Critical Notes Series: Cello's Six Clefs

The question is often asked why was so much of Dvořák's music published with cello parts in treble clef down an octave (hereafter “treble 8vb”) instead of a tenor clef. The answer is more complex than one might think. I hope to overview the use of clefs to notate cello music for the last 300 years.

Encyclopedia Brittanica defines a clef as a ​"​symbol placed at the beginning of the staff, determining the pitch of a particular line and thus setting a reference for, or giving a ​'​key​'​ to, all notes of the staff. Three clef symbols are used today: the treble, bass, and C clefs, stylized forms of the letters G, F, and C, respectively.​"​ Simply put, the clef tells the musician or singer which note to play or sing.

Since the cello served mainly as a bass instrument before 1680, the bass clef was used. The bass clef comfortably covers the first four positions of the cello, from C2 to G4. The first five of Bach's 6 Solo Suites (ca. 1720)  are written exclusively in bass clef.

From 1680
However, as early as 1680, we find cello music composed in bass, alto, and tenor clefs. We find this in the Ricercate sopra il violoncello o' clavicembalo by ​Giovanni Battista degli Antonii. It might seem redundant to us for a composer to use alto and tenor clef since they are so close in range but Bach did the same thing with the treble and French treble clefs in his violin music to keep ledger lines to a minimum. In the degli Antonii example below, you can see the use of three clefs on a single line.

degli Antonii, Ricercata No. 3 (Gioseffo Micheletti, 1687)

In Vivaldi's music
Vivaldi had an almost scientific way of using clefs in cello music. He used 3 clefs, bass, tenor, and treble 8vb. If a passage did not go above F4, Vivaldi stayed in bass clef. If a passage went above F4, even just to G4, it would be notated in tenor clef, as long as the music stayed above C3. If the passage went above B4, Vivaldi would switch to treble 8vb clef. Again, it seems redundant since tenor and treble 8vb clefs are so close in range but this was Vivaldi's practice. Below we can see the switch from tenor to treble clef in his RV 413 cello concerto.

Vivaldi, Cello Concerto RV 413, mvt. II (Autograph MS)

After Vivaldi
While C.P.E. Bach used only bass and tenor clefs in his cello concertos, the use of clefs to notate the tenor and soprano ranges of the cello was anything but standard. The cellist Johann Konrad Gretsch used the alto clef in addition to tenor and bass in his C-major cello concerto (ca. 1750-1765). This concerto is very close in style to Haydn's early concertos. Haydn used the soprano clef in addition to tenor and bass in his C-major cello concerto (ca. 1761-1765). Below we can see the switch from tenor to soprano clef in Haydn's C-major concerto.

Haydn, Cello Concerto in C major, mvt. III (MS Copy)

Here is another example of soprano and tenor clefs in a sonata (1764) by Boccherini.

Boccherini, Cello Sonata G. 1, mvt. I (J. Bland, n.d.)

1780s Simplification
The 1780s brought in a simplification of cello clefs down to bass and treble 8vb. This standard was used in much of cello music until ca. 1900. Haydn himself notated his D-major cello concerto (1783) using these clefs. In order to notate the soprano range of the cello, composers added an 8va to the treble 8vb clef. The 8va cancelled out the 8vb. Here is an example of the treble 8vb clef and with an 8va sign from Haydn's D-major concerto.

Haydn, Cello Concerto in D major, mvt. I (Autograph MS)

Bréval's Op. 12 cello sonatas (1783) were published using bass and treble 8vb clef. However, Bréval used tenor clef instead of treble 8vb in his Op. 28 cello sonatas (ca. 1795). His cello duos, Op. 25 went back to using alto, tenor, soprano, and treble (at pitch) clefs in addition to the bass clef (this is 5 clefs in one piece!). 

Bréval, Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 12, No. 1, mvt. I (J. J. Hummel, [1790])

Bréval, Cello Sonata in D major, Op. 28, No. 1, mvt. II (Mme Oricheler, n.d.)

Bréval, Duetto in B-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, mvt. I (Imbault, [1795])

Post-1800 Bifurcation
After 1800, some composers like Danzi, Weber, Lamarre, et al. continued using bass and treble 8vb clef in their concertante cello music but this system became prevalent in chamber and orchestral music. Concertante works by Romberg, Lee, Servais, et al. embraced the 3-clef system we know today, using bass, tenor, and treble clef at pitch.

Danzi, Cello Concertino in D major, Op. 46, mvt. I (MS Copy)

Romberg, Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 3, mvt. I (J. André, [1822])

Beethoven's cello sonatas and early string quartets were originally published using bass and treble 8vb clef but his symphonies and late string quartets used bass and tenor clefs. Since most, if not all, of Beethoven's music has been republished using the 3-clef notation, we hardly ever come across his music written with the treble 8vb clef. We can still see the treble 8vb clef in the reprinted scores of chamber music by Breitkopf from Ludwig van Beethovens Werke (1860s-1890s).

Beethoven, String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1, mvt. I (Mollo, [1801])

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, mvt. 1 (Richault, n.d.)

Beethoven, Cello Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2, mvt. I (Autograph MS)

Mendelssohn penned his Op. 13 string quartet with the treble 8vb clef, but the rest of his cello parts use tenor clef, perhaps with a rare anomaly. Schubert seems to use tenor clef for his cello parts, Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 99 being an anomaly in treble 8vb.

The main places we still see the treble 8vb clef in the standard repertoire are in reprints of chamber and orchestral music by Schumann, Dvořák, and Bruckner. Schumann's chamber works were updated in the late 1800s by C.F. Peters; those editions are trustworthy, even the ones with Grützmacher's name on them. These and other works are being updated by Henle, Bärenreiter, and Universal, but they are not always free of errors. The new editions can get quite expensive as well. 

Schumann, Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102, mvt. I (Autograph MS)

Schumann, Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102, mvt. I (C. Luckhardt, [1851])

Schumann, Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102, mvt. I (C. F. Peters, ed. Grützmacher)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 (Alte Gesamtausgabe, Band 9, Musikwissenschaftlicher Verlag, G.m.b.H., 1939)

Dvořák's String Serenade, oddly enough, uses tenor clef in the second movement but treble 8vb in the other four movements. Dvořák's Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 were published with treble 8vb but the rest of the symphonies use tenor clef. The Slavonic Dances Op. 46, No. 2 and Op. 72, No. 5 use treble 8vb but the others notate high passages in tenor, so there is no consistency in the sets.

Dvořák, String Serenade, Op. 22, mvt. II (Bote & Bock, [1879])

Dvořák, String Serenade, Op. 22, mvt. III (Bote & Bock, [1879])

Dvořák, Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 2 (Simrock, [1878])

Dvořák, Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 3 (Simrock, [1878])

​Associated Chamber Music Players have taken the initiative to convert Dvořák's treble 8vb passages to tenor clef in his chamber music. The “conversion kit” is located here. I've published Dvořák's String Serenade cello part in tenor clef here, correcting many of the errors found in the standard reprints.

There is still room for professional engravers to convert other repertoire that may be difficult to read for cellists who are not used to the treble 8vb clef.

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