Why Schubert's Ständchen (Schwanengesang) is played in D minor in the violin instead of C minor?

December 4, 2017, 9:28 AM · Hi, I noticed the other day that Schubert's Ständchen (Schwanengesang) is in C minor, originally composed for piano and voice. Nevertheless, when it's played for piano and violin (I guess you all know this piece since it's very famous among violinists), it's played in D minor. Why?

I know one reason could be "to make it easier", but that's a very poor reason, besides it's not that hard to play in the original key.

Replies (24)

December 4, 2017, 9:46 AM · Probably because D is a much more resonant key on the violin - the tonic, dominant and subdominant are all open strings so the violin ends up resonating much better as a result. Easier to get lovely Romantic tone in D than it is in C, particularly in the register this piece is in.
December 4, 2017, 10:53 AM · It was originally in d minor, changed to c minor to accommodate different vocal registers.

December 4, 2017, 11:30 AM · How do you know it was originally in D minor?

I've listened to a very old record and the singer does it in C minor, so I guess it's originally in C minor. Could it be that I'm so unlucky I chose one of those rare transposed versions?

My logic is: if this is a piece for voice and piano, and I listen to CD of a professional singer back in the 70-80's, I suppose he did it like the original, and if violinists play it and it's in D minor, then I suppose that we have "license" to change the key since we're using a different instrument.

December 4, 2017, 11:48 AM · Tim, I looked up the sheet music on IMSLP. On the versions in c minor, the score says 'orig in d minor.'
Edited: December 4, 2017, 12:34 PM · Oh, thank you. Now my question is... Why a classical singer with the right register for the whole Schwanengesang would change the key to C minor?

Now that makes no sense :(

You would also mess up the piano part, which is quite important, it's Schubert!

OK, this is beyond what I thought. Not only it's this singer, but also others. Simply search on YouTube Ständchen, and the first video with a picture of a gentleman starts (singer) with a G instead of an A, that is, it's C minor again. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is very famous, specially for doing Schubert. It has no sense that violins are playing it the original way and singers are modifying it, it's absurd. Don't you think so?

December 4, 2017, 2:17 PM · Singers transpose stuff all the time. It's not unusual even in an opera to have alternate keys for certain arias.
Edited: December 4, 2017, 4:49 PM · But these two musicians I'm talking about are well known for their Schubert works, and that doesn't fit with someone that does a different thing that the original score. Besides, these songs are specifically composed for voice and piano, so:

How could no other than Schubert compose something specifically for voice, where most of the singers (now I'm starting to think all singers actually do it in C minor) need to transpose it to a different key?

Also, besides all of that, all those singers can so easily sing it in D minor, since the highest pitch is F5# I believe. What bugs me too is the piano, when you transpose a lot of things are different.

It does not make any sense. Do we ever need to transpose any piece for violin?
Nope, only when we do cello stuff or things that were not composed for violin. The least thing that could happen is a violinist transposing a piece specifically composed for violin.

December 4, 2017, 4:55 PM · what do you want us to tell you?
December 4, 2017, 5:47 PM · I'm just pointing out the things that don't fit for me, and we can discuss that.

Am I the only one surprised by the fact that the singers transpose an original composition to be sung to a different key, and violinists do it "as Schubert wanted"?

Since you can sing in any key, within your range, and the singers are more than good enough to sing in that song's range, I don't understand the change, supposing that the song was originally in D minor.

That's why I want to read some opinions about this that can clarify this or find a good solid reason. That's all.

Edited: December 4, 2017, 6:15 PM · I am completely unfamiliar with this piece, but will share an answer as I understand it to answer your questions, as they seem to have moved away from Schubert and into the realm of singing in general.

The key a song is in affects three things for a singer: The highest note, the lowest note, and the tessitura of the song.

Reasons one might change the key is to get an easier range. Just because a 'classically trained singer' can do it, doesn't mean they want to. higher notes are taxing on the voice. You can only sing the very highest notes in your register a finite number of times before wear and age steal them from you.

Another reason is very similar to why we sometimes transpose string works. The tessitura of the voice is a similar concept to choosing keys that are more resonant on the violin. Much like some keys are 'friendly' for the violin, certain voices have keys that they find more friendly. This is very individual and goes beyond voice type and fach classification and depends almost entirely upon the individual.

This piece has likely been transposed to Cminor because they key is more friendly for the type of voice singing it. It's not because they can't sing it in Dminor, it's because it'll be a better performance if they sing it in Cminor.

Just my 2cents.

December 4, 2017, 7:58 PM · Hum... if that's the reason, what difference it makes if you sing something one tone (step) sharper or lower?

Unless you're almost at your limit, I don't get it :/

Edited: December 4, 2017, 8:07 PM · It can be a huge difference for a singer in terms of safety and comfort, as well as just desire. A half step might even be enough to allow them to use a different section of their vocal register and completely change the sound of the piece. (Think the difference between an open E and a fingered E, or staying on the same string instead of switching). Without being more familiar with the music I can only speculate on some of the many reasons we transpose vocal scores.

At the end of the day the key it is doesn't actually matter that much - if the accompaniment is on piano, it's going to be equally tempered and equal temperament ruined harmony. More important is mode, and it's still in the minor mode.

Edited: December 4, 2017, 8:09 PM · It isn't just the range, it's the tessitura (whether the notes in the song are weighted towards the low or high end) and at what pitch a particular singer might need to change from chest to head voice or vice versa. A half step can make a difference. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I'm a violinist, not a singer.
Edited: December 4, 2017, 8:13 PM · Mary Ellen, I agree that that is likely the primary reason.

It can be very hard to explain things like this to people who may not sing as unless you know the specific feeling it can be hard to describe. It's why I have so much respect for voice teachers, imo voice is probably the hardest instrument to teach. There is no way to just correct someones larynx for them.

December 5, 2017, 5:45 AM · You are obsessing too much over the key change. If the range in which most of the notes appear do not change too much, then the same piece of music in different keys "sounds" the same to a listener. This is one of the fundamentals of music theory and transcription.

Of course, if one shifts the note range a lot, the character of the piece may be affected. This is especially true for the violin where the G and D strings can sound quite different in terms of timbre than the A and E strings.

It fundamentally comes down to ability to perform.

I transpose musical themes all the time to the keys of G, D, A or E or their related minors so they sound better on the violin. Notes near C, especially if they are the tonic of the piece, can frequently sound flat, unfocused or even wolfy.

December 5, 2017, 6:24 AM · Play a tune in E-flat instead of D in an Irish session and you probably won't come out smelling of roses ;)
Edited: December 5, 2017, 7:51 AM · Hi, I almost never post on here, but being that the topic is voice, I can attest to what was mentioned above.

I studied voice performance in college. Changing the key of a song is not uncommon at all. Changing it by a half step, as mentioned before, can make all the difference in the facility of the song, the character, and one’s mental perspective of the song, like thinking that the note is a little lower and therefore a little easier to hit.

I have been a part of choral pieces where the soloist decided to drop the key by a third because she believed it better fit the character of the piece, making the choir sing and the accompanist play a third lower than what was written. Both were done with hardly any problem. That being said, she could have hit the notes, but the performance is what matters in the end.

In studio, my teacher once printed out three versions of a piece in three keys to try out with my accompanist to see which fit most comfortably in my voice. Each key was transposed up a half step from the first, which was in its original key. I’m a “higher tenor”, so at the end of the day we went with the higher of the keys. This was not necessarily for ease, although slightly yes, but because of the tessitura. The range of notes sounded most resonant in my voice when they were a whole step higher. The accompanist, who was amazing, had absolutely no trouble each time we ran through a new key, although I suspect one or two were easier for him than the others.

One thing you have to understand about the voice specifically is that it’s a completely different instrument. How it’s taught, what goes on in your head, etc. You cannot approach it with a an instrumentalist/mechanical mindset at all and expect to get positive results. The voice is a living instrument and has to be approached in organic ways.

With instrumentalists, there is a physical instrument and a physical reference for teaching and playing. With singing, everything is mental. You can’t show a person exactly how to shape a vowel, how to move his or her diaphragm, or how to use his or her air. It is up to the singer, who is in a constant state of trying not to, but also TO think of technique while performing. If one doubts they with hit a note while singing for an instant, they will likely not hit the note. If one over thinks the technique, the performance will suffer. A singer is in their most “ideal mindset” when they allow for the character and text to influence the phrasing and tone while avoiding listening objectively during their performance.

Sorry if this became a tangent, but I believe it is important to mark the difference between vocalist and instrumentalists. Having only ever played in concert band through high school before majoring in voice in college, it was a bit of a culture shock in some ways. If you want to read a very interesting book on vocal technique, I suggest The Naked Voice by Stephen Smith. It is the book we used as a reference in studio and has really changed my ideology towards singing and explains the physiological and mental aspects of singing.

December 5, 2017, 7:49 AM · fantastic contribution Wesley, thanks very much!
Edited: December 5, 2017, 9:44 AM · I first played "Ständchen" as a kid, sight-reading it for fun with a pianist friend. It was the c minor version in a collection of German Lieder. As a string player, I prefer d minor for resonance, as others mentioned earlier in the thread.

Related note: Several keyboard players -- pianists, organists -- have told me that they prefer flat keys to sharp keys, e.g., A-flat instead of A, and often transpose pieces for group singing, like hymn tunes or popular songs, down for this reason.

About transposing in opera: Musicians who regularly accompany singers have to be prepared for this, because it can happen on short notice. If the lead baritone doesn't feel well enough tonight to hit the high G in Il Trovatore's big Act II aria but can still manage F-sharp, he may well ask the conductor to have the orchestra move the number down a half-step -- from the published key of B-flat to A. I am an ear-witness to this particular example. If I hadn't already studied the score beforehand, I wouldn't have known that they had transposed.

December 5, 2017, 1:28 PM · Anyone who has played in the orchestra in performances of John Rutter's works for choir and orchestra will be aware that a significant number are in a large number of flats, 5 flats not being uncommon. I've never found anyone who can explain this phenomenon, but my hypothesis is that he is trying to avoid the resonances you get with open string keys.
December 5, 2017, 10:38 PM · I don't know about Rutter, but at the school ensemble level bands have a much easier time with flats and strings with sharps. It can actually be a problem when a school orchestra adds winds and brass for a full orchestra piece, but the band kids haven't ever played in an orchestra before and aren't used to string-friendly keys.
Edited: December 7, 2017, 1:22 AM · The wind instruments (typically tuned in Bb or Eb) don't see those flats on their score, though. The strings could be happily playing in A (3 sharps) while the Eb-tuned instruments see an easy C key. (Edit: I must have had a brain fart when I wrote this.)

I have always wondered why Bb-tuned wind instruments exist, but now it clicks!

Edited: December 6, 2017, 9:06 AM · A lot of those notes which occur in those keys, like concert B natural and fingered C#’s on many woodwinds, are nasty to tune. It’s possible, but many school level ensembles don’t have extensive practice playing in those keys and making the necessary adjustments like adding alternate fingerings on woodwind, or moving out a slide or lipping down for brass. For that reason, a lot of their repertoire exists in flat keys. I don’t remember ever playing a song in high school going past concert F major really. Lots of flats, though.
December 6, 2017, 8:54 AM · Also, the key of A, Eb instruments would see the key of F# major since F# for them is concert A, Bb instruments would see B major, and F instruments would see E major, if I’m not mistaken.

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