Now that I’m not taking my Grade 4 violin until July my teacher, Gabrielle Sutcliffe, and I decided I’d spend some time learning some of the other pieces that I could have chosen (from the list of exam pieces). One of these is Scott Joplin‘s “The Chrysanthemum”. It’s a lovely piece, and may even win Gabrielle over to Scott Joplin: it bounces along and has some fun jumps up to third position which I’ve been practicing and practicing and practicing. Another exciting thing about the piece is the presence of an F double sharp in a section in A major.
I first encountered double sharps about a year ago when Paul (my father-in-law) was singing with a new member of one his choirs (The Leigh Orpheus Male Voice Choir) and they came across a double sharp in a Rutter piece. Paul new how to sing it but not how to explain it so he and I did some research. The explanation I ended up with was to do with ladders and scales. A Scale has one of each note (e.g. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A) and so if any of these need to be raised, and are already sharp, the resulting note must be a double sharp. So, for example, G sharp harmonic minor has the same key signature as B major (i.e. F sharp, C sharp, G sharp, D sharp, and A sharp) but that seventh note, the leading note, F sharp, would need to be raised a semitone using an accidental making it F double sharp.
The trouble is I took these double sharps to be an unusual almost unwanted thing since they are uncommon and don’t seem to be well understood. So I imagined that composers would only use them in pieces when they had a long scale-like run of notes.
The Scott Joplin piece, “The Chrysanthemum” (arranged by Colin Cowles and published in 2004 by Fentone Music ISMN 2300-0852-5) , doesn’t seem to follow that. The bar in question is bar twenty eight (shown bottom right in the scanned image in this post). It’s in A major, i.e. F sharp, C sharp, and G sharp and the bar goes G (sharp), F double sharp, G (sharp), A, and then G (sharp). But why write it with the F double sharp? Since the F double sharp is not implied by the key signature (this isn’t a passage in a minor key) why not write the equivalent passage G (sharp), G natural, G sharp, A, and then G (sharp)?
Well it’s taken a while to track this one down and I decided to ask more knowledgeable work friends. First up Andrew (an excellent violinist) suggested that I was wrong to think of G natural and F double sharp as the same note. Andrew pointed out that for instruments like the violin that are not forced into equal temperament the two notes needn’t be enharmonic. There were two drawbacks to this explanation that we discussed. Firstly double sharps like this do occur in music using equal temperament instruments like the piano, and indeed there is a piano accompaniment to this piece so the violin couldn’t stray too far. Secondly we couldn’t decide which of F double sharp and G natural would be higher in this case, which makes you wonder how one would play them differently, though it could be down to ‘ear’.
Then I tried a colleague who plays jazz saxophone and she suggested that it might be in order to reduce the number of accidentals required (e.g. one double sharp instead of one natural and one sharp).
Lastly I collared another friend, Toby Sharp (Toby ‘Double’ Sharp – geddit), who’s an excellent jazz pianist. Toby gave two fascinating answers. Firstly, before he’d seen the music, he explained that each note in the scale has a different feel and so there is a clear difference in intention between sharpening one note and flattening another. I love this explanation as it reminded me of the way poets talk about their choice of words. A poet might choose a word as much for its sound as its meaning and I liked the way that Toby’s suggestion presented music as a mirror image of this: meaning, as well as sound. Then Toby asked to see the score and we got to his second explanation. He explained that ragtime follows a certain structure, like a sonata. He showed how Joplin’s The Chrysanthemum started in D major with the second section using the dominant as its key – A major. [Just a quick aside to show that I am still confused – I think Toby said “sub-dominant”, but that would be G major.] He then talked about the harmonisation used in ragtime, how the A major section uses A major, D major, E major, and A major to harmonise the first four bars, and then A major, D major, G sharp major, and C sharp minor to harmonise the second four bars. I.e. I, IV, V, I, and then I, IV, VII, III. Now the double sharp I’m interested in falls in that seventh bar of the A major section, the part that Toby explained was being harmonised by G sharp major. Sure enough, the key signature for G sharp major is G sharp, A sharp, B sharp, C sharp, D sharp, E sharp, and F double sharp! That’s where the F double sharp is coming from, the progression of harmonising keys has brought us to G sharp major.
You wouldn’t normally see G sharp major written that way, I guess, as one would normally use A flat major, its enharmonic equivalent instead as that has four flats in its key signature as opposed to G sharp major’s seven sharps and one double sharp. But here you have to use it as it is the seventh or leading note of A major.
So I’m hoping that I now understand the use of double sharps – please do leave a comment if I’ve got it wrong!
Also apologies for using the term “sharp” instead of just using #, I couldn’t find the font symbol for that funny little double sharp x, even the wikipedia page renders incorrectly for me!