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The Ill-Tempered Klavier: A Brief History of Keyboard Tuning

The world of temperaments and tunings, and what they mean.

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It may come as a surprise to learn that in music, not all half-steps are always equal.  Theorists and performers alike have for centuries wrestled with the problem of tuning.

The basic underlying problem is this:  the human ear can easily identify when the intervals of an octave or a fifth are in tune, called “perfect”. But if we tune a keyboard instrument to all perfect fifths, we would fall one half-step flat at every circle. So the scale must be tweaked in certain places to make the octave come out sounding “perfect,” and this is called temperament.

All things being “equal”

In the modern era, we’re used to equal temperament, where that discrepancy is divided by twelve notes and spread out over the whole scale, rather then in one or two conspicuous places. This makes all the half-steps equally the same distance from each other, and thus all keys are slightly out of tune. Equal temperament’s been in use for centuries as a solution for fretted instruments. It only became common on keyboard instruments in the late 19th century.

Enid Katahn gives examples of equal temperament and mean-tone temperament in performances in each temperament of a Mozart Fantasie on the 2001 release from Gasparo Records, Six degrees of tonality. The difference is quite startling. The chromatic notes in mean-tone tuning really jump out and grab the attention, while the equal temperament version is much more even.

A mean tone

Mean-tone tuning was common for much of the medieval and renaissance periods. Ton Koopman performs on the restored 16th century organ at the Triforium de la Cathedrale in Metz on a recording of pieces from the famous Buxheimer Organ book which dates from 1450.

Organist Harald Vogel peforms J. S. Bach’s Das alte Jahr vergangen in both mean-tone temperament and well-temperament on the recording entitled D. Buxtehude and His Time.  Dr. Bradley Lehmann believes he discovered Bach’s own tuning in a glyph on the title page of Bach’s famous collection “Well-tempered Clavier.”

Moving closer to the modern keyboard tuning called equal temperament, we turn now to Andreas Werckmeister, whose theoretical investigations into tuning resulted in an almost equal tuning. Bernard Foccroulle performs on the restored Schnitger organ, in “Werckmeister tuning,” in St. Ludgeri’s church in Norden, Eat Friesland on the recording entitled Nicolaus Bruhns Complete Works.

Watch Gilberto Guarino perform Bach’s Das alte Jahr vergangen ist in Werckmeister tuning:

While equal temperament was known via the fretted instruments, it was still not looked on with favor by most composers and performers, especially in France. Ton Koopman performs a French-style suite for harpsichord by the composer Joseph Hector Fiocco on the CD release from Astrée records, Pieces de clavecin. The instrument is the restored Jacobus van den Elsche harpsichord from about 1763, in a modified mean-tone temperament.  The inherent dissonances in unequal temperaments were favored in France until Rameau rejected them for equal temperament.

New Release

Our new release of the week comes from the Alpha label. This 2005 release, entitled Pieces de clavecin & airs d’après M. de Lully, by Café Zimmerman and Celine Frisch is made up of selections from French baroque composer Jean-Henri D’Anglebert’s ensemble music, and solo harpsichord and organ works.

Harmonia Early Music

Harmonia Early Music is a nationally syndicated weekly early music radio program, podcast and blog produced by WFIU Public Radio.

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