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WORKSHOP #4: "Taming the Dreaded Alto Clef"
A Guest Workshop by Victor Frost

[I'd like to recognize and thank Victor Frost for his generous contributions to the community. He has shared his wonderful compositions, and now he shares with us from his vast musical knowledge. -Dan]

I recently shared an e-mail with our illustrious editor that I sent to someone who had downloaded Book I of my 24 Preludes.
I was responding to a matter the gentleman had brought up: the use I occasionally make of the alto clef in the left hand of this work for organ. While thanking me for the challenge (that is how we learn, he said), he also saw fit to complain:

"Isn't it bad enough that organists have to read two clefs on three staves?"

A few other people have e-mailed me to thank me for making the Preludes available under's aegis but, invariably, this issue of clefs comes up. So Dan thinks it might be good for me to share this little disquisition with everyone on the site's opt-in list. It appears below, with some modifications to suit the general reader.

Q: What's the difference between the alto clef and Greek?
A: There are some conductors who can actually read Greek.

I checked Book II (not yet posted at this writing), and I am relieved to report that the clef figures in only two of the twelve Preludes there, and not for very long stretches in either case.

The musical examples were not part of the original e-mail, since that is something I am not sophisticated enough to do. But Dan has allowed for their employment here.

(Email excerpt begins)
Ignoring for the moment the use of the alto clef within the organ world, I'll mention that it currently serves two important functions: as the principal clef for the viola and when writing for English horn in a score "in C" (the oboist actually reads from a part transposed up a fifth, which is of course in treble clef). As a composer for orchestra and of much chamber music involving strings, it is an everyday clef for me. So, when you come to master it, think of all the string quartet scores you can follow!

In terms of background, most people start out with one clef and branch out from that, and as a teacher I would say that that is pedaogically sound. But the way new clefs are introduced is all wrong, in my opinion. Let's say you start with bass clef. It should be extended up with leger lines. When the student can see that too many of them get unwieldy, the solution of another clef presents itself. But they should be shown right off the bat that the new clef contains notes they know already (say, that second line E above the bass clef is identical to the first line of the new treble clef). This helps to forge a sense of continuum. It's really all the Grand Staff, with middle C one line above the bass clef identical to that one line below the treble. To illustrate this, I draw the two staves so close together that the equivalent of a single leger line is all the space that's available between them. That single leger line, in other words, functions simultaneously as middle C in both clefs. It is also the touchstone for the C clefs, which used to occupy any line you liked (to avoid typesetting a lot of legers in days of yore).

Middle C, then, is wherever the nexus of the clef is. Today we use only the third line (alto) or fourth line (tenor), but there used to be a mezzo-soprano clef! It's better not to think about learning a new clef. Rather, try to rethink the way you go about reading. Wherever that nexus line is, the note below it is the B below middle C. You have no trouble now going to that note, whether you see it notated on the space below the line below the treble clef or the space above the bass clef.

Here is that B notated in the space it owns in three different clefs.

In other words, there is no note on the alto clef that is not already very familiar to you, from either treble or bass clefs, and in the case of notes in the middle, both. You should capitalize on that familiarity.

Here's the beginning of my G major waltz in three versions. The first has a lot of leger lines above the staff when the left hand is notated in bass clef. The second has leger lines below the left hand treble clef. The version online is shown last, with alto clef. Only a single leger line is needed.

Sebastian Bach used alto clef a lot in his chorale preludes, and in Brahms's case the composer did not limit himself to passages in which the chorale tune was being rendered (in a single voice), but anytime it was convenient. I could cite other instances, but basically, I assumed that this was part of the arsenal of practicing organists. Much as I would love to have recourse to one of the other clefs in, say, music written for piano, it's just not allowed. Although many pianists can read alto clef, it's not part of the general training their fellows have gotten. (What Stravinsky often did when he had a passage for piano where one hand was largely in the middle was to have three staves, two of them being a Grand Staff just for one hand where he could go back and forth.)

I know there are editions of the Brahms that dispense with the alto clef, but these are not Urtexts.
(Email excerpt ends)

I've given some more thought to the matter since I first typed the above. The organ has a better bottom than most instruments (some even aver better than the orchestra affords!). Between that, and the octave doubling that so often obtains, it happens often that the left hand has a higher center of gravity than when it plays on piano (where it is almost always the bass). The use of alto clef gives us more flexibility. On the piano, there is only one digital for any given pitch we might want. But there are invariably different ways to get the same pitch on the organ. We would never put notes for the left hand on the pedal staff. Similarly, nowadays we avoid having a musical line cross staves in the two hands, because each staff might be associated with a given manual with its own registration (say, a solo reed, or 8' and 2' pitch). This makes the use of alto clef highly desirable when we're stuck on a single staff and the line in question hovers a lot around middle C, again to avoid overuse of leger lines. (Cellists master three clefs: bass for low notes, tenor for high notes, and treble for really high notes.)

In the middle 80s, it had been my intention to include chorale preludes that I had improvised amid the 24 Preludes, but I thought better of that. This is probably why I had recourse to alto clef in the first place, since its use in organ literature is most often associated with chorale adaptations. I commend this entire link to everybody:

But let me quote from it liberally here. The writer is Dr. Ivan Frazier at the University of Georgia in Athens.

"J. S. Bach was, if I remember them all, a keyboardist, string player, composer, conductor, and educator. He played all the principal keyboard instruments of the time, and could also play the violin and viola da gamba fluently and artistically. His improvising and composing went hand in hand throughout his life. Nor was Bach unique in this respect. All keyboardists were proficient in improvising accompaniments from figured bass parts, and improvisation retained its appeal for musicians from that time well into the Romantic era, exemplified in the extraordinary virtuosity of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt to name only four. Composing, improvising, and performing was so integrated for accomplished musicians of these earlier times, they would surely find our evolved specializations quite curious.

"With respect to music reading it was expected of any well trained musician to be fluent with the various clefs, the soprano, the mezzo-soprano, the alto, and the tenor, in addition to the G and F clefs, some of which persisted in use well into the 19th Century. For keyboard writing, the soprano clef, which places "middle C" on the lowest line of the staff, was common. Any pianist who consults the authoritative complete editions of such composers as Bach, Mozart, or Haydn, to research keyboard literature will find the soprano clef more frequently than the G clef . It isn't that musicians were smarter then -- it's unlikely. But, it does seem that the attitude and approach to reading must have been much more flexible, less likely to focus on note names and more likely to emphasize linear patterns and relationships. How else could one make sense of so many clefs and clef changes?"

Victor Frost <> was born in Port Jefferson, New York in 1952. He resides in New York City, where he is highly regarded as performer on piano and organ, composer and arranger, and teacher. His catalogue includes opera and other music for the theater, orchestral works, chamber music, and numerous solos, some of a pedagogical nature. It also features choral numbers and songs, both sacred and secular. He studied composition with Charles Dodge and Myron Fink, organ with Flor Peeters and Calvin Hampton, and piano with George Roth and Jon Klibonoff.

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