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S S Wesley and temperament


Colin Pykett
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I don't know whether this has already been discussed - I've tried searching the forum but there are too many hits coming up to make it practical to look further.

My question is straightforward though.  Wesley is sometimes said to have disliked the move towards equal temperament in the 19th century, yet quite a lot of his output would sound curious (euphemism) if played on any of the meantones he would probably have come across and which some say he preferred.  Take his famous Larghetto in F# minor.  This comes over rather badly in quarter-comma meantone, assuming the Wolf interval is placed as per convention.  His Larghetto in F minor is even worse.  Things are not much better in 5th or 6th comma meantone (though these two are pretty much the same thing for practical purposes).

F# minor would have been playable on the French Temperaments Ordinaires, though F minor would probably have repelled the ear.  However both keys are better intonated in the following:

Werckmeister III

Kirnberger II and III

Neidhardt I

Vallotti

Young (almost a copy of Vallotti, but 70 years later)

What does this tell us?  Maybe the key centres used by tuners of meantone on the organs he played were different in those days, so that the Wolf appeared elsewhere around the circle of 5ths?  Or were meantone and other forms of unequal tuning not as prevalent at that time in England as some maintain?  Or is it the cop-out answer that we we simply do not know enough about the temperaments in use then?  If the latter, is it possible that studying what composers wrote would provide useful clues?

Trying to answer the question is complicated in that - stating the obvious - it's not just the root key which matters but the keys into which he modulates as well.

Or maybe Wesley couldn't really have cared much about temperament, contrary to what popular belief suggests?

 

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A question that has long puzzled me.

Wesley was nothing if not inconsistent, so that may be part of an explanation.

Your “cop-out” point is very valid, however. If we had truly accurate knowledge perhaps it would be less puzzling.

Another possibility is that Wesley may well have disliked equal temperament, but since it was becoming more common nevertheless wrote for it. Wouldn’t be the first person simultaneously to object to, yet in his practice accept, an innovation.

Less plausibly, perhaps he found the horrid sounds in meantone of those compositions you allude to somehow (in his own eccentric way) more tolerable than the way everything is slightly off in equal temperament.

 

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We need to bear in mind that Wesley was born in the era of G compass organs with limited pedals (where they existed at all) tuned in mean-tone, and Hereford Cathedral organ was one such when he was appointed there as early as 1832.  Doubtless he would not have looked on those features as limitations when he composed “The Wilderness”.

Wesley still insisted on G compass and mean-tone tuning as late as 1855 at St George’s Hall, Liverpool (although Henry Willis baulked at the GGG pedals and imposed a C compass for them).  Willis, I believe, had his own tuning scales (and the firm still does) so it’s not clear to me what the tuning would have been at the Great Exhibition 1851 or at Winchester Cathedral where, in 1854, Wesley was the organist and responsible for the acquisition of the organ, now with wholly C compass.  Rightly or wrongly, I have always assumed it was not tuned in mean-tone.  

I think a probably fairer summary of Wesley would be that he was largely fixed in his ways while living through rapidly changing times.

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16 hours ago, Dafydd y Garreg Wen said:

[...]

Wesley may well have disliked equal temperament, but since it was becoming more common nevertheless wrote for it. Wouldn’t be the first person simultaneously to object to, yet in his practice accept, an innovation.

 

 

15 hours ago, Rowland Wateridge said:

[...]

I think a probably fairer summary of Wesley would be that he was largely fixed in his ways while living through rapidly changing times.

Thank you both for taking the trouble to reply.  I particularly like the two pragmatic suggestions quoted above.  In the absence of more specific information I feel they pretty much explain the situation.

 

 

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An article about SS Wesley in the Musical Times of 1 Jul 1900 has a footnote which says that Wesley's views on temperament were set out in detail in three letters he wrote the Musical Standard in 1863 (issues of 1 Apr, 1 Jul, and 1 Dec).

Sadly, a simple search on jstor for Musical Standard as a publication name netted me no hits.  The Dictionary of National Biography gives the quote  ‘The practice of tuning organs by equal temperament is, in my humble opinion, most erroneous’, attributing it to similar dates: (Musical Standard, 1 April 1863 p. 242, 15 June 1863 p. 321, 1 July 1863 p. 337).

Paul

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My wife showed me how to search the Bodleian (to which I have a login) properly, and I found the letters concerned (three from Wesley, and one reply).  The image-based PDF files are too big to upload here, so you can get them from my server instead.

Paul

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That's amazing, Paul.  Thank you very much - it's precisely the sort of material I had hoped might be found somewhere.

I'll need to reread it all, but several points stand out so far:

1. Wesley wasn't talking merely about mildly unequal temperaments but quite explicitly about those with a pronounced Wolf such as 4th or 6th comma meantone (Silbermann's temperament).

2. He wrote words to the effect that the organist should simply stop playing when things get too unbearable. (!)

3. Also that choice of key is sometimes dictated by the tessitura of the singers rather than what might sound best on the organ - fair enough of itself.

Yet he also wrote solo music for the organ which, seemingly deliberately, uses the worst keys as my original post pointed out.  Why?  This problem remains unresolved from what I've just read in Wesley's letters.  I suppose it might be simply that one's ears become more tolerant of what one has grown up with.  To him it seems that Wolf intervals were part and parcel of musical life, whereas they hit us harder when we come across them today.  ET is the reverse - his ear rebelled against it because he wasn't used to it, whereas we are habituated to it from childhood.

I've just tried playing his Larghetto in F# minor in meantone on a digital organ.  Ouch - it's just awful.  But I have to respect what Wesley, as a great musician, said in those letters.  It's up to me to try and understand his position better, rather than reject it out of hand.

Regardless of all this, he wrote some lovely stuff, which is why I wanted to understand a bit more of where he was coming from.

Thanks again to all who have helped in this.

 

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Thank you likewise, Paul, for tracking down these letters and making them available. Highly illuminating.

4 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

 I suppose it might be simply that one's ears become more tolerant of what one has grown up with.  To him it seems that Wolf intervals were part and parcel of musical life, whereas they hit us harder when we come across them today.  ET is the reverse - his ear rebelled against it because he wasn't used to it, whereas we are habituated to it from childhood.

This is very close to what Wesley says in his second letter (cf. my final (“less plausible”!) suggestion):

What, I ask, is the use of heaping together a lot of out-of-tune passages, as though we were not already well aware of the defects of organ tuning? Who ignores the terrible quality of the wolf. By accepting the wolf we get a great deal in very excellent tune, and we do not wholly destroy the good qualities of our organs as to tone and voicing. By equal temperament, we get everything of the kind so tempered with that the organ almost ceases to be a source of any pleasure. We get nothing good tune and the sensible ear has rest.

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Continuing to grind away at this, there's a brief reference to Wesley in the article 'Temperament and Pitch' by Christopher Kent (in 'The Cambridge Companion to the Organ'):

"Apparent opposition [to the increasing use of ET] came from the mature S S Wesley (1810-76), in whose organ music there are some harmonically ambitious contexts that may arguably be related to an irregular and unrestrained temperament.  Examples include the Prelude and Fugue in C# minor, Larghetto in F# minor, and bb. 57-65 and 85-8 of the Andante in F."

It is difficult to make more of this remark without further explanatory detail, however.

Later on he continues:

"However, it was typical of Wesley's contradictory personality to write passages in his early anthems  ... which suggest that he may have been acquiescent towards equal temperament, as in The Wilderness (bb. 122-7), composed in 1832 for the re-opening of the organ in Hereford Cathedral ... yet it is known that at this time the instrument had not been tuned to equal temperament".

There is an interesting and readable article available on the internet entitled "Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Organ Compositions" by R J Stove, given in October 2016 at the Musicological Society of Australia’s Victorian Chapter Symposium.

See:

https://www.academia.edu/29170846/POST-BACH_AND_POST-MENDELSSOHN_SAMUEL_SEBASTIAN_WESLEYS_ORGAN_COMPOSITIONS_Footnoted_version_of_talk_

He also picks up on Kent's article mentioned above, while remarking "that's as maybe; I'm not myself convinced".

 

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Thank you for the interesting Stove article.

On a pedantic note, this bit is not quite right: “It’s sadly typical of Wesley that unlike almost every other church musician of consequence in Victorian Britain, he never had the smallest chance of obtaining a knighthood (although his widow did obtain a pension, by royal command).”
 

As discussed recently in another thread, Wesley was offered a choice of either a knighthood or a civil list pension and opted for the money, but didn’t live to enjoy it for very long. Exceptionally his widow was allowed to continue to receive the pension.

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I also noted that (a fellow pedant?)!  

In fact there is an earlier thread with considerable discussion of “Choral Song and Fugue” and how it should be performed.  I recall someone suggesting that they were two separate works which had conventionally come to be played together.  I think a relevant question remains: how would they have sounded on the organs which Wesley on a day to day basis played: Winchester and Gloucester.  Did they have ‘standard’ Willis tuning at those dates?  Willis was the builder in both cases.  Incidentally, mention of all of the organs at the Great Exhibition except one being tuned to mean-tone begs the question: which one?  Was it the Willis?  There were foreign exhibitors including Ducroquet from France and, most notably, Edmund Schulze from Germany. 

We have also previously discussed knighthoods for organists.  Without going into statistics, my impression is that Queen Victoria bestowed more than any subsequent monarch, allowing, of course, that hers was the longest reign until our present Queen.

I think Mr Stove is a little unkind to Wesley in his comparisons with W T Best.  Best was undoubtedly the foremost virtuoso concert organist of his era, giving two recitals per week at St George’s Hall, Liverpool.  But Wesley’s background was very different, deeply grounded in composing extensively for the church and involved in the Three Choirs’ Festival.  In his old age, enjoying almost a semi-retirement at Gloucester, people were astounded by his improvisations in the style of Bach.  

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Dafydd and Rowland - describing yourselves as pedants underestimates the value of what you have said!  The whole point is to get as near to the truth as possible in a subject which (like much musicology) is necessarily 'soft' rather than 'hard' - and this is not a criticism.  So it is valuable to identify and marshall as many facts as possible, and I'm grateful that you and other contributors to this thread have taken so much time and trouble to do it.

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I said above that "I've just tried playing his Larghetto in F# minor in meantone ... it's just awful."  Well, sorry, but it is - you hit the most dreadful dissonance as early as bar 3!  It hurts the ear. Those who enjoy poking around in the arithmetic will know why.  So although I love Wesley's contribution to Victorian culture, I can't understand how even he, attuned as he might have been to a temperament which we seldom encounter today, could have justified it as robustly as he did.  I wonder what his listeners thought of it?

Why didn't he just notate it up a semitone in G minor?  This is one of the 9 very good keys in 4th (quarter), 5th and 6th comma meantones, all of them intonated far better than in equal temperament.  If he wanted to demonstrate the beauty of an unequal temperament, surely this would have been one way to do it?  (But don't ask me to transpose it at sight, or even with practice, please ... )

I think the answer to this question is that it is actually meaningless.  In a piece such as this with its richly varying harmonic texture, with keys constantly coming and going as it modulates continuously and evanescently through one to the next, even rooting it in G minor would still expose some of the poor keys in meantone from time to time.  But you can play it more successfully in F# minor by selecting one of the less extreme unequal temperaments ('well temperaments') which I listed above, such as Werckmeister III.  By doing this you will then get the benefit of the spectrum of key colours which this temperament offers while not offending the ear overmuch.

Wesley might not have been familiar with such temperaments, and if so, it merely confirms how far behind continental Europe we in Britain were at that time.  He seemed to view the temperament issue as consisting solely of temperaments with Wolf intervals (the meantones) at one extreme and the blandness of ET at the other, with nothing inbetween.

But notwithstanding all this, his Larghetto is sublimely beautiful, to me at any rate.  That's all that matters.  Thank you, SS!

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Colin, I can’t claim to have any expertise in this.  I have read that the Larghetto is penitential in character.  We know that it was written in 1840 while Wesley was at Leeds Parish Church (now Minster) and at that date we cannot be certain about the tuning of the organ there other than it would have been some kind of meantone.  But I believe the Larghetto was written for (and possibly dedicated to) Lady Acland, known to Wesley as a former pupil, and later patron, from his earlier days at Exeter, who had a chamber organ at her Devon home.  I suspect that there have been different editions with later ones (which might eliminate unwanted dissonances) for performance on even temperament tunings.  Without wishing to appear rude (!), what edition were you playing from in meantone on your home organ?  

I’m doubtful that Wesley would have written unintended dissonances.  I’m sure that someone, somewhere, must have written a scholarly work on this subject - which might yet turn up!

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Not rude at all Rowland!  On the contrary, thank you for the additional background - most interesting.  I use a Novello edition of 1947 'edited' (perhaps meaning 'arranged'?) by H A Chambers.  I think this might be quite widely used, judging by sundry performances I have on CD (including one recorded at a certain Cambridge college chapel) as well as some youtube ones (the one by Diane Bish springs to mind if I'm not mistaken but I haven't listened to it recently).  But I'm told there are other editions around where there are some small differences, e.g. in tied, or not tied, notes here and there.  There is an edition on IMSLP which I have but don't play from, mainly because it is awkwardly laid out with the left hand split between the bottom two staves together with the pedal notes.  This also suggests different registrations to the Novello one.  As far as I can see there is no indication of its provenance on the IMSLP download I have printed out, in terms of which publisher it was or who edited it or even when it was published.  But as to differences between the editions in the actual notes printed, which might feed through into dissonances or otherwise, I haven't detected any of these - though I haven't gone through the pages with that intention I must admit.

I agree that a definitive scholarly pronouncement on these matters would fill a gap here.  I think there are at least two substantial Wesley biographies, neither of which I've read, though I wonder if they (being biographies with so much else to talk about) would go into the level of detail necessary about each and every organ composition?  There are also a number of lesser works, including one entitled 'A Centenary Memoir' dated 1976 by Betty Matthews which was on sale in Winchester cathedral around that time.  But this is little more than a pamphlet, interesting and readable though it is, but it does not address these detailed matters of course.

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On 02/03/2022 at 22:35, Rowland Wateridge said:
On 02/03/2022 at 22:35, Rowland Wateridge said:

In fact there is an earlier thread with considerable discussion of “Choral Song and Fugue” and how it should be performed.  I recall someone suggesting that they were two separate works which had conventionally come to be played together.  I think a relevant question remains: how would they have sounded on the organs which Wesley on a day to day basis played: Winchester and Gloucester.  Did they have ‘standard’ Willis tuning at those dates?  Willis was the builder in both cases.  Incidentally, mention of all of the organs at the Great Exhibition except one being tuned to mean-tone begs the question: which one?  Was it the Willis?  There were foreign exhibitors including Ducroquet from France and, most notably, Edmund Schulze from Germany. 

 

Alexander Ellis (1814-1890) says in an appendix to his translation of Helmholtz On the Sensations of Tone, 2ndEd, 1885; “In 1851, at the Great Exhibition, no English organ was tuned in equal temperament, but the only German organ exhibited (Schulze’s) was so tuned.”

On the matter of Henry Willis and unequal temperaments, we do not have an opinion from him. We might infer something from the fact that the 1842 Gray & Davison organ at Hoxton, Christ Church, where Willis was organist from 1839 to 1860, was tuned in unequal temperament. Willis assumed the tuning of the organ (from G & D) after 1851, but in 1861, after Willis had resigned his post, it reverted to G & D who cleaned and overhauled the instrument and introduced a ‘new system of tuning’ (Hoxton, Churchwardens’ accounts) after 1871. Willis therefore cheerfully played an organ tuned to an unequal temperament for 21 years when he probably could, if it pleased him, have brought it to equal temperament at any point. I am inclined to think that Willis had, at this stage, no opinion on the matter. If the Client wanted ET, as didn't Wesley at St George’s Hall, then they should have it. 

In his letter of 26 November, 1856 to William Bower, organist of Leeds, Holy Trinity, complaining of his treatment in the musical press, Wesley says … ‘The equal temperament both Willis and I are of opinion will not do for organs’. Wesley explains that the matter was tested at the St George’s Hall by Willis tuning one Open Diapason rank at an unequal [presumably conventional] temperament and another at ET. ‘The latter was vastly inferior, indeed destructive…’. I have no doubt that Willis happily if insincerely agreed with Wesley as he had issues with him on other matters, and that he was in fact not of the opinion that ET ‘will not do for organs’.

Initially, both Winchester and Gloucester had unequal temperament tuning; Winchester because Wesley was the organist first presiding at the ex Gt Exhibition organ installed 1854, and Gloucester in 1847, probably because at the time it never occurred to anyone to change the existing tuning.

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Thank you for this most invaluable information which answers so many questions.  I think we can now safely say that Wesley composed the Larghetto contemplating that it would be played in meantone (there being practically no alternative among English organs when he composed it in 1840).  By inference that would be true of his other organ works, including hymns and choral accompaniments.  It has been very illuminating to learn that all the organs discussed in this thread were tuned in unequal temperament until W T Best’s decision to change the tuning at St George’s Hall to equal temperament (carried out by Willis) in 1867.  I am pretty certain that I have read somewhere that Wesley was aware of this and deprecated the change.

In his book ‘Forty Years of Music’ Joseph Bennett describes an episode of Wesley’s improvising in Gloucester to the amazement of Mr Bennett’s companion who had experienced Mendelssohn’s playing.  The chapter on Wesley concludes with the anecdote that at the end of his life Wesley was complaining, in writing, to the Dean and Chapter at Gloucester that work on the organ was essential but, nevertheless, in a formal written reply he was told that no funds were available - a familiar story!  

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I should also like to add my thanks to Bruce Buchanan for his contribution above.

I also thought it might be interesting, or at least entertaining, to give an idea of what a 'Wolf' key in meantone tuning actually sounds like.  The audio clip below is of Stainer's hymn tune 'Charity' played on an Open Diapason stop using both equal temperament (played first) then quarter-comma meantone (played second).  It is played in A flat, one of the worst keys in meantone.  F# minor and F minor are pretty much as bad - Wesley wrote a Larghetto in each of these latter keys.

I've used this clip simply because it's already available on my website.  Making  a special recording of the Larghetto in F# minor, discussed frequently above, would be a significant undertaking.

www.colinpykett.org.uk/OpenDiap-ET-4thComma.mp3

(The recording was made using a digital simulation of a real stop on a pipe organ).

 

 

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5 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

The audio clip below is of Stainer's hymn tune 'Charity' played on an Open Diapason stop using both equal temperament (played first) then quarter-comma meantone (played second).  It is played in A flat, one of the worst keys in meantone. 

www.colinpykett.org.uk/OpenDiap-ET-4thComma.mp3

(The recording was made using a digital simulation of a real stop on a pipe organ).

 

 

Yes, the A flat major chords are awful. But the B flat and B flat minor chords are rather lovely!

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I wonder if it is important at this stage to add a second line of debate, hitherto touched on but not stated explicitly. It's impossible to discuss temperament without discussing pitch, the two are, obviously intertwined. Was Wesley's F# the same as our F# now. He could easily have been hearing the F# minor Larghetto in what to us might be anywhere from F minor to G minor. Without pitch as a reference point, it's really hard to discuss temperament with any certainty.

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I think you have probably hit on an answer.  Weren’t organs of that era tuned sharp?  I happen to have a diapason pipe from a chamber organ of circa 1820 labelled in pencil G#, and there is a difference of a whole tone between it and the same note (below middle C) on my piano.  To this day we hear of organs tuned sharp being changed to modern pitch - and, indeed, sometimes vice versa, e.g., both have been done at Reading Town Hall!  

Scope here for a further ‘digital’ experiment with appropriate adjustments of both pitch and temperament.  Over to the experts.

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This is a long reply to the above posts - sorry.

Temperament and pitch are independent in terms of which are the good and bad keys.  If you lower the pitch of an organ by a semitone, for example by tuning it to A = 415 Hz instead of the usual A = 440 Hz and then re-set a temperament such as meantone, the good and bad keys are unchanged.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's because whether a key is good or bad depends on intervals - the relative frequencies of two notes played at once - rather than on the absolute frequencies of single notes.

Looking at it another way which might be easier to understand, if you lower or raise  the pitch of an organ, that does not mean you have changed anything in terms of scale or key.  Thus F# minor is still F# minor regardless of what pitch you might have tuned A to, and therefore if you are using meantone then F# minor will still be a bad key.  Or if you are in an exam and the examiner asks you to play a scale of C major (or anything else), s/he would not adjust the requested key simply because the organ had been tuned to some unusual pitch!

What does influence where the good and bad keys fall is something usually called 'key centre' - in the case of meantone this means where you place the Wolf interval.  Conventionally it has been placed for centuries between A flat and E flat, but if you decide to put it somewhere else then the whole pattern of good and bad keys is rotated, for want of a better word.  They are all still there but they occur in different places.  It is unlikely, though one cannot completely rule it out, that Wesley's organs would have had a different key centre.  If this were the case he would have been using a form of meantone where the commonly-used keys with relatively few sharps and flats would lose the pure thirds which are a feature of this temperament - these would have been shifted to the more remote keys.  So on the whole such a move would make the amended version of meantone less useful to the practical musician.  So this hypothesis scarcely seems credible.

Some digital organs, besides having selectable temperaments, also have selectable key centres.  They are useful for doing experiments, though I suspect the additional flexibility confuses most people.  I once had a correspondent who was despairing about not being able to get the pure thirds in C major which he expected when using meantone tuning.  Eventually it dawned on me that he had inadvertently twiddled the key centre setting.  Fortunately there was a 'factory settings' control, which returned things to normal for him!

More generally, there's always scope for experiments as Rowland suggested, though I would counsel anyone wanting to undertake them that they are extremely time consuming to implement, to say nothing of making a decent recording of the results and then posting it on the web for all to hear!  And that's after you have sat with a wet towel round your head for hours (nay, days sometimes) while being slowly driven to distraction by the maths ...  I mention this aspect because it is worth remembering that the early theorists such as Werckmeister in the 1600s had no calculators, computers or all of today's trappings of digital music technology to smooth their path.  All they had were quill pen and ink, a monochord and (if they were lucky) printed log and antilog tables which were full of errors.  So these are the people I really take my hat off to.

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Well, I’m left wondering how Wesley’s performances of his own music sounded on the organs tuned in unequal temperament.  The mystery does not appear to be solved.  There are several accounts of his superlative playing at Winchester and Gloucester, Birmingham Town Hall before it was retuned (and doubtless elsewhere), without anyone complaining of dissonance!  Maybe I am still missing some vital factor!  Nevertheless, this has been a fascinating and revealing discussion, with special thanks to Bruce Buchanan for the ‘missing’ details of the tuning at the Great Exhibition, Winchester and Gloucester, and to Colin for imparting his scientific expertise and practical knowledge.

If this thread has whetted any appetite for further information about Wesley, I strongly recommend Paul Chappell’s book “Dr S S Wesley 1810-1876 Portrait of a Victorian Musician”: Mayhew-McCrimmon 1977.  

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