Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Patty's perfect pitch

Thanks to all who commented on my post last week concerning rising pitches. I responded to Chuck's beef jerky concerns on another blog, but I wanted to call attention to Patty's comment here.

She asks, "Hasn't pitch, though, gone up AND down ... and then back up again?" I'm no pitch historian, but when I consulted the New Grove Dictionary, I found out that she's right. Western pitch standards have not followed any steady line, but more like a drunken stagger, leaving a chaotic mess of useless joints behind:
The Classical period was characterized by minor pitch differences of about a comma (a ninth of a whole-tone or about 21 cents) that could be accommodated on woodwinds by using alternate joints or tuning slides. Each theatre in Vienna and Paris, for instance, had its own slightly different pitch until the 1820s. Multiple joints were usually numbered from lowest to highest, and today often only one joint with a higher number remains; this is an indication that pitch was generally on the rise, since the lower-pitched joints were probably laid aside and eventually separated from the instruments.
'Generally on the rise,' but still not at its highest point. The existence of transposing instruments today is the result of the wildly inconsistent pitch standards in the churches of 17th century Europe, where an A might vary from 384 (in Italy) to 473 (in England). That is the difference of several whole steps - luckily those church organs never had to be moved, or played in tune with one another. That might have caused some kind of religious war.

Orchestral instruments do have to be portable and play in tune though, so the development of the modern orchestra (I would guess) was a major cause for the establishment of international pitch standards. Here's how the Grove sums things:
Since the early 19th century orchestral instruments have evolved through small adaptations rather than revolutionary new designs. As a result, fluctuations in pitch standards have been relatively minor. The mean pitch in Europe in 1858, when the diapason normal (a' = 435) was promulgated in France, was about a' = 446, just as it is today. The universal standard a' = 440 established in 1939 was no less artificial and unrealistic.

Historically, as we have seen, pitch has fluctuated both up and down. Present-day pitch is noticeably lower than Victorian England's ‘sharp pitch’ of a' = 452. Pitch at La Scala was at that same level in 1867, up from a' = 450 in 1856. In Vienna a generation after Mozart's death pitch seems to have been somewhat lower, at a' = 440–445. Thus almost from the beginning singers have been obliged to perform the music of Mozart and Verdi at a level several Hertz higher than the composers intended. At present pitch appears once again to be on the rise from a theoretical (and rarely used in orchestras) a' = 440 to as high as a' = 450. From a broader perspective these vacillations can be seen as temporary departures from a remarkably stable norm.

So Patty is right that pitch has fallen from all that Victorian English craziness, while it has risen from Haydn's (also English) tuning fork. As Joe notes, modern gadgetry has improved on the tuning fork, and should keep things much more consistent - and make a single international standard seem commonsensical, and not at all remarkable. We still use every possible excuse to explain when things aren't in tune. Though to all those multi-jointed Parisian woodwind players, we might seem to be living in pitch paradise.

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