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HPSCHD-L  November 1994

HPSCHD-L November 1994

Subject:

Re: More on tuners

From:

Joseph Spencer <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Harpsichords and Related Topics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 23 Nov 1994 19:50:25 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (206 lines)

An interesting posting;
 
You wrote:
>
>More on keyboard temperament, especially in music by composers named
Bach
>Unfortunately, much that has been written on this subject is
questionable
>in its logic or its use of historical evidence.  For example, a number
of
>books contain recipes for temperaments, some of which are now referred
to
>by the names of certain theorists.  But I'm not sure how closely these
>recipes actually approximate the theorists' prescriptions, nor whether
>historical musicians actually followed the latter.
 
A good question.  I tend to group people who spent a lot of time writing
about temperaments (with some notable exceptions) with the guys who
every ten years write an article in Scientific American about how the
violin works.  Smart guys, who love music; but the result doesn't have
much to do with music.
 
>In addition, our perception of pitches and intervals tends to be mixed
>up with all sorts of non-acoustic things--feelings, associations,
>etc.--that may cause us to think that the latter are essential parts of
>the former (e.g., that dissonances are really "bad").  Thus we need to
>be careful to avoid asserting as fact what are actually subjective
>impressions or products of convention (e.g., that a particular key is
>more or less "like" or "related to" another).
 
In the light of the assertion made in the preceding paragraph, the next
sentence is truly remarkable:
>
>It wouldn't hurt to bear in mind that the only evidence that we have
>regarding the way Bach tuned his keyboards suggests that he would not
>have tolerated any temperament that left any key perceptibly out of
>tune.
 
 
>C.P.E. Bach, who presumably learned how to tune from his father,
>recommends tuning _all_ thirds wide (he does not say how much or how
>equally).
 
J. S. Bach's tunings changed dramatically over the course of his
creative life, if we may make inferences from the harmonic structure of
his keyboard music at various periods.  If we can't assign a single
temperament as suitable for all of Bach, can we find one for all Bachs?
>
>Now, _we_ don't have to do what we _think_ Bach did, but I think that
we
>_should_ have good reasons for _whatever_ we choose to do, and I can't
>think of a good reason for using a tuning in either the F-sharp-minor
>toccata or the Wuerttemberg Sonatas that leaves wolves or other sour
>chords anywhere.
 
My assertion would be that in the 17th and 18th centuries peoples'
relationship to "sour chords" as you call them, was completely
different.  Raised on unequal temperaments, they were far more
discerning about dissonance and inharmonicity than are 20th century
ears, lulled to sleep as it were by generations of homogenized octaves.
Nearly all periods have prominent writers who go on at length about the
difference between the various modes or key centers.  If your circle of
fifths is completely round, its center of gravity is in the middle, and
you are deprived of the delicious drama of unequal temperament, the
lurking danger of the wolf (which very few composers actually loose upon
us, though they intimate, threaten and rattle the door to his cage.)
 
To be sure, there are many circular temperaments that
>some ears will accept as "good" for all keys yet sufficiently "unequal"
to
>give certain keys a distinctive flavor.  Many such temperaments will
also
>tend to make dissonant chords sound more dissonant and chromatic
>voice-leading harsher or more disjunct (because of the unequal
half-steps
>involved).  But we should recognize that any decision to use such a
tuning
>in a Bach-circle work reflects a _modern_ preference for the piquant
>sonorities and irregularities that it produces; apart from the witness
of
>Kirnberger (whose own temperament is too dissonant to be used for his
>teacher's music)
 
according to whom?
 
there is no _historical_ basis for associating such
>tunings with Bach-circle music.
 
>
>There are several reasons, however, for doubting that anyone in the
Bach
>circle preferred temperaments that are substantially different from
equal
>temperament.  First, although C.P.E. Bach does not explicitly advocate
the
>latter, he says nothing in favor of unequal tunings.
 
CPE Bach does not belong to the same musical world as his father.
 
>Second, when Bach
>(J.S.) transposed pieces from one key to another he did so without
>changing anything else substantially--as we might have expected him to
do
>if certain sonorities would have been significantly affected by the
>transposition (as to why he might have transposed them, see below).
 
>We tend to assume that the tonality of a keyboard work was chosen
because
>of the way it would _sound_; but there are many other reasons why an
>18th-century composer might have written in a given key.  For instance,
D
>major tends to be associated with bright, lively music, probably
because
>of its association with natural brass instruments and with the open
>strings of the violin; this association seems to carry over to some of
>Bach's keyboard music (the D-major Partita, the prelude in D from
WTC2),
>but not for reasons of keyboard tuning.  Some composers seem to have
had
>private associations of certain keys with certain affects--Bach, for
>example, seems to have used B minor for particularly profound fugal
>movements--but again it is hard to associate these preferences with
>temperament (if B minor is "profoundly expressive" for Bach, why not
also
>E minor, which in most temperaments contains similar intervals?).  In a
>few cases, Bach put pieces in certain keys in order to fulfill a
>preordained tonal plan (as in the transposed pieces in the WTC and the
>Clavieruebung), but again this has no demonstrable relationship to the
>actual _sound_ of the music.  So-called internal evidence can be found
to
>"prove" that a given temperament suits a given piece, but the methods
of
>proof are invariably subjective (Barnes, for instance, bases his
argument
>in the cited article [EM 1979] on highly questionable assumptions
>concerning the alleged perceptibility of certain intervals in certain
>pieces).  A _single_ bad chord resulting from the use of a particular
>temperament in a given piece ought to rule out use of that temperament.
>
I cannot believe that someone will invalidate the judgement of another
writer on the "highly questionable assumptions concerning the alleged
perceptibility of certain intervals in certain pieces" and then go on in
the very next sentence to state:  "A _single_ bad chord resulting from
the use of a particular temperament in a given piece ought to rule out
use of that temperament."
>
>This is not to say that keyboard temperament shouldn't be an issue for
>20th-century players.  But the delight that we derive from hearing a
>familiar piece in a new temperament is like that of playing it on a new
>instrument; the novelty should not fool us into thinking we've found an
>answer to the question of what temperament or instrument is "right" for
>the piece.
Until our own century there was never a single termperament that was
"right"; there was at all times a range of options from which performers
chose and worked out their plans. This range often included equal
temperament, but it is clear from surviving old instruments that it was
not the choice of the 17th or early 18th century musician. Thiscan be
born out by surviving organs, particularly small instruments that are
cone tuned and very much in their original state, scattered over Europe,
upon which temperaments as unequal as Kirnberger are not uncommon.
Check also the spacing of fingerholes on old recorders, and other
wind instruments. As for lutenists, talk to Paul O'Dette or Hopkinson
Smith; see if they play in equal temperament.
 
>My own preference is to find an easy-to-tune temperament that
>works for all the music I happen to be playing at a given time.
 
On one point we can agree: it is hard to imagine musicians in the employ
of royal or noble patrons stopping mid-concert to change termperaments;
I think we can safely assume that wasn't done often- probably not more
than once.  We are different in that we may sit down to play music from
two or three different centuries. Certainly one would want to select a
temperament that would suit the whole program.  If that be equal temp,
sobeit.
>Equaltemperament is good for 20th-century music and usable everywhere;
>1/4-comma meantone is good for most pre-1700 music (especially if you
have
>split accidentals) and bad elsewhere; temperament ordinaire will work
for
>much but not all 18th-century music, e.g., J.S. Bach or Couperin's
26eme
>Ordre in F# minor/major, for which some sort of sophisticated circular
>temperament (including equal, but not "Werckmeister" or "Kirnberger")
>seems necessary.
>
>David Schulenberg
>Dept. of Music
>Univ. of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill
>[log in to unmask]
>voice: (919) 933-8633
>
>
Please do not mistake me.  I do *not* think that anyone *ought*,
*should*, or *must* use any given termperament for anything.  I have
found great gratification in opening my ears to the wonderful subtleties
of dissonance in Louis Couperin in meantone, for example, or Frescobaldi
or any of a host of Italian composers of the period, who are united by a
facility in their composition for the use of dissonance, of metering it
and applying it by measures.  The same kind of musical coloration and
drama lies dormant in much of Bach, especially the earlier works, and I
have striven, particularly in my recordings, to make these wonderfully
subtle sounds available and audible to modern ears.  Not everyone has
heard. Not everyone will.  But the invitation is there.
 
Joseph Spencer
[log in to unmask]

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