Transposition Tricks: Sometimes Up is Down

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The oddball “up” transpositions for the French horn.

In the world of Opera there is hardly a dull moment when it comes to the French horn parts – you experience the entire range of possible transpositions.

One area of particular confusion, are three transpositions: F-sharp, G, A-flat and A. (Yes, that’s right… I did say F-sharp.) For the most part the F-sharp and G transpositions are as expected:

  • Horn in F-sharp

    = transpose one half-step up

    This is a rare transposition, but it does happen. Offhand I cannot recall the exact solo, but there is one Italian opera (Verdi’s Don Carlos maybe?) that has an extended and exposed F-sharp horn solo. If a reader knows what this is please speak up and leave a comment below.

  • Horn in G-natural

    = transpose one whole step up

Here the honeymoon ends and things get complicated. The transpositions for A-flat and A-natural have some rules-of-thumb that the astute opera horn player must be aware of.

These rules are a common pitfall for the opera rookie. They occur with frequency in 3rd and 4th horn parts, especially in Donizetti and Verdi operas.

  • Horn in A-flat in Italian operas

    = always

    transpose down a major sixth

    (or up one minor third + down one octave, whichever is easier for your brain to digest*)

  • Horn in A-natural in Italian operas =

    transpose

    down a minor sixth (or up one major third + down one octave)… uhm…that is, for the most part…**

    *For myself, this “up/down” method is the easiest.

    **In Rossini’s “Semiramide” Overture for example, the 3rd horn part has some “Horn in A” solos that are traditionally transposed up. The later, non-solo repeated fanfares are traditionally transposed down.

What the … ?! How am I supposed to figure this out you ask?

The basic “A-horn” rule-of-thumb for the 3rd hornist is this:

  1. If your “up” transposition puts your sounding pitches above the 1st horn, you most likely need to invert the interval transposition to sound below the 1st horn.
  2. However, if your A-horn passage is a solo, it might be an “up” transposition.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule as there are some exceptions, most notably in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” A prominent horn quartet passage (in Act II?) can go either way depending on the conductor’s preference. I have performed it both ways.

For every other nationality (German, English, French, Swahili, etc.), these two transpositions – A-flat and A-natural – are typically “up” transpositions:

  • Horn in A-flat (non Italian)

    = up one minor third
    The most notable example being the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, which is practically an etude in mixed transpositions. (Download a 5 MB PDF scan of the part for private study.)

  • Horn in A-natural (non-Italian)

    = up one major third

Again, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Use your common sense.

If you are not sure, I would recommend consulting with a colleague, either in your section or out on the Web. If your conductor is knowledgeable of transpositions, you might try asking him/her.

My experience with this however has been mixed. Many conductors have little or no clue about how horn and trumpet transpositions translate.

Sometimes if I am feeling particularly frisky, I will ask a conductor a transposition question to see how they answer. The experienced conductor will pause, think for a second and give an answer. They might speak in terms of sounding (concert pitch) pitches and that works too.

Less-experienced conductors might look confused and scrambled. A panicked expression may flash across their faces. They might ask the horn section to play an entire passage and figure it out by sound instead of by looking at the score.

Or they might just give you a wrong answer, or get annoyed and tell you to figure it out on your own. Inside my head, when this happens I “roll my eyes skyward” and – I admit – quietly snicker to myself.

Photo credit: Death by Poison Snake Hiding in French Horn