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Fingering: A trigger of imagination?



For the uninitiated, "fingering" refers to the numbers written above or below notes corresponding to the fingers of the hand with thumbs being "1". Fingering is indispensable for keyboard and string players. It is meant to assist the player not only in the playing of that particular note, but more importantly, to help the performer to have their hand in the best position to play the following notes(s). The performer's hand size might dictate modification to the suggested fingering.

There is no finger "0". I have never seen a finger "0" before. The excerpt is from Brahms' Ballade Op. 118, No. 3 for piano. According to the notes in my urtext edition, this is Brahms' own fingering - he wrote that zero there. Why would he do this? I became obsessed with the zero.

First of all, the zero is totally redundant. Any pianist would be ignoring the note it is written under since that same note is being played at the same time by the right hand where it is a part of the melodic line. You don't need 2 hands to play the same note, especially when it is a very awkward leap for the left hand. Then why write the note at all if it is not meant to be played? Without getting into a really nerdy harmonic analysis, trust me, the note itself makes perfect sense; it's the zero that is perplexing. Brahms was a pianist. He knew there was no "0" finger.


Much speculation has been made of the friendship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert Schumann. Were they lovers? We will never really know, but what we do know is that they remained lifelong friends. As Brahms wrote the 6 pieces that comprise Op. 118, he would send them off one by one to Clara so that she could try them out and critique them. Clara was 14 years older than Brahms and at the time was in ill health. Her concert pianist days were behind her. She loved the little pieces and was able to sit at the piano long enough to play them. She would send them back to Brahms with comments and suggestions.


Brahms had a wickedly ironic sense of humour. In 1880, the University of Breslau decided to grant him an honorary doctorate degree. A nice thank you note was not enough for the university. They expected Brahms to compose a large orchestral work for the occasion. He complied with their request by writing the "Academic Festival Overture". This 4 movement work is exquisitely written and brilliantly orchestrated but, to the horror of the academics, it is entirely based on bawdy student drinking songs. It remains an orchestral staple to this day.


What if Brahms wrote that finger 0 for Clara's amusement? I can imagine that at first she would have been insulted that he felt the need to tell her not to play that note, which would have been glaringly obvious to any pianist, and then perhaps she would have laughed. It would have been a silly joke between them. Brahms referred to Op. 118 and his other late in life piano pieces his "love letters" without specifying the recipient. I like to think that they are for Clara and they were able to share their love and friendship through music right to the end of their lives.


See what has happened? That silly zero on a piece of music has helped me think of Brahms' last piano works in a different light and I will never listen to them or play them the same way again. Music can trigger your imagination and change your perspective. While the results may not be earth shattering or even relevant to anyone but yourself, they are important.


Listen to Murray Perahia play Brahms Ballade with the note that is there but not to be played but of course is played anyway but not exactly.



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Nice connection between simple notation anomoly and the multiplicity of influences that come together in the overlapping contexts of inspiration, composition, performance and listening. Really interesting read. Thankyou Cynthia.

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