Daisyfield Chamber Music
About false treble clef
Back to chamber music
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.
The cello part of Robert Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston opens with the following measures:
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:
Instead of tenor clef, we might even like to have some or all of this phrase rendered in bass clef.
From the 3rd movement of the same work by Schumann, here is another 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:
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.
False treble clef is a problem for these reasons:
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:
Dvorak-Symphony No. 7 Op. 70 (on the IMSLP.org website)