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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).

key change at the start of the second section, measure 97

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.

key change at start of the third section, measure 109

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?

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  • Are the Bb clarinets the only instruments with unusual key signatures? 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. 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. Nov 7, 2021 at 2:28

1 Answer 1

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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.

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  • 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.
    – phoog
    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 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.
    – Dekkadeci
    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.
    – PiedPiper
    Nov 7, 2021 at 16:29

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