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Meantone, Mozart fantasias and a revised approach to tonality

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Please forgive me for what is likely to be a very rough introduction to a thread which could probably be introduced more elegantly.

As some know, I have an interest in tuning pianos, indeed an obsession, and this leads me into discussions beyond the confines of organs. Another tuner pointed a piano group to a curiosity of tuning - https://toposmedia.bandcamp.com/album/niels-lyhne-l-kkegaard-a-major-third-consists-of-9-different-notes-for-30-saxophones which personally I have found excruciating. I used to find Messiaen likewise but perhaps when we hear 

 we can appreciate him more.

Some time ago I was asked to talk to the friends of the London Mozart players and 

https://www.academia.edu/37951978/THE_COLOUR_OF_MUSIC_IN_MOZARTS_TIME_A_journey_from_Couperin_to_Chopin_Examination_of_reconstruction_of_Mozart_Fantasias_K594_and_K608_for_Mechanical_Clock resulted, which I hope that members might find interesting.

My interest in Meantone

then led into an investigation into an 18th century barrel organ formerly at the Colt Collection. 

 is a recording of some Handel, and at some stage I'll put on YT the recordings of the two recorded Handel Organ Concertos.

This gave clues as to what Mozart was writing for in terms of his organ fantasias for mechanical clock. Modern performances are so very different to the instrument and context for which Mozart was writing. Contemporary accounts refer to the mechanical clock giving the impression of a couple of flutes and a bassoon. Obviously a short-resonator reed would have been necessary for the bass and at the Colt Collection was a piano-organ, the organ using stopped pipes to save space.

So I decided to simulate the Mozart Fantasias as if to be pinned on the Holland Barrel Organ with the addition of extra reeds in the bass.

In the 18th century inter-European communication was more widespread than we give credit for, as exemplified by Dr Burney's travels. Looking at barrel organs on YouTube has given opportunities for armchair comparison unavailable to previous generations. As a result I surmise that reproducing mechanisms had elements of standardisation, and as such I assumed that the barrel diameter, surface rotation speed and time of 10 or so revolutions in the Austrian clock might not be very different to that of the barrels of the Holland instrument.

And in the 1930s Scholes asked the question of how Dr Burney's piano, in meantone, might have performed the Bach 48.

The secret might well be in the use of stopped ranks for the far keys. And interestingly, an 1859 Broadwood piano 

demonstrates surprising tonal resilience to tuning in Kirnberger III

So in the resulting lecture a friend demonstrated what should have been the worst of Bach 48

And the trouble with meantone is in choosing the wrong stops

but when used with the right stops can be particularly expressive of emotion - 

Thanks to all the performers who have gone through years of experimentation with me.

Best wishes

David P







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Quite fascinating. Thank you David P. Birdsong and Messiaen - the connexions are obvious. It's one thing to read about them in programme notes, but quite another to have them displayed thus.

I find these Mozarts a revelation. I like 594 and 608 very much, though the allegro of 594 is to my fingers fiendish, and hearing them performed thus has changed my view of them completely. Having been as a young lad bowled over by the Rawthorne GCOS inflation - great fun and exciting, I'm not knocking it - I see how they fizz and bubble when played like this. I've been interested in temperament ever since a trip to Norden, Neuenfelde and Stralsund when I experienced how much easier it is to make Buxtehude and Bruhns and Tunder sound exciting on those instruments than it is on our boring ET ones. Thank you.

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Thanks - and glad the examples are interesting.

It was especially fascinating to research the origin and context of these pieces and to see how, as originally conceived, they were masterworks of mood-music to accompany the art-installation for which they were conceived. Worthy of The Tate, the installation and accompanying music would be hailed as complete genius but at the time only a matter of curiosity. For anyone with the time and inclination, if anyone downloads the paper, I've detailed this there, and given further leads around and beyond the subject including a bibliographic history of research and publication.

For anyone with organ simulation facilities I do urge trying out repertoire you think you know and on types of instruments both familiar and unfamiliar, in different temperaments. In my view there are three families of temperament

  •  equal and pseudo equal, including Vallotti which I can rarely distinguish as being unequal (this has 6 perfect fifths)
  • Kellner, which I consider to be well behaved Wohltemperiert and Kirnberger III which moves towards the strength of Meantone but is more subtle
  • Werkmeister III which I have personally found to be extreme, and Meantone, WIII with 8 perfect 5ths and Meantone with 8 perfect 3rds.

We've experimented also using the ease with which harpsichords can be retuned - so here Kellner

and different instruments in different tunings


and here using the Rameau temperament

Here meantone - 

The research and recordings owe much gratitude not only to performers, here Alexandra Kremakova, but also to Michael Gamble who was keyboard technician for Glyndebourne for two decades but who started out life working for HN&B and it has been with his help, interest and encouragement that these instruments have been able to be brought into working condition.

One of my favourite performances demonstrating the landmarks that a well-tempered instrument provides in the music is 

I'm not sure which tuning is used here . . . . but it's likely to be Meantone which I've usually used on this instrument

An interesting comparison was with another performer on all three instruments, the small Sperrhake receiving benefit from the resonance of 7 perfect fifths enabling the sound to build to something more than the sum of its parts, really as an organ should.

This is where organs in acoustics able to support the instrument benefit from resonant tuning to build power rather than merely the high wind pressures of brute force that we saw in late 19th century and 20th century instruments.

Apologies for giving possibly too much to listen to, but it's a distillation of long exploration.

Best wishes

David P


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