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"Handel's" Temperament


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#1 Colin Pykett

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Posted 23 August 2016 - 01:57 PM

I apologise for being a bit of a self-publicist here but it might conceivably be of some interest.

 

Around 1780 a method for tuning a temperament was published in London and attributed to Handel (though this can probably be ignored).  What is perhaps most interesting today is that it is sometimes offered as one of the temperaments included in electronic tuning devices and apps, and at least some people use it as their temperament of choice when performing music from the late baroque and classical eras.

 

I can't claim to have seen every last one of these ETD temperaments, but those I have seen are all wrong.  The original tuning instructions are crystal clear that all fifths must be tuned flat (as in equal temperament) whereas these modern realisations include some pure fifths.  As well as this, some authors have asserted that the 'Handel' temperament is nothing more than a variation on the meantone tunings which were common in Britain at that time.  This, too, cannot be so because of the very sharp Wolf fifth in these temperaments which also goes against the instruction for all fifths to be flat.

 

I have therefore posted an article on my website in which I attempted to tune the temperament according to the detailed (though nevertheless frustratingly imprecise) instructions.from the 18th century.  It turned out to be a pleasing mildly unequal temperament in which all keys are entirely useable, but it also has hints of key colour which give it more interest than ET.  If you have an instrument at home such as a clavichord, harpsichord or organ (pipe or digital) perhaps you might like to give it a go next time you tune it.

 

The article is at:

 

http://www.pykett.or...temperament.htm

 

Even if you are not interested in doing this, thanks for reading this anyway.

 

CEP


"You can never know everything about something. But you can always know something about everything" - Amit Kumar

 

www.pykett.org.uk


#2 John Pike Mander

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Posted 23 August 2016 - 02:30 PM

Hi Colin,

 

This is very interesting. Descriptions (with some notable exceptions) were very often vague and sometimes just wrong, such as a description of a Clementi tuning I have somewhere.

 

I could be completely wrong, but there are two things which do strike me, unless I am missing something stupidly. Firstly, although the description seems to cover most fifth intervals, it does not describe (I believe) what would be the wolf fifth. Is this coincidence? In other words, is this left out because it is a wolf. Secondly, I think the general comment that "all thirds should be tuned sharp more or less as all fifths should be tuned flat". This would not mean being de-tuned by the same amount in absolute terms, but in perception, I suggest beating about the same rate.

 

I wonder therefore if this is a typically sloppy description of a tuning method, which is essentially something like 1/6th comma meantone, which is a tuning we are pretty sure was in general use around Handel's time (we have restored two organs which gave a strong indication they had been tuned to 1/6th comma). We all know that the Great Packington organ's tuning was lost when my father was asked to bring the organ up to pitch for E Power Biggs recording there (something my father much regretted later, but it was at a time when little thought was given to such things) but I discovered a multitude of pencil marks on the wooden stoppers, which somebody probably put there when the organ was moved from the house to the chapel to help what might have been an inexperienced tuner to get the tuning right. When the stoppers were set to those pencil marks, there was just enough correlation to work out what the tuning might have been and 1/6th comma was almost certainly what it had been (one can never be certain in such things). Woolaton Hall also indicated 1/6th comma, when we blew out all the pipes, and put them in the organ BEFORE they were restored or touched in any way.

 

I do wonder if it is a not very good description of 1/6th comma meantone.

 

John



#3 Colin Pykett

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Posted 23 August 2016 - 03:24 PM

Thank you for your response John.  At first, I spent ages looking at the instructions and could only spot explicit references to ten fifths.  So I wondered what one was supposed to do about the two 'missing' ones because there have to be twelve fifths in any temperament if all the notes in the octave are to be tuned.  But then I saw two major thirds as well.  At this point my head began to spin and so I decided to just sit down with a digital synthesiser and follow through the instructions one by one.  This synth allows one to specify the frequency of each note by giving it an offset in cents from equal temperament.

 

Somewhat to my surprise, all twelve notes of the octave were accounted for at the end of the exercise, which seemed like a minor piece of magic at the time.  Therefore, because all notes had been tuned I had obviously tuned all twelve fifths by default as it were.  However, some of them were not flat whereas the instructions specify that they must be.  So I did a few sums and then repeated the exercise more carefully, and this time it came out right.  By 'right' I mean that all fifths were flat and all major thirds were sharp (both as per the instructions).

 

To be fair, the constraints in the tuning instructions are perhaps arguable.  I think some authors have taken the phrase "all fifths must be flat" to refer only to the ten fifths which are explicitly mentioned.  In that case, one can do what one likes with the other two (provided the two thirds which are mentioned are also treated properly), and one of them could indeed be a sharp Wolf in that case - leading to a variation of the meantone tunings which (as you said)  were common in England at that time.  However I have taken the view that "all fifths" means "all twelve fifths".  When you do this there is much less room for manoeuvre and the possible outcomes are really just so many variations on 'mildly unequal' - a very different proposition to meantone of course.

 

Whether my reading of the instructions is right or wrong, the results of my labours have produced a temperament which pleases me at any rate.  That is partly because I'm a fan of mildly unequal ones anyway.  (I invented another one, called the 'Dorset Temperament' which is also on my website).  I find them much more subtle than grossly unequal ones such as meantone, which to my mind are too crude for words, standfast the fact they have historical importance.  In my opinion it's more important to be able to use all keys than to take some (macabre?) delight in historical authenticity which prevents one from doing so!

 

Although meantone was indeed common in Britain at that time, the influence of equal temperament or close approximations to it had been creeping over the Channel for some time by 1780.  I like to think that this might have led to what one might call a 'mildly unequal culture' entering the tuning craft, and the 'Handel' temperament might have been an instance of it.  After all, what would have been the point of simply giving the well-known meantone tuning instructions in this publication when everybody would have been familiar with it?  I therefore conjecture that the intention might have been to persuade people to tune in a more subtle manner.

 

Colin


"You can never know everything about something. But you can always know something about everything" - Amit Kumar

 

www.pykett.org.uk


#4 John Pike Mander

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Posted 23 August 2016 - 04:27 PM

Hi Colin,

 

I agree completely that the rather vague instructions are open to interpretation in different ways. However, I would incline to think that the reference to the fifths being tuned slightly flat would refer to the ten intervals which are mentioned rather than all twelve, but I would not claim I am right and you are wrong, it is merely an opinion.

 

The clincher for me is the statement that the thirds should be as out of tune as the fifths, which is sort of what he was saying. That implies a tuning somewhere around a 1/5th or 1/6th comma meantone, where the thirds and fifths do indeed beat at approximately the same speed, which they wouldn't if ALL the fifths were only slightly narrow (flat), one or two would have to be wide to achieve that.

 

I also agree that the instructions do not necessarily describe meantone. In some instances he does refer to some of the fifths "nearer perfect than the last" or in step "4th Chord" to tune the third 5th "let its bearing be the same as in the last third in the last chord". And in the 5th chord, he asks for the third to be very fine. All this tells me that it is certainly not pure 1/5th or 1/6th comma meantone he is describing, but, exactly as you suggest, something more subtle and probably an irregular tuning, almost certainly in fact.

 

As an aside, I think the final comment is interesting, where he says "Tune all the rest in Octaves". No checking in 4ths and 5ths, nor in 3rds (which a good tuner does normally).

 

But above all it is the statement that the thirds should beat about the same as the fifths, which he seems to be suggesting, makes me think that it is some way off ET and to be sure, that cannot be achieved without one or two fifths being wide (sharp). At least, I can't see that it would be possible.

 

I am sure that the tuning as interpreted by you makes for a good multi-purpose one. I am also certain that tuners didn't work to fixed schemes, but consciously made variations and tweaks they though appropriate. I have done this many times myself, in fact.

 

For all that, in case you were wondering, I find your thoughts interesting.



#5 iy45

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Posted 24 August 2016 - 10:07 AM

Am I alone in finding this topic both bewildering and utterly fascinating?

 

Ian



#6 SL

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Posted 24 August 2016 - 11:12 AM

Am I alone in finding this topic both bewildering and utterly fascinating?

 

Ian

 

I, too, find it slightly bewildering, informative and utterly fascinating.

 

.................... and I think it is in topics such as this that the board is at its best - rather than the tittle-tattle of gossip and speculation etc.


SL (late of Kings College, Cambridge)


#7 Colin Pykett

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Posted 24 August 2016 - 11:14 AM

Am I alone in finding this topic both bewildering and utterly fascinating?

 

Ian

 

No, you are not.  It grabs me in exactly the same way!  The predictable thing about temperament is that hardly any two people agree on anything, which indicates the breadth of the subject.  Therein lies its appeal I guess.

 

CEP


"You can never know everything about something. But you can always know something about everything" - Amit Kumar

 

www.pykett.org.uk


#8 Deinonychus

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Posted 24 August 2016 - 11:32 AM

I too love this discussion. It is a fascinating topic and one that always seems to repay further discussion (probably since no one can agree, as Colin says).
I recently bought a digital harpsichord which has 5 built in temperaments, and I have learnt a lot just from playing around with them, so much so that I now wish I had an instrument which capable of programming new temperaments, rather than just being limited to the presets.




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