6 August 2002
The article by Kostas Kardamis elucidates a somewhat neglected corner of Greek music history and raises many interesting issues that will no doubt instigate further discussion within this and other forums. As a performer on the cor anglais – if I may be permitted to use the French-language term – I was particularly interested to learn of this early usage of the instrument. Aside to the substantial output for Baroque counterparts (including the oboe da caccia and taille) by Bach and others, and a handful of later eighteenth-century works – Haydn’s 22nd symphony, in which two cors anglais are substituted for the seemingly ubiquitous pair of oboes, springs immediately to mind – the instrument is generally considered to have risen to prominence, as Kostas noted, in the French and German orchestra of the nineteenth century. (That having been said, it should be noted that the repertory under discussion in Kostas’s article dates from c. 1815.)
One point I felt eminently worthy of expansion was the practice of writing the cor anglais part in the bass clef in the examples quoted in the article. Today’s convention, of course, is to write the cor anglais in F in the treble clef, for its analogy to the oboe, the more frequently-encountered family member. Though I’ve exceptionally seen the cor anglais written in C to facilitate comparison with other parts, I’ve never seen the bass clef used. This procedure would seem to produce music that lies below the range of the instrument (Example 2b in Kostas’s article being a case in point), even if read in C, rather than in F, as was presumably the intention. I wonder whether the music is written one octave lower than sounded, and whether the player would have been expected to effect the transposition in performance? I invite further comments from Kostas as to the reasons for this notational practice.
Thank you for raising this important issue, Chris. I must say that I share the same concerns with you regarding the English Horn (alias corno inglese, alias cor anglais!) I should like to add that the use of the bass clef in this context facilitates the transposition to F for both the composer and the performer. Actually, such techniques of clef substitution may still be found among certain brass players; I frequently employ it in my own tuba-playing (reading in C, using the bass clef) when I am “obliged” to play the tenor horn (in B flat, treble clef), horn (in F or E flat, treble clef) or trumpet (in B flat, treble clef) parts. In such cases, the stave plays a role related more to the position of the notes with respect to one another than to the actual range of the instrument on which the music is being played! I should be interested to hear your thoughts on this point with respect to the English horn.
I agree with you, Kostas, that clef substitution may likely be a contributory reason for the employment of the bass clef in the cor anglais part. I recall from my days filling in for an absent bassoon in pit bands that a cor anglais player need merely read “down one note” effectively to transpose from a part written in C in the bass clef to one written in F in the treble clef, the resulting music sounding one octave higher than notated. One further thought occurs: were the excerpts quoted in your article taken from the score rather than the parts? It may be that the cor anglais part itself was written in F, for the benefit of the performer, and that the same stave in the score was written in C, to aid both the composer and the director of the ensemble. In that case, writing the cor anglais part in the bass clef, transposed down one octave, may have caused the music generally to span the stave better – obviating the need for the three ledger lines below the stave that would be required, with some frequency, in a part written in C in the treble clef. However (glancing at the excerpts given in your article) two or even three ledger lines might instead be required above the stave in a cor anglais part written in the bass clef, so it’s problematic to suggest that this was the only reason for the practice. I’d be interested to hear any further thoughts you may have.
You are absolutely right, Chris, about the practical use of the convention of clef substitution; its function is exactly that which you describe. Furthermore, the lives of both composer and copyist were made easier this way – especially if one bears in mind that all these works were composed for almost immediate use – since the technique saved time and considerably decreased the risk of “wrong notes” (especially in an F instrument for which transposition may be tricky!)
However, conductors would not benefit from this notational practice, as they were not employed in the theatre orchestra. Until at least the last decades of the nineteenth century, the custom of the violin-conductor was the predominant practice in San Giacomo, and indeed was common in the operatic world of the period. The principal violinist, whilst also playing in the ensemble, gave the entries of the instruments through movements and gestures, and this person appears also to have been responsible for rehearsing the group. As far as I know, and from the scores that I have seen, the part used by the violin-conductor used only two staves per system: the lower one contained the music to be played by the leader, and the upper one contained “key entries”, all of them in the treble clef and at concert pitch. These were certainly rough times, weren’t they!
I should be interested to hear the opinions of others on this issue.