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ajsphead

Doing justice to Victorian Organs

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I have been further investigating pitch and temperament in Victorian England with a view to more informed practice and have been left with some inescapable facts of significance. The main body of our organs in this country is predominantly Victorian, yet how many of them do we hear as their maker intended. I would wager that at least 90% of them are or claim to be tuned to equal temperament and at least half are at A440. The evidence for equal temperament prior to about 1895 is not strong, certainly not as strong as well temperament like Moore or a Broadwood type or the earlier Young types. Looking at the disposition of thirds in particular, in some of the better known temperaments of the period, I feel confident that our Victorian organ sound is a lot duller by virtue of tuning than theirs was. There has been much made of pre 19th century temperament for organs, but seemingly very little for 1850-1900 when most instruments were made - unseen by most, but by weight of numbers alone, a glaring omission resulting in an unnecessary dull period oeuvre with associated comment. Even the best that we laud now might be better still.

 

Time to move the industry on to tune Victorian organs in a period well temperament or something like EBVT. As they are so usable and colourful without dissonance it might start to educate a whole generation and more to the sound they should be hearing and producing depending on which side of the coin they are rather than plodding acceptance of the norm, which is easy but not particularly defensible. Artistic piano tuners can manage it, so why can't more organ builders. There are clearly associated repertoire implications as well which others might wish to take forward.

 

As for pitch, the period was one of great flux, but it has been interesting looking at the chosen regular pitches of our major makers, sadly without temperature modulation but we can take an educated approach about that. Some serious education of users is necessary as many seem unaware of the implications of temperature differentials between then and now, and the effect on instruments. Seeing so many instruments with pitch dogmatically changed to A440 at 18'C without knowledge of the building heating, organ position and makers historical intention (sometimes equating to A440@18, so we can't be too quick to criticise), with pipes tuned by all manner of externally applied means where for example a simple change to A444 at 16'C would settle everything down. There's enough change in scale between the 2 to hear a difference too.

 

So our major body of instruments are very likely not to sound the way they should - on the dull and less interesting side - by virtue of enforced standardisation.

 

Just a few thoughts for now.

 

AJS

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Time to move the industry on to tune Victorian organs in a period well temperament or something like EBVT. As they are so usable and colourful without dissonance it might start to educate a whole generation and more to the sound they should be hearing and producing depending on which side of the coin they are rather than plodding acceptance of the norm, which is easy but not particularly defensible. Artistic piano tuners can manage it, so why can't more organ builders. There are clearly associated repertoire implications as well which others might wish to take forward.

 

I've been surprised to find nobody has yet replied to this. Time for some volunteers to create an updated version of the cassette which came with the Padgham book - perhaps a CD of Bach, Mendelssohn, Karg Elert, Reger and Messiaen, the same pieces on three or four different instruments in different tunings.

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Your surprise at no-one yet replying to this is probably because most of us are not at all familiar with the differences in Victorian temperaments - indeed this post leaves me perplexed!

 

I was under the impression that by the latter years of the 19th Century equal temperament had become standard - but here my thoughts are contradicted. I did hear that the organ at St Georges Hall Liverpool was originally built with a temperament which seemed old fashioned, no doubt by the insistence of S S Wesley. I thought equal temperament in pipe organs was becoming standard at around this time. Look at what the contributors (sometimes wise and sometimes not...) of wikipedia have to say:

 

"The progress of Equal Temperament from mid-18th century on is described with detail in quite a few modern scholarly publications: it was already the temperament of choice during the Classical era (second half of the 18th century), and it became standard during the Early Romantic era (first decade of the 19th century), except for organs that switched to it more gradually, completing only in the second decade of the 19th century. (In England, some cathedral organists and choirmasters held out against it even after that date; Samuel Sebastian Wesley, for instance, opposed it all along. He died in 1876."

 

I don't have the knowledge to contradict AJS's post, but I would like to see some clear evidence behind these opinions.

 

The comments on tuning and tone are very valid of course, and I would advise anyone to think carefully before altering the pitch of an organ - ie is it really necessary for you needs? In some cases it is - Chester Cathedral was apparently more than a semi tone sharp until its pitch was altered in 1970. Rumour has it that Roger Fishers predecessors were all expert transposers!

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I was under the impression that by the latter years of the 19th Century equal temperament had become standard - but here my thoughts are contradicted. I did hear that the organ at St Georges Hall Liverpool was originally built with a temperament which seemed old fashioned, no doubt by the insistence of S S Wesley. I thought equal temperament in pipe organs was becoming standard at around this time. Look at what the contributors (sometimes wise and sometimes not...) of wikipedia have to say:

 

"The progress of Equal Temperament from mid-18th century on is described with detail in quite a few modern scholarly publications: it was already the temperament of choice during the Classical era (second half of the 18th century), and it became standard during the Early Romantic era (first decade of the 19th century), except for organs that switched to it more gradually, completing only in the second decade of the 19th century. (In England, some cathedral organists and choirmasters held out against it even after that date; Samuel Sebastian Wesley, for instance, opposed it all along. He died in 1876."

Wikipedia doesn't tell the whole story. I think (and I may be wrong) it's generally agreed by the experts that exact equal temperament was probably not used practically until the early C20; even when tuners thought they were tuning pianos or organs to ET there were some intervals that were more equal than others.

 

It's certainly tempting to draw a parallel between the introduction of ET to the organ and the disuse of mutations and upperwork, I suspect not only in England or the UK.

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This is worth a visit - plenty of 19th-century options under 'Well', 'Victorian Well' and 'Quasi-Equal'

 

And read about Taylor & Boody's Op.65 here, in 'English Cathedral' temperament, laid by ear with sweetened thirds.

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This is a very interesting subject but one that very few people know much about. I think it is a very difficult subject because we know of so little evidence.

 

I think it would make a good subject for a research paper, maybe under the aegis of BIOS or an academic institution. I think a good deal of practical tuning knowledge would be an asset for anyone considering taking up the subject.

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When I were but a lad I was a key holder for Walkers for a couple of years. One of the men I worked with would lay the 'bearings' on the Great Principal, then would 'ease the temper'. I'm not quite sure what he meant, but I assume he was tuning to not-quite-equal temperament. It's a long time ago now, but when I asked him why I think I recall correctly that he said that pure equal temperament didn't sound quite right, and adjusting it slightly improved the sound of the Organ. I don't think he'd heard of the fancy names for various tuning methods bandied around here, but seemed to have found his own way to what I suspect is a very similar result.

 

Regards to all

 

John

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Thanks Ian B for providing some information - that made for interesting reading.

 

To be honest... some of these Victorian "Well temperaments" are so close to equal, I'm inclined to think that few would notice the difference... The website Ian kindly directed us to says that the maths for equal temperament wasn't fully worked out until 1911, so therefore it makes sense that anything before that is not quite equal.

 

These Victorian temperaments (eg Moore, Broadwood) are in a different world completely (ie much more close to equal and acceptable in every key) from the modified meantone ones, and even early 'Well' temperaments that we all think of when we think about 'unequal' temperament. I think Portheads original post would have given me less surprise if he had explained the developing history a little further...

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Thanks Ian B for providing some information - that made for interesting reading.

 

To be honest... some of these Victorian "Well temperaments" are so close to equal, I'm inclined to think that few would notice the difference... The website Ian kindly directed us to says that the maths for equal temperament wasn't fully worked out until 1911, so therefore it makes sense that anything before that is not quite equal.

 

These Victorian temperaments (eg Moore, Broadwood) are in a different world completely (ie much more close to equal and acceptable in every key) from the modified meantone ones, and even early 'Well' temperaments that we all think of when we think about 'unequal' temperament. I think Portheads original post would have given me less surprise if he had explained the developing history a little further...

 

Proper, mathematically perfect equal temperament is simply vile. (That's why just about everyone gets near it, goes 'ugh' and sorts out the thirds of the white keys slightly.) That doesn't mean that something 'not far off' should be referred to as equal - that's where anyone attempting to unpick the mud will run into difficulty. The definition of 'well' temperament is one which can be played acceptably in any key, so the stuff Broadwood and others were doing would technically come into that category.

 

I think the Padgham work has circulated a little knowledge, and that's a dangerous thing; it only gives half a dozen or so 'well' temperaments and all of them quite early ones, and therefore most people's (mine included) early experience of the terminology was of well temperaments in the medium to hot category rather than serious attempts to make all keys usable whilst making modulations interesting - and thirds bearably slow or pure.

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If Bach (and others) wrote for 'well tempered' temperaments, wouldn't it be more authentic to play these on an organ tuned to one of these temperaments? Of course, do we know for certain which specific temperament Bach wrote for?

 

Then, of course, if an organ is tuned to one temperament, perhaps that is good for Bach, but not for other composers.

 

Personally, I feel that a 'well tempered' option would be preferable on the grounds that each key would sound different (whereas in equal temperament they all sound the same, apart from pitch). The downside, needless to say, would be that certain keys would be at best less than perfect and at worst unusable.

 

If playing along with orchestras or other instruments, there would have to be some agreement for them to re-tune to fit in with the organ.

 

The easiest option, of course, would be for everyone to continue to use equal temperament, but I feel that something of colour is missing!

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The downside [of using a well temperament instead of equal] would be that certain keys would be at best less than perfect and at worst unusable.

 

Perhaps I'm misreading but this appears to equate ET with 'perfect'. A major third in equal temperament is an extremely fast beat which is some way beyond the bounds of acceptability to most ears. However, our ears have learnt to accept it because there's nothing to readily compare it with. Having one stop tuned differently for a time, as I did, brought this home and even to me (who is used to it) the shock of returning to an ET third was profound and extremely unpleasant.

 

In most well temperaments, and even meantones, at least half the keys are purer than ET. The better the good ones are, then the worse the bad ones will be. Isn't that rather the point of writing emotion into music?

 

So, we can't pursue perfection, because that's impossible; so do we settle for a mathematically neat but aurally anodyne status quo, or pursue something better which works? 50 years ago, 'bending the tuning' would have been handed on to apprentices; in this age of tuning meters, only the instructions are followed.

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Perhaps I'm misreading but this appears to equate ET with 'perfect'. A major third in equal temperament is an extremely fast beat which is some way beyond the bounds of acceptability to most ears. However, our ears have learnt to accept it because there's nothing to readily compare it with. Having one stop tuned differently for a time, as I did, brought this home and even to me (who is used to it) the shock of returning to an ET third was profound and extremely unpleasant.

 

In most well temperaments, and even meantones, at least half the keys are purer than ET. The better the good ones are, then the worse the bad ones will be. Isn't that rather the point of writing emotion into music?

 

So, we can't pursue perfection, because that's impossible; so do we settle for a mathematically neat but aurally anodyne status quo, or pursue something better which works? 50 years ago, 'bending the tuning' would have been handed on to apprentices; in this age of tuning meters, only the instructions are followed.

 

I agree. I didn't mean to imply that ET is perfect; I'm well aware that thirds are 'way out', but that we have become accustomed to them. This also, as I think has been mentioned, has implications with regard to the use of mutations, especially in chords. I'd be more than happy if everyone* adopted one of the 'better' well temperaments for the reasons I said. There would be at least one key which will be unpleasant or even unusable, though, but I suppose that if a piece of music happens to be written in that key one option would be simply to transpose it.

 

(*Assuming that instrumentalists or orchestras intend to play along with the organ.)

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There would be at least one key which will be unpleasant or even unusable, though...

 

Oh, I'm sure we'll get used to it - just as we got used to ET!

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I have encountered one injustice over a number of years that has taken much sparkle and personality from such instruments - namely the swathes of fitted carpets that seem to adorn sic sanctuaries, chancels, naves and aisles, not to mention the abundance of needlework hassocks and pew liners. The 'Vierne' organ in my local town lost a vast percentage of clout after the whole (large) church was completely carpeted. This coupled together with a necessary rebuild, made the church scrap it in favour of purchasing a second-hand organ of roughly the same vintage and remodelling it to suit - with (in my estimation), little difference. Gothic architecture and A1 Axminster to my mind don't marry. What it does for ambiance is murderous.

N

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I have encountered one injustice over a number of years that has taken much sparkle and personality from such instruments - namely the swathes of fitted carpets that seem to adorn sic sanctuaries, chancels, naves and aisles, not to mention the abundance of needlework hassocks and pew liners. The 'Vierne' organ in my local town lost a vast percentage of clout after the whole (large) church was completely carpeted. This coupled together with a necessary rebuild, made the church scrap it in favour of purchasing a second-hand organ of roughly the same vintage and remodelling it to suit - with (in my estimation), little difference. Gothic architecture and A1 Axminster to my mind don't marry. What it does for ambiance is murderous.

N

 

 

This is so very true! I used to play for a lot of funerals at a church in Portadown, Northern Ireland. At one point, the place got rather shaken up by a nearby terrorist bomb. After renovation, the acoustic was quite reasonable, but shortly afterwards they put down carpets and the difference was immense. It was never a favourite organ of mine (apologies to Double Ophicleide, who will know which one I mean!), but it sounded a damn sight better without the carpet.

 

The late Chris Gordon-Wells told me that he once encountered a Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland where even the inside of the organ was carpeted.

 

Belfast Cathedral (St. Anne's) once had red carpet in the Quire. Then we made a CD with the Choir standing on the marble floor between the stalls and the altar rail. When the Dean heard the difference, he was amazed, and the following Sunday hauled me into the Quire where he started pulling up the corners of the carpet. Two days later, the carpet was gone (it was recycled for the office floor) and the wooden floor had been professionally finished. Dean Shearer didn't hang about when he had decided something needed to be done. The improvement was very apparent - Belfast choir-stalls are very far apart, have no backs and the ceiling is 90' up, so it was a difficult space to work in chorally. A few years later, a marble floor replaced the wood, but oddly enough it didn't seem to make any difference.

 

Here in St. John's, the local RC Basilica recently carpeted throughout. It hasn't helped the acoustic at all and it looks incongruous. And they're always complaining about how badly off they are.....

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In most well temperaments, and even meantones, at least half the keys are purer than ET. The better the good ones are, then the worse the bad ones will be. Isn't that rather the point of writing emotion into music?

But, in most non-equal temperaments, the triads with the purer thirds are also the triads with the narrowest fifths, so it is difficult to see how "at least half the keys are purer than ET" Unfortunately, our ears are more sensitive to narrow fifths than they are to wide thirds.

 

Having said that, as someone who regularly tunes and performs in a variety of non-equal temperaments on harpsichord, and for years played for a church on an organ with close to 1/4 comma meantone, I am a very strong supporter of historic temperaments.

 

This is a topic that has appeared previously on this forum, so the search engine is your friend. For a serious start to understanding 19th century tuning, I'd begin by reading "Tuning : containing the perfection of eighteenth-century temperament, the lost art of nineteenth-century temperament, and the science of equal temperament, complete with instructions for aural and electronic tuning" by Owen H. Jorgensen. Try you local University library.

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Here in St. John's, the local RC Basilica recently carpeted throughout. It hasn't helped the acoustic at all and it looks incongruous. And they're always complaining about how badly off they are.....

 

 

=========================

 

What do they need carpets for?

 

Do they allow small children (Rug Rats) to roll and crawl upon them?

 

We need a strategy........"Health & Safety" instantly springs to mind.

 

Tell them about carpets harbouring fleas when people go to church with their (Newfounland?) Guide dogs.

 

Then there's the danger of bacterial infection and the expense of cleaning acres of the stuff.

 

Tell them that there is a risk of tripping over carpets edges, and that blind people use cracks in stone floors as an aid.

 

Then there's the fire hazard of carpets and underlay.

 

Microfibres are also dangerous to health and cause breathing difficulties.

 

Synthetic carpet also generates static electricity, and could cause pacenakers to fail, resulting in huge potential litigation claims.

 

If, against all advice, they go ahead and lay carpet, pay a trusted youth with a history of criminal damage, to obtain super-glue, and run around the church spilling it at various points. (This will destroy the carpet completely and create super-hard patches and streaks which are impossible to remove).

 

If they don't like it, tell them to shove off to the Pentecostalists who gather at the local cinema.

 

Bing back stone floors and a bit of hay scattered around, like they used to have before they invented pews and other types of church seating.

 

MM

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=========================

 

Bing back stone floors and a bit of hay scattered around, like they used to have before they invented pews and other types of church seating.

 

MM

 

Hear, hear.

 

Standing throughout a service is good for the soul!

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This is so very true! I used to play for a lot of funerals at a church in Portadown, Northern Ireland. At one point, the place got rather shaken up by a nearby terrorist bomb. After renovation, the acoustic was quite reasonable, but shortly afterwards they put down carpets and the difference was immense. It was never a favourite organ of mine (apologies to Double Ophicleide, who will know which one I mean!), but it sounded a damn sight better without the carpet.

 

HA! I know you never quite liked that particular instrument and I understand why. I still do a concert there every Christmas and it frustrates me no end. It's about to have the soundboards renovated as the runnings have become unbearable. Unfortunately the church has no money to do more. The organ builder (WK) proposed new soundboards with some tonal alterations/additions that might have addressed some of the short comings but alas its not to be!

 

The carpet was always there BTW (well at least since the 70's) but it was taken out for the renovations. The few weeks we had without it after we moved back in were glorious and made a real difference to the organ and the choir whose sound carried so much better down the church. Wish I had recorded it at that time!

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