Thursday, June 01, 2006

pitchy fiction

Lately I've been reading John Hersey's novel of musical historical fiction, Antonietta (shown here). The novel concerns a Stradivari violin that manages to work its way into the lives and music of Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky, among others. Okay, it's not true, but it is fun to think about, especially for musical history buffs.

Having been preoccupied lately with historical trends in intonation, I was astonished to come across the passage below. This takes place in the novel's 'Act III,' in which 26 year-old Hector Berlioz is composing his "monstrous dramatic symphony" - the narrator, a violinist named Baillot, comes and plays for Berlioz each morning:
[Berlioz] looked bedraggled, and I had the impression that his symphony was taking a strange swerve of some sort. It turned out, however, that his senses were, if anything, more finely honed than ever. When I tuned Antonietta, he said, "Your A is much too low."

His saying this surprised me. Over the last few years the standard concert pitch, the level of the note A above middle C that is built into tuning forks, had been steadily pushed upward, mainly, I think, by composers, and the reason I was surprised by his remark is that I had read an article that he had written opposing this rise, on the ground that the higher pitch was straining singers' voices in reaching for the upper notes. I had thought it would please him that I was using a tuning fork from several years ago. I said this.

"Yes, I did write that," he said. "But I want a higher pitch for this symphony - to give it the brilliance it needs."

- Antonietta by John Hersey, p. 139
Pushed upward by composers? That sounds loony to me, but I guess I'll have to look up Berlioz' writings and see if he actually published an article on the subject. The novel is a joy to read, filled with slick depictions of musical figures and nifty references to their music. There are quite a few details that ring false, though, which is why Hersey begins with this note:
Musicians and musicologists who read this book will know for certain that it is a novel, because they will find so many "untruths" in it - the peppercorns of fiction, which, a novelist hopes, may give the reader a taste for possibilities that are not found on the everyday menus of fact. This book was written for the fun of it, and I trust that those who know and revere the literal record will find themselves able to read it, too, for the fun of it, with forgiving minds.
At Berlioz' request, Baillot goes on to get the violin overhauled, with a new bass bar, sound post and bridge, a more angled neck and more powerful strings. Berlioz even watches the entire operation, asking "a thousand questions" and letting out "a scream as if he had been stabbed" as the instrument's top is detached. Mmmm, yummy peppercorns.


mkh said...

Coincidence, or are you on the edge of some new tonality in the collective unconscious?

Matt Heller said...

There's a line in a Fiona Apple song, "I only see what I'm looking through," and so perhaps my obsessions control what I notice. It does seem like a strange thing to come across by coincidence - though whatever key the collective unconscious is playing in, it's probably tuned to A=440! Here in Charleston, anyway.

mkh said...

I like that Fiona song -- good choice.

Does Charleston have its own gestalt? It might explain a few things.