I've recently encountered Jean Féry-Rebel's "Les Élémens". (Check out that wild opening; it's hard to believe it was written in 1737!)

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In the fifth measure of the third staff, why does this descending scale include both F and E♯? (Notice that it uses the French violin clef, so the bottom line is G.) It's apparently not a typo; there are more E♯s in the instrument above this one and in the figured bass as well.

In recordings, this E♯ is clearly a half step lower than the preceding pitch, and thus E♮. Is this a byproduct of a particular tuning system? Is it some type of courtesy accidental so the performer doesn't play E♭ (the music did just cadence in B♭)? Or is it something else entirely?

  • 1
    Oh, great -- just as I get used to the Tenor Clef, here comes a clef offset even worse :-) Aug 31, 2018 at 13:13
  • Out of curiosity, what do the inscriptions "L'air", "L'eau", and "La Terre" mean? I mean, in french they mean, "the air", "the water", and "the earth", but what do they mean in the piece's context?
    – coconochao
    Aug 31, 2018 at 21:28
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    @coconochao The piece is called "The Elements." He's labeling the motives for each element. Way ahead of his time, right?
    – Richard
    Aug 31, 2018 at 21:30
  • Oh right, I missed the title of the piece. Very interesting though!
    – coconochao
    Aug 31, 2018 at 21:32
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    @CarlWitthoft- discounting octave transposition, all seven possibilities for clefs have been used historically. A friend of mine who has perfect pitch, and had trouble transposing because of it, learned all seven clefs, and now just imagines the appropriate one (with sharps and flats to fit) so she can read at pitch. Sep 3, 2018 at 11:34

2 Answers 2


Wow! What you've stumbled upon is not just an impressively early use of a tone-cluster; it's also an impressively late survival of a system of chromatic notation, universal in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that uses only two accidentals: the flat (written ♭) and the sharp (written ♮, ♯, or various 𝄪-like shapes). The flat is used to denote "low" versions of notes such as E♭, B♭, and F♮, and the sharp is used to denote "high" versions such as E♮, B♮, and F♯. As long as music does not get too chromatically adventurous, these signs are unambiguous. (For instance, Palestrina's output does not use sharps beyond D♯ or flats beyond A♭.)

In the present piece, the use of sharps and flats cannot be globally consistent (for instance, three kinds of D occur), but they are given meaning locally by relation to the main key. They most often represent major and minor intervals above the bass. This usage, in connection with a figured bass, is quite venerable. In fact, the first generation of figured basses, published by early Baroque composers such as Monteverdi, does not have figures at all: only a sharp or flat often placed on the line or space a 3rd above the bass note, directing the keyboardist to play a major or minor triad respectively. (See here.)


Normally there are only 7 lettered notes in a given key. This passage starts with the notes C,Bb,Ab,then G,F,E#,D,C . I do nor know why this pattern was chosen by Féry-Rebel, but this method of notation preserves the 7-letter rule. He does it again in the next passage going upward. This is not apparently a chromatic passage as then the 7-letter rule wouldn't necessarily apply.

Is there an F# in the key signature? Were the passage in the key of G-major or e-minor, it could be a chromatic alteration. It's almost a reversed Phrygian scale on the note. It's also a c-minor scale with the third note as E# rather than as Eb. One more weird possibility is that the E# is really an E-natural with a 3-flat key signature (c-minor or Eb-Major).

  • No F♯ in the key signature, no. And I understand the 7-note rule, but why not just write it as E♮ instead?
    – Richard
    Aug 31, 2018 at 1:39

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