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Absolute Pitch


davidh
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Picking up a point from another thread:

Clearly Cynic hasn't heard the Koopman recording of the B minor P & F or he might be tempted to express himself in rather less conciliatory manner. The reaction of Mr Kemp and Mr Corr and others is entirely understandable; there seem to me to be a number of factors which lead to their dismay. First, and it's not Koopman's or anyone's fault but the organ is very sharp; my own pitch memory plays me false all too often these days but it sounds closer to C sharp minor than C. This in itself can be unsettling even if you don't have pitch memory.

David Harrison

 

Absolute pitch is a blessing and a curse to those who possess it (or are possessed by it). It's as well to remember that pitch standards have varied historically and from place to place. The standard A=440 only dates from the middle of the last century.

 

There are good reasons for building concert organs and even church organs to the standard pitch if they are to be played with other instruments, and if singers are to be comfortable with accompaniments.

 

There are also very good reasons for leaving historic organs at the pitch for which they were designed and built. Too many have suffered from the hacksaw and the soldering iron, with unfortunate tonal consequences, and loss of information about historic temperaments. Pagham relates how one of Richard Bridge's organs, one of the few surviving instruments once played by Handel, had all of the tops of the pipes snipped and fitted with tuning slides.

 

If the organ at Maassluis is sharp, with respect to A=440, then that is how it should remain. Please do not adjust the organ; you are having a problem with your ears.

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From one David H to another:

 

Your memo about pitch is very well put; if your last paragraph suggests that you think that I might be in favour of altering drastically the pitch of the organ that Koopman used, then I expressed myself carelessly in my original post, for such could not have been further from my mind. Organs with non standard pitches are, as we all know, not uncommon, especially on the continent; I was merely trying to suggest that the fact of the different pitch made still have had an unsettling effect on ears not cursed with what I prefer to call pitch memory. As David points out, pitch has varied considerably over the ages though I'm not sure how valid the term "absolute" really is! Still, whatever you call it, he's dead right, it can be a flaming nuisance!

 

There are well known organs in this country which are sufficiently deviant from standard pitch as to make them difficult to use with an orchestra; certainly when I was at school in Salisbury in the late 40s and early 50s the cathedral organ could not be used thus. I last played it in October 2007 and the pitch seemed just as "bright" then as before. I assume that it is still is!

 

David Harrison

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From one David H to another:

 

Your memo about pitch is very well put; if your last paragraph suggests that you think that I might be in favour of altering drastically the pitch of the organ that Koopman used, then I expressed myself carelessly in my original post, for such could not have been further from my mind. Organs with non standard pitches are, as we all know, not uncommon, especially on the continent; I was merely trying to suggest that the fact of the different pitch made still have had an unsettling effect on ears not cursed with what I prefer to call pitch memory. As David points out, pitch has varied considerably over the ages though I'm not sure how valid the term "absolute" really is! Still, whatever you call it, he's dead right, it can be a flaming nuisance!

 

There are well known organs in this country which are sufficiently deviant from standard pitch as to make them difficult to use with an orchestra; certainly when I was at school in Salisbury in the late 40s and early 50s the cathedral organ could not be used thus. I last played it in October 2007 and the pitch seemed just as "bright" then as before. I assume that it is still is!

 

David Harrison

 

Hi

 

Perfect pitch (or pitch memory) can be a problem. I can cope with about a semitone either side of A=440 - more than that and if I'm playing things tend to fall apart because I'm not hearing the notes that I'm playing. I certainly can't use the transposers so beloved of electronic instruments.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Organs with non standard pitches are, as we all know, not uncommon, especially on the continent; I was merely trying to suggest that the fact of the different pitch made still have had an unsettling effect on ears not cursed with what I prefer to call pitch memory. As David points out, pitch has varied considerably over the ages though I'm not sure how valid the term "absolute" really is! Still, whatever you call it, he's dead right, it can be a flaming nuisance!

 

Two thoughts on this topic.

 

Working in the south of Australia, where the temperature inside our churches varies during the year from less than 10 C to over 30 C, the pitch of the organ will vary substantially, around 60 cents or so. This is, of course, a significant fraction of a semitone (100 cents). Perhaps we should think about how to train our young musicians to live with these variations in pitch.

 

As I've mentioned previously in this forum, I was organist on a 1741 Dacci instrument where we were confident that the pitch was unlikely to be substantially different from when it was built (almost half a semitone sharp of A = 440 Hz). I am amused by the insistence, in some quarters of the HIP brigade, that A - 415 Hz should be used. I attended a concert last Friday night where the Viol player insisted that the Virginals be tuned down from 440 to 415 for the performance. The Virginals were (was?) much less stable than her Viol would have been if she had tuned higher. Grrr.

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