October 21, 2014

Music Typefaces: Bass Clef

A handwritten bass clef from Satie's Sports and Diversions
Previously I wrote about the different types of clefs, but in this post I'll get to what really started my head spinning. People obsess over design. I've always been appreciative of the way something looks, but I tend to favor functionality over pizzazz. That may explain why I've never noticed the differences in music fonts before. There was the obvious difference between jazz fonts and...well, everything else, but beyond that I'd never given thought to the design of music notes or clefs. In this post I'll focus on the bass clef. There won't be any discussion of the evolution of the bass clef, just how it's been designed in publications over the past century.

For this post I'll be ignoring hand-written bass-clefs, extended technique markings, and neumes. I'll focus solely on the little differences, some mundane, some trivial, and some fantastic that go into the design of a bass clef.

First, I'll lay down some terminology that I use over the course of this post. I couldn't find any set of words to describe the parts of the bass clef so I've made some up and tried to stay consistent with them over the course of this post.

original image from Wikipedia user Popadius. Markings added by WMPT

I've use the word "dot" to mean either the two floating dots to the right of the clef or "central dot" for the large point of origination on the left. When I refer to the symbol not including the dots I'll usually call it the "swirl". The "top line" refers to the area at the top of the symbol. "Right wall" refers to the entire thick area on the right side of the swirl. "Tail" refers to the point at the bottom.

Most of the differences between typesets I found concerned thicknesses and height. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if the thickness varied due to excess ink on the plates, or were intentional design characteristics but I tried to find representative examples from the scores. 

from Gottschalk's Souvenir de Puerto Rico, publisher unkown

The above clef (and subsequent six flats) are from a Gottschalk piece Souvenir de Puerto Rico. I think this design fits what many would view as "standard". It sports a thickness on the right wall and tapers as it moves to the bottom. The top segment of the swirl thins as well, almost disappearing into the top line of the staff. The central dot is also thick, which I think gives it the appearance of being the origination of the swirl. I've always drawn my bass clefs from that center dot, as I imagine most do. Perhaps that thickness comes from extra ink that comes off the pen from the initial contact? My favorite part of this bass clef is at its bottom. Some clefs will extend into the bottom space, while others stop short. The real reason I included this one was the fact that it barely sneaks in. An immeasurable bit of it dangles into the bottom space, giving it a bit of whimsy and brashness. As you'll notice moving on, the dots, which are maybe the bass clef's most characteristic part, rarely change much between designs.

from Kabalevsky's op. 27, Schirmer Ed.

The above clef from a Kabalevsky children's piece has a more fluid design than the Gottshalk but has a bulbous central dot. After that large dot, it doesn't taper, but immediately thins to the top, which appears to barely creep over the top line before plunging into a thick (but not too thick) wall before tapering to the bottom. This clef stops directly on the B-line, not extending whatsoever into the low A. It's a clean, very standard looking clef. Not the type of F-clef you'd write home about.

from Joplin's The Sycamore, pub Will Rossiter (Dover Reprint)

I love this bass clef, from a Dover reprint of a Will Rossiter published Joplin rag. Whereas most clefs usually touch the top line and dance around the second-to-bottom, this clef is content floating in the middle. Its squatness allows us to see the top curve more clearly and shows us that the tapering from the right wall to the top curve is more severe than it appears when the top is flush with the staff. The tail is docked so short that it doesn't line up vertically with the left edge of the central dot, giving it a more upright look. What really set this design apart for me is the way the entire clef is pressed up against the left barline. They are not touching, but nearly so. On a few of the systems throughout the piece the clef appeared to be touching the line, but the majority appeared as above. The dots on this design are also exquisitely round, proportional to the swirl component, and appear to be slightly off-center from the F-line, sinking down toward the bottom of the staff.

from Chou Wen-Chen's The Willows are New, Peters Ed.

This Peters Edition bass clef from Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chen's The Willows are New has one of my favorite aspects, the tail that barely peeks over into the bottom space, and also softly grazes the top line, giving the appearance that it should be just a touch higher in order to line up more snugly. I think the proportions in thickness are very elegant in this bass clef, although for some reason the fact that the dots are too high stresses me out.

from Cecile Chaminade's Concert Etudes, Masters Music
The design used in this Masters Music publication of Chaminades Concert Etudes is similar to the Chou Wen-Chen above, but with a bit more thickness. It appears squatter, and the dots are thicker as well.

from Kabalevsky, Schirmer Ed
I'm uncertain if these Kabalevsky scores are reprints of original plates or if Schirmer handled the original publication but this clef comes from the same book as the one up above. It's a really heavy design with a thick right wall, bold central dot, and large dots on the right. One of the things I love about this bass cleff is the tiny thickness that's added at the bottom tip of the tail. I checked this one against other bass clefs in the same opus and most of them have that widening at the end. The longer tail also appears to extend past the central dot, giving it an interesting asymmetry.

from David Diamond's A Myriologue, Southern Music Publishing Co.
The thickness of the Kabalevsky bass clef has nothing on this Southern Music clef. In this design the heavily slumping dots are dwarfed by the super thick swirl. The right wall is so thick that it almost connects to the dots (if you squint you can see the F of the F-clef). The coupling of a short tail and miniscule tapering gives the tip a stubby appearance. Paradoxically, the entire thing appears very thin in total, despite the width of the lines.

from Poulenc's Piano Concerto, Salabert Ed.
This Salabert bass clef from Poulenc's Piano Concerto gets so thin that it pretty much disappears above the central dot, Most of the clefs in this score were like this, although the break in the top line of the staff that shows up in this particular image may be indicative of thin inking in the printing.

from Joplin's Breeze from Alabama, John Stark and Son (Dover Reprint)
I adore this bass clef from another Joplin rag. These early American publishers had a keen sense of individuality and whimsy in their design. I think the design of this clef mirrors the fun, freewheeling nature of ragtime. The tail clearly extends far past the central dot, making the clef appear to list to the side and rest on the extended right wall. The central dot is thick and the top is thin, the exaggerated proportions reflecting the outbursts and syncopated rhythms that made this music so popular.

from Joplin's Rag-Time Dance, John Stark and Son (Dover Reprint)
Another Joplin rag printed by John Stark and Son. It's got a lot of the features of the design from "Breeze from Alabama", the bulbous central dot, the long tail, and thin ceiling. It's not nearly as extravagant as the former clef though, nor the small clef from "The Sycamore" but it contains an appealing compactness. It doesn't quite touch the top line and asserts itself in the bottom space with a nice clean confidence that sets it apart from most other bass clefs.

from Leschetizky Op. 2, Century Music Publishing
This one is bizarre for so many reasons. The swirl itself appears elongated with the top not even coming close to touching the line and a tail that juts with an accusatory point to the bottom of the staff. The central dot is extremely close to the right wall and the entire thing seems stretched in a fun-house mirror. Oh, and that's not even talking about the dots. This is the only clef that I found in my library with altered dots. Most of the time the dots are the fun but standard component of the bass clef. They're charismatic but stalwart. You know what you're getting with bass clef dots. This design not only plays with the dots, it completely alters them. The diamonds that take the place of the dots are shocking and huge. The top dot extends above the top line. The dots touch each other. What is happening here? I was also struck by the flats in the key signature. Their close proximity to each other assumes a pianist who will know the key with a simple glance and doesn't need to take the time to read each note. They are so close in fact, that the stem of the Ab collides with bulb of the Eb. Combined with the thinness of the bass clef everything here look spiky and tall.

from Benjamin Carr's Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" published RH Hobson 183-
 Finally, the bass clef that started this entire thing. I featured it in the last post, but here it is again. This fantastical rvferse swirl from Carr's Fantasia. It speaks for itself in its far-flunged-ness so I'll remain quiet.

This string I started pulling on has really sparked an interest in a world I've never thought of before. We toy with and document our typesets and fonts in the world of literature but it's not something that musicians reflect on. In what ways do these designs affect our interpretation of the music? There are some conventions in these designs but what defines a "standard" bass clef? In my mind, there's no such thing as standard anymore. I hope that these are conscious, difficult decisions that are made by composer and publisher and that they don't go away with the rise of computer publishing. Mostly, I wish that publishers were willing to take risks on these sorts of things. They don't get in the way of the music, and if anything can give extra information to a performer. 

I'm obsessed.

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