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About false treble clef

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The Cellist's trouble clef

Cellist puzzled by false treble clef

Cello players refer to a certain kind of musical notation as "false treble clef".  This name refers to the use of treble clef when the intention is for the notes to be played one octave lower than written.  The downward octave transposition causes trouble for many cellists.  They are not used to it because it does not occur in most cello music published today.  However, false treble clef occurs in much cello sheet music that was typeset before the early 20th century.  Cello parts in the chamber music and orchestral works of Antonin Dvorak (1841–1904) are especially notorious for their use of this clef.  In this article I'll give examples of false treble clef, explore the issues, and discuss solutions.

An example of false treble clef

The cello part of Robert Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston opens with the following measures:

Example of false treble clef Example of false treble clef

The composer's intention is that the cellist will play this passage one octave lower than written.  In Schumann's day this was a common convention.  But today, most cellists would prefer tenor clef:

False treble clef replaced by tenor clefHow to fix false treble clef

Instead of tenor clef, we might even like to have some or all of this phrase rendered in bass clef.

Another example: very high notes

From the 3rd movement of the same work by Schumann, here is another passage in false treble clef:

A high passage in false treble clefA high passage in false treble clef

Ugh!  Look at all the ledger lines!  But remember—Schumann wants you to play an octave lower.  Observe that we can avoid a lot of ledger lines if we render this passage in "true" treble clef:

The same passage in "true" treble clefExample of false treble clef

Ok, so why did the music engraver not use "true" treble clef?  He could not, because he was following the convention that the cellist would always play treble clef an octave lower than written!  The result: a lot of ledger lines, and a part that is difficult to read.

What exactly is the problem?

False treble clef is a problem for these reasons:

  1. Many cellists today cannot sight-read false treble clef.  We can read "true" treble clef without difficulty, because treble clef is one of the three commonly used clefs for cellists, namely, base clef, tenor clef, and treble clef.  But the octave transposition does not come easily to many of us.  (For that reason, "trouble clef" is another name for false treble clef.)
  2. Ambiguity: sometimes we don't know whether we should play down an octave or not.
  3. Using false treble clef removes "true" treble clef from the music engraver's toolkit, leading to a ridiculous number of ledger lines in very high-pitched passages.  (See the second example above.)

The solution

Most cellists wish that false treble clef would just go away.  So it is useful to identify cello parts that contain false treble, and then re-typeset those parts to eliminate false treble.

Eve and Don Cohen have led the way with their Dvorak Cello Conversion Kit.  This consists of snippets that you can print and then (literally) cut and paste into sheets of music that contain false treble clef.  I am furthering their project by posting public domain cello parts that I have corrected to remove false treble clef, namely the cello parts to the following works so far:

Joseph Haydn, Sinfonie Concertante

Robert Schuman, Fünf Stücke im Volkston

Dvorak-Symphony No. 7 Op. 70 (on the IMSLP.org website)

Tom Potter

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