Expanded History of Musical Notation – Part 5

Expression signs, though used by the earliest neume writers, were entirely absent from mensural music, and seem to have been first reintroduced in connection with the lute, in whose notation Morely indicates ‘Soft and Loud play’. About 1638 we find in lute music Piano, Forte, the sign for Mezzoforte, for Crescendo and Diminuendo, besides tempo indications, as Presto, Adagio, etc.

Expression words and signs were gradually introduced into vocal music, after having found a place in that for instruments, and have always had a tendency to increase in number and refinement. Italian has been the language most used for the purpose, and is generally understood in this connection, but English, German, and French have been occasionally employed by composers of those nations.

The staccato sign first appeared in the works of Couperin, Seb. Bach, and Rameau, in the form of a dot; in those of J. C. Bach it is a dot or an upright stroke, according to the degree of staccato required.

The Legato sign appears early in the 18th century, and is used for the first time in combination with the staccato dots by Mozart. It is the modern representative of the ligature, the words ligature and legato being derived from the Latin ligare, and the Italian legare, to bind.

The Clefs have varied considerably, both as to form and method of use, in the course of time. Palin song has practically used only the C and F clefs; while mensural music, after employing all the letters of the musical alphabet, at different periods, finally reduced its clefs to the three which are now in use, and whose shapes have gradually become conventionalized.

The F clef is now always placed on the fourth line, and is called the Bass clef; in the 17th and 18th centuries it was frequently placed on the middle line, and, when in this position, it was called the Baritone clef. This is the oldest of the clefs, having been the one used when the stave consisted of only a single line. It marked the mi fa or semitone of the Hexachordum naturale. The C clef was formerly the most used of all for vocal music, but is now more confined to instruments. It has been used on each of the five lines, though now restricted to three. It is named after the voices it formerly represented, Soprano, Alto, or Tenor. The soprano clef on the first line is sometimes found in the vocal parts of modern full scores; the alto and tenor are chiefly now used for the viola, trombone, and violoncello parts. It marked the mi fa of the Hexachordum durum, in the upper octave.

The G, or treble clef, can hardly be said to have come into general use till the rise of instrumental music into importance during the 16th and 17th centuries; and even then, on keyed instruments, it had to share a place with the C clefs; hence it has altered its shape less than the others. Until the 19th century it was hardly looked upon as a vocal clef, and, except in England, it was never used for chorus parts, though it was for solo voices. Its foreign names imply an instrumental, rather than a vocal use. It was formerly sometimes placed on the lowest line, and called, when in this position, the ‘High treble,’ or ‘French violin clef.’ C.P.E. Bach in ‘Die Israeliten in der Wiiste,’ 1775, doubles the G clef to show two flute parts are written on a single stave. A similar doubling was reintroduced in 1879, by Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, to avoid the use of the C clefs in the tenor and alto parts, and is gradually finding favor. With the same object of enabling the tenor line ot be easily distinguished from the treble, Messrs. Ricordi employ a character combining the G and C clefs in one sign. The G clef has now practically superseded the C clefs in vocal scores, it being understood that the tenor part is always to be sung an octave lower than it is written.

Mr. Rockstro remarks: ‘The Polyphonic composers of the best periods were extremely methodical in their choice of clefs, which they so arranges as to indicate, within certain limits, whether the Modes in which they wrote were used at their natural pitch or transposed. The natural clefs, chiavi naturali, were the well-known Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, which have remained in common use, among classical composers, to the present day. The transposed clefs, Chiavi trasportati or Chiavette, were of two kinds, the acute and the grave. The former were the Treble (violin), Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, and Tenor, or Baritone. The latter consisted of the Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass or Contra-Basso. The effect of this grouping was, that, when the Mode was written at its true pitch, in the Chiavi naturali, the Chiavette served to transpose it a fourth higher or a fifth lower; if, however, it was written at its natural pitch, in the Chiavette, it was transposed by aid of the Chiavi naturali. The High Treble and Contra-Tenore were very rarely used after about the middle of the 16th century; and the Contra-Basso did not long survive them; but the remaining seven forms were so constantly employed that a familiar acquaintance with them is indispensable to all students of Polyphonic music.’

The clefs are now distributed amongst the instruments and voices in the following ways:

  • In full scores, the soprano, alto, and tenor voices are given either their own proper clefs, or three G clefs, and the bass voice always has the F clef
  • The violins use the G clef, the violas the alto clef, changing to the G to avoid many leger-lines
  • The violoncellos use the F and tenor clefs, with an occasional passage in the G clef, causing some ambiguity, as in some instances the G clef is used, as in writing for the violoncello.
  • The double basses use the F clef, but sound an octave below the written notes
  • The flutes, oboes, and clarinets use the G clef, but the latter play at a different pitch from the written notes, if they are not ‘Clarinets in C.’
  • The Corno di Bassetto and the Cor Anglais, both transposing instruments, play from the G clef
  • The bassoon used the F and tenor clefs, and the double bassoon on the F clef only, transposing an octave lower.
  • Trumpets and horns use the G clef, and usually play in the key of C, their crooks transposing the music to the necessary key. The extreme low notes of the horn are, however, written in the F clef.

We have previously referred to the Trombones; the Drums play for the key of C, or in very modern music, their true notes are written in the F clef.

The history of the sharp, flat, and natural must now be referred to. When the Guidonian alphabet was arranged, the letter b, called b rotundum, or b mollis, was given to the sound called Trite synemminon, and the figure called b quadrum, b quadratum, b durum, was applied to Paramese; a survival of the two forms of b is seen in the modern German nomenclature, in which B flat is called B, and B natural is called H, from the old form of the square b, which was something like the letter a.

Guido called the hexachord beginning on C, to whose scale the b quadrum belonged, Hexachordum natural; hence arose the English name of ‘Natural’ for the sign of the square b. Composers early found it necessary to depress or raise certain scale degrees other than b by a semitone, and a complete chromatic scale was in use before the end of the 13th century, though scarcely yet recognized by theorists.

The raising of a note by a semitone was at first indicated by the square b; in course of time the lines of this letter became lengthened, and a new figure arose called Diesis (whence the French Diese) or Crux (whence the German Kreuz), which took the name ‘Sharp’ in England.

Not until the beginning of the 18th century was the natural used to contradict both a sharp and a flat, as in modern music.

The flat and natural have never altered their shapes; the sharp has undergone many modifications. The double sharp and double flat became necessary when equal temperament gave composers command of the complete circle of keys. The double sharp was at first represented by the natural of the note above the note affected, but this unscientific and misleading method was successfully combated by Matteson, who proposed a St. Andrew’s cross, and by Leopold Mozart, who proposed an upright cross. There were other forms suggested as well, but the one proposed by Mattheson has superseded all the others. The conventional way of contradicting a double sharp and flat has been objected to by some, and possibly a new method may be invented and find acceptance in the future.

Key signatures were probably suggested by the early of the b rotundum as a clef; they were not favored by the Mensuralists, who, if they did not trust to the rules of Musica Ficta, placed ‘Accidentia’ (whence our word ‘Accidentals’) were necessary. The earliest key signatures are found in the compositions printed by Petrucci at Fossombrone 1513-23. In the 17th century composers frequently duplicated sharps and flats. This practice continued to the time of J.S. Bach and Handel.

The 18th century composer employed a great number of signs called Agremens or Graces, as a kind of shorthand for certain well recognized ornaments. These ornaments are now for the most part written out in full by notes of smaller type than the rest, and the only survivals of the old shorthand signs are the shake, the turn, and the mordent. The passion for grace notes was formerly such that many who are now living can remember a style of organ playing in which unwritten graces were  introduced in addition to those indicated by the composer.

The successive labors of the neume writers, the Mensuralists, the Tablaturists, and the impetus given to composers by the rise of instrumental and dramatic music during the 17th and 18th centuries, have resulted in a notation that is now accepted by the whole of the civilized world; that is equally applicable to instruments and voices; that is easily learned by all who have musical instincts; that is capable of expansion to meet new requirements; and whose very inconsistencies (which are a stumbling block to those who begin to learn it late in life), are, in reality, an assistance to the eye, which would easily become confused by too great in uniformity.

Changes will undoubtedly come, as long as music continues to be a living and advancing art; but they will only come slowly and gradually, as they have done in the past, and it is probably that in its general structural principles our notation will last as long as our present system of music. Its principles may be thus summarized:

  1. The relative pitch of sounds is indicated by the position of signs, called notes, on a stave of five lines, which can be extended when required by the addition of ledger or leger lines. The clef forms the key of the stave.
  2. The relative time values of notes are shown by their shapes
  3. The relative force of accents is shown by the position of the notes with regard to the bar-lines
  4. The key of rhythm of a composition are shown by signatures
  5. The semibreve is the ‘mother of the other notes,’ the remaining notes taking their values as ½, ¼, etc. of the semibreve
  6. The rhythmical scheme is shown by bar-lines
  7. The expressional requirements of the music thus written are shown by easily understood words and signs placed above or below the stave

Innumerable efforts have been made to supersede this system of notation, by the invention of others, which are supposed to be easier to learn, or more simple in construction; but, with one exception, the new notations have always had the fatal defect of making too great a demand on the intelligence of the performer, who is thus debarred from giving his attention to the aesthetic significance of the music. New systems are mostly the outcome of the efforts of grown persons to acquire the ability to read music, who forget that fluency in this or in any kind of reading cannot be attained by intellectual effort, but by the mechanical routine that is only possible in early youth.

The one exception referred to is the tonic sol-fa notation, a return to the phonetic class, whose success is due to its scientific recognition of the relation of the scale degrees to the tonic, in modern music; but, like the old mensural music, it is too complicated for instruments, and like the tablatures, it fails to call the eye to the assistance of the ear, and it is therefore never likely to supersede the stave notation.

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