Monday, November 10, 2014

Historical Pitch: 101

Several musicians who are not in the early music field have recently asked me about pitch. So I thought I would write a blog post with a broad overview of historical pitch. Disclaimer, I am going to over generalize, but I just want to give people who are not in the early music world a basic primer about what we are doing in the early music world.  If one wants a much more in-depth look into historical pitch, look into Bruce Haynes book, "The History of Performance Pitch: The Story of 'A'". This will give the you all the answers to everything you are yearning for. It's a really dense book, the amount of research he did is admirable. This is just a blog post. :)

Pitch is not something modern players have to think about too much. Before an ensemble plays, there is always the question of where is everyone's individual A.  At 440, at 442, or even higher. There needs to be some kind of consensus.  However, that is as far as anyone had to think about it. However, there is a whole other world of pitch possibilities.  You might know about baroque instruments playing at a lower pitch, A = 415. This was all that I knew until I fell through the early music rabbit hole now quite a few years ago. Well, this is only the beginning of our little tale.

Throughout most of Western Music history, there has not been a standard pitch. The pitch of instruments depended highly on the pitch of the organ. In many different parts of Europe during the Renaissance and baroque periods (except apparently France) organ builders sometimes saved a little bit on money by making the pipes a little smaller, so they would be a little higher. So for a long time, pitch in a particular city was regulated to the pitch of the organ, which could get quite high.

Mimicking this would be a logistical nightmare, so we have simplified things a bit. Renaissance music tends to be played at either A = 440 or A +/- 465. In the Midwest, most people played at 440, here in Dresden, most people play at 465. The pitch around 465 is considered historically more accurate. I have a G alto shawm at 465, and it just feels and sounds right. Not that I have any idea in reality, but the instrument just makes a lot of sense at that pitch. I am definitely a fan of high pitch for Renaissance music.

Lets move onto the baroque period, easy right? 415 all the way? Well... It depends on where and when the music you are playing comes from. In my mind, the Baroque party didn't fully start until the  second half of the 17th century. Which is a little later then what the history books give you as the beginning of the baroque period. In my mind, all that lovely early baroque music originating mostly from Italy I consider a separate time period. I call it.... 17th century music. I know, mind blown. So, the fun really starts in France, where the pitch around 1680 should be  A = +/- 392. Wanna know why, read Haynes' book. Basically it has to do with organs again and church singers, and Lully's turf war. Everything else in the Baroque period (into the 18th century) can easily be played at 415 without anyone yelling at you. One can even get away with playing early French baroque music at 415.

Then pitch become a little more standardized, comparatively. Classical era music we tend to play at A= 430. My classical bassoon is at 430, more or less, depending on how much coffee I have had that day. I have been known to dip back down to 415 on cloudy days.

So essentially it is all relative. Which is a good point. The objective of having different pitch centers is not to replicate exactly how the concert would have sounded. I think this is a myth that is pervasive in the modern world about early music players. In my mind, since we can make an instrument close to its original pitch, we should. At the end of the day it doesn't really make a whole lot of difference. Why make a baroque instrument at 415 rather than at 440? One could definitely.  A baroque bassoon at any pitch is a totally different beast than the modern bassoon. In my experience, baroque music makes much more sense on my baroque instruments than it does on my modern. But that, that is a another blog topic.

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