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Temperaments


davidh
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The vast majority of organs are now tuned in Equal Temperament. It’s easy to assume that Equal Temperament can cope reasonably well with music from all periods, and that therefore older temperaments are not really necessary.

 

We no longer use Mean Tone because most compositions written since about 1700 sound awful on a mean tone instrument.

 

It is harder to recognise that music written for mean tone sounds awful on an instrument in equal temperament.

 

It is harder to recognise because (a) mean tone is unfamiliar, and therefore, at first it sounds “wrong”, (:rolleyes: there are few instruments on which we can hear it, © we have grown accustomed to impurities in tuning, especially the major thirds, which would have absolutely unacceptable to listeners 300 or 400 years ago, (d) we not longer recognise what mixtures with pure thirds intervals can do, and (e) we no longer expect the expressive advantages of slightly unequal intervals between semitones and chords of different “tension”.

 

I have been fortunate enough to hear and (briefly) play the organ in the Pieterskerk in Leiden, with some pipes dating back to 1446. After a number of modernisations it has been returned (as far as possible) to the state in which it was left in 1643 by van Hagerbeer. Since then I have listened to recordings of music played on that instrument, and compared it with the same pieces on ET organs.

 

It’s not easy to describe the effects of different tunings, but to my ears, those in ET were in shades of grey, while those in MT were brightly, sometimes gaudily, coloured. For some examples, try :-

http://mypipeorganhobby.blogspot.com/2009/...-hagerbeer.html and especially the Sweelinck Toccata in A.

 

Now the laws of physics prescribe that we can have almost anything that we want from a temperament, but every choice which maximises some particular advantages will bring with it some matching disadvantages.

Isn’t it time to recognise that no organ can have all of the virtues, nor be ideal for all periods and styles of music. When will we have frequent opportunities to hear early music on instruments which have not been compromised by the need or the desire to play too large a repertoire?

 

(My comments don't apply only to very early instruments, but just as much to those in the recent thread about Victorian instruments.

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Sorry to be very dull and chip in - very predictable of me - but not all disadvantages need outweigh advantages. You refer only to meantone, and that's an extreme sound which for many of us forms the first introduction to systems other than ET.

 

There are an infinite number of possibilities for placing notes around the circle of fifths which bring slight key colour without making anything unuseable or unpleasant. That's where the research is needed.

 

Your initial premise is that the majority of organs are tuned in ET. I think it would be good to go around with a tuning meter and establish whether that is actually the case. Something might be *said* to be in equal temperament, but actual equal temperament (to the requisite number of decimal places to render the octave the right size) is so hard to achieve by ear that we might as well say it's impossible. Most big firms - we've heard an example of Walker's tuning, and Willis' bearing octaves are often cited too - would lay a roughly equal scale, then amend it to sound better. A great many small firms were staffed by people who had been trained by the big firms. At the very instant that 'improving' of the bearing octave occurs, you have an unequal tuning.

 

And why not - there are many more hymns and pieces in C, F, G, Bb and A than there are in F#, G# or Bb minor. (Partly, of course, this is because of the tuning system prevalent at the time of composition, and partly because of what particular composers like to do to create tension - I've given examples elsewhere.) So why not have the common keys sounding slightly nicer than they would in true ET, and the very rarest keys having what you might call added piquancy?

 

I would call that a positive advantage over equal, myself. And do not forget that it is not only early music which benefits, but increasingly scholars agree that nearly *all* music (certainly up to around 1910) came from the pen of composers who were well aware of what key flavour was for.

 

I wonder if this has anything to do with the rise of Mathias/Hindemith-esque stuff based on 4ths and 5ths?

 

I promise to go away for at least 48 hours now and not leap down anyone else's throat the moment they say anything. Promise.

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