Toward a tuning strategy for large Baroque ensembles
so we were rehearsing “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50) in Boston this week. This is a single-movement cantata which is probably not by Bach but is nonetheless spectacular, with chorus, strings, three oboes, three trumpets, and timps all blazing away in a stentorian fugue punctuated with fanfare-like outbursts. It starts out in D major but doesn’t stay there long, migrating at various times to E major, F# minor and major, B major and major, and C# major. The weather is changing every day, and as one might expect the tuning got a little suspect, especially in those remote keys. We worked on some of the most offending passages with varying degrees of success; and one point somebody asked about the temperament and somebody else said “it’s Vallotti” as though that solved everything. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to sound even worse after that.
Now this post isn’t to impugn the Vallotti temperament, although there’s nothing particularly authentic or Baroque about it, it has lots of detractors, it creates all kinds of problems in mixed ensembles, and there is even a Facebook group called ANTI VALLOTTI of which I am a member.
Rather, I want to question the idea that it is desirable, authentic, or even possible, to play Baroque orchestral music in any kind of fixed temperament at all.
Consider the following:
- Non-keyboard instruments are adjustable in pitch–you can play an infinite gradation of pitch values for any written note. It is theoretically possible, in a perfect world, to play any note completely in tune with any other note.
- Any keyboard i.e. fixed temperament consists of deciding ahead of time which intervals will be out of tune, and by how much. F# is the same pitch as Gb, and is the same pitch in all harmonic contexts.
- The advantage of a fixed-pitch instrument is that it is predictable and repeatable, that is, when you press a given key on the keyboard the same pitch comes out each time.
- But in an orchestral situation, pitch levels are not repeatable except for the keyboards and open strings, and each instrument is subject to its own tendencies.
- Temperature is a huge factor in intonation. Most stages get warmer during the course of a concert, wind instruments (and organs) go up, string instruments go down. Also, as wind players play louder or get excited, they tend to go up. As string players move into higher positions or get excited, THEY tend to play higher. On more than one hot stage, during performances that were meant to be tuned to A=415 Hz, I have measured the organ at well over A=420 while the harpsichord had dropped a few cycles. This is a difference of something like 30 cents (hundredths of a semitone) while most keyboard temperaments tend to increment in one or two cents at a time.
- These large inconsistencies also apply to individual players. I think I usually play pretty well in tune, but can be practicing along quite happily on my hautboy or d’amore, and then glance at the tuner and the whole thing is 20 cents high. Bet this happens to everyone.
- In general, most people’s ears prefer higher pitch levels to lower ones, and so will perceive the lower of two pitches as flat rather than the higher one as sharp. This of course doesn’t pertain to you, dear reader, or to me, but to most of our colleagues who during the course of a rehearsal will turn pegs or bite their reeds to avoid feeling flat to the music around them
- A tenet of Vallotti, and other regular sixth-comma tunings, is that the fifths of the string instruments are all the same and tempered slightly, about 4 cents each, so that the C-E major third is about 6 cents wide as opposed to 14 cents in equal temperaments—the militantly “earlier than thou” crowd enjoys the slightly jarring quality of open strings while those with more 21st-century sensibilities tend to avoid them. Extending Vallotti fifths to wind instruments gets even dicier—on a traverso or hautboy they can sound pretty gnarly, and a trumpet fifth that is deliberately played 4 cents narrower than pure, say at the end of BWV 50, the B-minor Mass, or any of the hundreds of other tunes in D, sounds positively hideous. The reason for this lies in the concept of enharmonicity, that is, how strongly the middle overtones of a note played on an instrument resonate with the fundamental. A trumpet or oboe sound has much greater enharmonicity than a harpsichord or the flute stops on an organ. We never hear the word “spicy” favorably applied to a trumpet section the way we do to a harpsichord in a remote key.
- Another problem caused by Vallotti-like tunings appears when playing in flat keys, especially Bb and Eb major—those are the highest notes in the temperament, and obviously they aren’t open strings. So, they often end up wonky as people fish for just how much higher than equal the temperament wants them to be.
- So it seems to me, after a few decades in the orchestral trenches, that trying to get an instrumental (or vocal) group to conform to a keyboard temperament creates more problems than it solves. In essence it is asking musicians to play intervals deliberately out of tune
So—here’s the proposal
Simply this: how about we in the orchestra quit thinking in terms of temperament (which after all is only needed for a fixed-pitch instrument) and instead agree to strive toward sounding in tune, however we define it? After all, that’s what modern orchestras do, and some of them sound pretty good.
What does “in tune” mean, anyway? For me there are different aspects of intonation, negative and positive: our performance must not sound offensively OUT of tune (unless we intend it to), and, ideally, intervals that are IN tune should contribute in sonority and resonance to the musical affects we are seeking to express. Intonation can also be used dynamically—for example the concept of a high “leading tone,” although disparaged in some earlier-than-thou circles, can still be a useful expressive device. Of course these desiderata are entirely subjective, human rather than mathematical. But isn’t humanism what the Enlightenment was all about?
I’m NOT suggesting that we go back to equal temperament or that we throw out what we know about better-than-equal tuning systems, just that we use it to our advantage.