# Confusing clarinet key signature changes

I am reading through a miniature score book of the Vorspiel (Prelude) of Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner. It's a piece for orchestra, including two B-flat clarinets.

The clarinet part is written with confusing key signature changes.

The orchestra begins with the key signatures of 0 sharps (ignoring the horns and trumpets), and as expected the B-flat clarinets are in the written key signature of 2 sharps. This is normal. This continues for 96 bars, until the section ends (with double bar lines).

At measure 97 there is a key change with the orchestra moving to 4 sharps. However, the clarinets (Kl.) change to 0 sharps, which is not what one might expect (6 sharps).

At measure 109 the next section beings with the orchestra now in 3 sharps, but the clarinets moves to 4 sharps! This is very strange as I would expect 5 sharps for there to be agreement — but lo and behold nearly every A (what would be the 5th sharp) is sharped with an accidental.

This section ends, and bar 118 seeing a return to 0 sharps for the orchestra, and 2 sharps for the clarinets which is normal again. There are two more key changes but the clarinets continue with 2 more sharps than the rest of the orchestra like normal.

I've summarised this information in a table below: (where '+' indicates sharps, '-' indicates flats)

Measures 1-96 97-108 109-117 118-121 122-150 151-224
Orchestra in C 0 +4 +3 0 -3 0
Clarinets in Bb +2 0 +4 +2 -1 +2

The two section that are odd are bars 97-108 and 109-117.

I think 97-108 can be explained by the fact that a key signature of 6 sharps is probably challenging for clarinet, and perhaps it is more practical for the players to have no key signature here, instead having accidentals on basically every note instead.

But I don't have a good explanation for is 109-117, why is the clarinet part written in 4 sharps, and not 5 (or 0)?
I note that there would be enough time for a change (muta) to clarinets in A here, but this isn't indicated, and the transposition would then need to change (which it doesn't).

I can imagine that this whole piece would actually be easier for clarinets in A (except perhaps 122-150).

I've looked up some other versions of the piece on IMSLP, and found two other versions of the score, as well as the clarinet part in isolation, but they all seem to have the same strangeness in the clarinets parts key signatures changes for measures 97-108 and 109-117.

### My questions are:

• Does my interpretation of bars 97-108 seem reasonable?

• What is going on with bars 109-117?

• Would the clarinet players actually find this to be the best way to read/play the music?

• Is this kind of thing normal for clarinets (or other transposing instruments)?

• Is there some other explanation?

• Are the Bb clarinets the only instruments with unusual key signatures? Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 7:55
• @JohnBelzaguy — Yeah, the only other transposing instruments are horns and trumpets, and they aren't given key signatures at all. Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 8:08
• Just another "clue" (but, keep in mind that I'm not that experienced in transposing instruments as I'd like to): it's sometimes easier to have a "simpler" key signature and getting all further alterations explicitly written. While visually it might seem worse than having the actual key written at the beginning of the section, there are situations for which having explicit alterations is easier, especially if the section is short enough to justify that approach. It might not be this case, but it's something I believe worth noticing. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 2:28

Leaving out the key signature was usual at that time for brass instruments, but never for woodwinds. The passages in question are no easier to read for the clarinets with the key signatures Wagner used. The notes are certainly correct.
Unless someone finds an explanation from Wagner himself, we can only speculate on the reasons. Most likely Wagner wanted to avoid key signatures of more than four sharps. He might have thought the first section would be easier to read without a key signatures. The second passage could also be a mistake that the publisher didn't catch.

• Another clue: the passage with no signs in the key signature is written with flat accidentals rather than sharps, that is, in G flat or E flat minor rather than F sharp or D sharp minor. Maybe Wagner thought it too weird to put the B-flat clarinets in six flats while the concert instruments were in four sharps. Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 17:03
• @phoog — for some reason that section actually has 3 bars spelt in flats, then 9 bars spelt using sharps Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 18:36
• @ElementsinSpace - Still, who'd want to change the key signature partway through the section from 6 flats to 6 sharps? Maybe we are better off just blanking the key signature at that point. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 15:59
• @Dekkadeci I agree: it really doesn't matter to the players whether it's in six sharps, six flats or no key signature, so Wagner takes the easy way out. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 16:29

I've analyzed the scores in the images, and I've come to the conclusion that PiedPiper is correct. I would like to add my analysis:

## First image above

Prior to measure 97, the orchestra parts are written in (concert pitch) C major, or more accurately, no established key. But the B♭ clarinets' written key (2 sharps) was written as such to match the orchestra's key signature (or lack thereof) with the appropriate transposition.

(Never mind that the written melody prior to bar 97 appears to be in B♭ minor.)

Does my interpretation of bars 97-108 seem reasonable?

Yes.

At bar 97, the composer modulates the work to E major (C.P.), but instead of writing the transposed B♭ clarinet parts with six sharps, Wagner (or the publisher) dispenses with the key signature altogether and uses accidentals to express the melody. Thus, the clarinets are playing a melody in E major (C.P.), written for their instruments as G♭ major (enharmonic with F♯ major), but without a key signature.

## Second image above

Sometime after bar 98, the clarinets rest, so in the second image, measure 108 still has the orchestra in E major and the clarinets without a key signature.

What is going on with bars 109-117?

At bar 109, Wagner modulates again, this time to A major (or is it F♯ minor?). This implies that the transposed clarinet part would be in B major / G♯ minor, but Wagner left one sharp off of the key signature and used accidentals—notice the A♯ accidental as the first note of bar 110—presumably to keep things easier for the clarinetist(s).

Would the clarinet players actually find this to be the best way to read/play the music?

That depends on the skill of the player. Most likely, yes. But, please consider reading the section below...

## Going off on a tangent (but still related)

Writing music for orchestra in "exotic" keys (i.e. other than C major / A minor), but without employing key signatures, has lots of precedent, and I'm not referring just to the trumpet and horn parts. (Or, for that matter, the clarinet parts.) But, I'm hard-pressed to find an example of this technique contemporary with Wagner.

A more modern example I found right away is Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (op. 43, written in 1936)—the work begins and ends distinctly in C minor, and the second movement is in D minor, but there is not a single key signature used anywhere in the entire work (at least not in the score I have).

As for "simplifying" the instruments' parts by reducing the number of sharps / flats in the key signature, the trend I've seen with late Romantic-period / 20th Century composers is to write transposing instruments' parts in the appropriate C.P. key, no matter how many sharps or flats there be.

Example: Gustav Mahler has a passage in F minor near the middle of the lengthy scherzo of his Fifth Symphony, and the Clarinet (in A) part for this passage is written in A♭ minor (seven flats).

Second example: In the final movement of his Fourth Symphony, Mahler couldn't source a bass clarinet in any key other than B♭ Mahler chose to have the bass clarinetist only play the B♭ instrument, so as the piece ends in E major, the musician has to contend with a six-sharp key signature. Addendum: I do not know why the composer has the clarinetists switch around their instruments so often—to the best of my knowledge, no other composer in the history of orchestral music has individual players changing instruments so often as Mahler does with the clarinet section. This site mentions Mahler having a clarinetist play six different instruments in his Fifth Symphony. Yikes!

I believe this trend is due to musicians' technical skill and abilities improving throughout the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Whereas an orchestra in Mozart's time might have 35-40 players with only modest abilities (not counting soloists), by Mahler's time the orchestra had expanded to over 100 players, all musically-skilled professionals who landed their parts via audition. Orchestra players having to sight-read their parts for public performance was the norm with Mozart, but orchestras these days have time to study and rehearse the modern, more difficult repertoire.

## Edit

Corrected inaccuracy in second-to-last paragraph and added addendum. Thank you to PiedPiper for the correction.

• Mahler asks for bass clarinet in A elsewhere in the fourth symphony. it's also used in most of his other works. Commented Aug 4 at 9:39