. 35. Masters thesis, Royal College of Music.


The study of song cycles has long been a focus of music scholarship. Many different topics have been repeatedly discussed regarding cornerstone repertoire like Schubert’s Winterreise (D. 911), or Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Op. 48). Writers have approached these works with focuses on tonal analysis, rhythmic analysis, poetry analysis, thematic relationships, structure and definition of song cycles, and many more. Nevertheless, one topic remains relatively elusive in scholarship, although it is commonplace in performance – Transposition. Transposition is a musical device where the notation or performance of music is different from which it is originally notated. Vocal music, specifically the song genre, is very frequently transposed, so much so that major publishing houses (e.g. Edition Peters, International Music Company, Bärenreiter and more) publish these transposed versions in multiple volumes, for differing voice types, making it easily accessible to the singers and public. The idea of transposed songs being accessible to public is not a new one. In a letter dated 1869 to Brahms from his publisher, Fritz Simrock, he mentioned that for a song to be considered commercially successful, frequent performances were needed. In the interest of ensuring repeated performances from as wide a range of singers as possible, Simrock regularly published transposed versions of Brahms’ songs to suit different voices during the composer’s lifetime. The inspiration for this paper stems from my daily work with singers. As a pianist in a conservatoire, I have had the fortune to be involved in singers’ language and song interpretation classes, on top of my own personal collaboration with individual singers. This allowed me access to numerous singers, each with their own different voice types and repertoire. Over the two years of working with the Royal College of Music’s Vocal department, I played popular repertoire like Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ from Myrthen Op. 25, in no less than three different keys. Being trained as a solo pianist since my formative years, this was certainly a disturbing change, as I would never expect to play solo repertoire in multiple keys. To understand the effects of transposition on song, I will need to examine the reasons behind such decisions and attempt to understand the reasoning from a pianist point of view. The first part of this paper will look into the tangible and intangible aspects that leads to this decision making. I will consider singers’ habits and customs; comparison with instrumental practices; the background of song performance in the 19th century; the comparison with operatic practices; the experience of tonality for performers and composers. Using Schumann’s Liederreihe nach Kerner (Op. 35) as a case study, the second part of this paper will see these aspects in play through surveying published recordings made by renowned professional singers and pianists. Analysing these recordings will some shed light on the effects of transposition within this cycle and the potential compromises that the artists make. I will also include a brief comparison with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und-leben (Op. 42) before concluding.

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