Friday, 16 May 2014

Historically Informed Performance I: Tuning

I'm sorry guys, but it's difficult for me to avoid the elephant in the room any longer. Today is the day I shed light on my period performance tastes.

As any musician friend of mine will be able to tell you, I am ardently pro-HIP (historically informed performance) to the end. On this massive series of why I believe that it is the correct and should be the standard way to play any sort of music, I will give you all my reasons and allow you to make a historically informed decision.

Please note, although I said that I think HIP is the correct way of performing music, I would like to stress that that doesn't mean I condemn non-HIP performance, or that I can't appreciate or enjoy a non-HIP performance. In fact, there are many fine non-HIP performances out there, and of course it is your choice to choose which performance practice you like. (I even have some in my CD shelf...don't tell anybody.)

So in this first instalment of this series I would like to talk about the fundamental concept upon which the auditory experience of music relies on: tuning. 

It is common knowledge that today's standardised frequency for the note A (A4 specifically) is 440Hz (Hertz meaning vibrations per second). Well, mostly, but I'll get on to that later.
It is also of fairly common knowledge that period performance practice uses the standardised tuning of A=415Hz. But why? How can the definition of a note change through time, and how do we even know?

In fact, how do we even go about standardising the scientific value of a totally relative and intrinsically subjective concept that is "A"? The answer is, we don't. It is important to establish that A has never been the same. It has always changed from period to period and from region to region. 

But how do we know? In fact, period organs, period flutes, trumpets, horns and other non-tunable instruments can give us a pretty close idea.

The frequency of A differed greatly among the different regions of the western world in the baroque period. It can be safely said that pitch was higher in the north of what is now Germany than in the south, that pitch in Venice was higher that in Rome, and that pitch in France was a totally changeable concept dependant entirely upon the type of music being performed (to be expected from the French, obviously). 

Actually, this clears up a lot of issues. For example, have a look at this excerpt from on of Monteverdi's (Venice) operas:


This is meant to be sung by a soprano. Now, an operatic soprano of nowadays might find this uncomfortable, at is is so surprisingly low. But, if we perform it taking into account the date and period where it was written, it would be easier to perform as the music would sound a semitone higher, according to our ears. 

So how is this important?

Well, there are many examples like those we've just seen from baroque Italy, France and others, so that's a reason.
Another reason this is important, is that music is perceived differently depending on it's pitch. For me, Bach's Mass in B minor actually played in what is to day a B would sound weird.
It is also important for period instrument makers, but fundamentally, it is important for us, the listeners, as we should - in my opinion - hear music as the composer and contemporary audiences heard it.