J.S. Bach, the piano, harpsichord and early music tunings

Elaine Comparone, a well-regarded harpsichordist rendered a dance movement from J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G, (BWV 816) that I’d performed on the pianoforte. In the Loure, (written in G Major) I was immediately struck by a pitch disparity between our respective instruments. While Loure was composed in the key of G Major, it suddenly sounded in the Key of F (or a tad under) according to A 440 frequency standard. While Elaine looked like she was playing in G, she inhabited another tonal cosmos. This unusual circumstance tweaked my curiosity and led to my querying the performing artist and one of her colleagues, Daniel Waitzman, about the universe of early music tunings and transposition.

Before launching into a discussion about the reasons for Baroque period tuning adjustments, a sample of harpsichord and piano French Suite performances provide a point of reference.



Elaine Comparone:

“In the old days they played at various, non-standardized pitches. Italy was high—Venice especially, I believe, but surviving instruments, organs and flutes mainly, were pitched lower. The current (past 50 years or so) “early music” cognoscenti found enough evidence to support an A pitched at 415, or one half step below 440. Today, most if not all early music groups play at A equals 415.

“Both of my instruments (built in the late 60s) were pitched at A 440 at delivery. Then the harpsichord builders began to add transposing keyboards to their instruments to accommodate the current trend.”

Daniel Waitzman, a virtuoso flutist, and composer offered the following in-depth narrative about historical tuning practices:

As you know, the French set the pitch at about A=392 in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century, at around the same time that the Hotteterres transformed the shawm into the oboe and the more-or-less cylindrical keyless six-holed flute into the one-keyed flute. (The reform of the woodwinds and of the orchestra occurred simultaneously with the reform of the pitch.) Bach was undoubtedly familiar with this, since he knew and worked with French flutists. Pitch standards in those days were far more variable–and even chaotic–than we are given to believe today. For example, Vivaldi’s Venetian pitch was about 440: nonetheless I have had to give many performances of his Piccolo Recorder concerti at Kammerton (A= 415, as it is interpreted today, for the convenience of its being exactly a half-step below our presumed norm of 440).

Bach worked every day with at least two pitches: the old high pitch of organs built in the Renaissance, about a half-step above 440: thus a whole step above his second standard pitch of Kammerton–422 or thereabouts–from whence the modern “early music” pitch of 415. Indeed, some of his works, such as Cantata 106 and Cantata 8 are rendered more difficult when performed from the old Bach Gesellschaft edition, since those early editors were pianists who assumed that Bach’s organ notation–he treated the organ as a transposing instrument–was the point of departure, rather than the other way around. What is, on the keyboard, an inconvenience becomes on a woodwind a sometimes-crushing burden, if one transpose the woodwind parts, rather than the organ part.

Frederick the Great’s court (Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, Benda, and a whole bunch of other geniuses, with Voltaire lurking in the background–my God!–My wife, Mona and I had the privilege of visiting his summer palace, Sans Souci in Potsdam, back in 1997; an unforgettable experience; one of his Quantz flutes lies on one of the few of his surviving Silbermann fortepianos–the Russkies got the rest in the Great Patriotic War–no, they did not let me play on it; but I had a conversation with the curator in my broken German, and I have played another of Quantz’s instruments in the Dayton C. Milller Collection at the Library of Congress, before it cracked a second time: a wonderful instrument. My own Quantz-near-replica is quite remarkable too, although I have to have the D# key repaired)–Frederick the Great’s court, I say, adopted the French low pitch of A=ca. 392. This is largely because of two factors: Firstly, Frederick considered himself an honorary Frenchman, like so many of the other aristocrats of the day; and secondly, Quantz’s reform of the flute (2-keyed for enharmonic distinctions associated with mean-tone and other non-equal temperaments; wide bore, restricted third octave to favor the lower register and enhance the cross-fingerings; enlarged embouchure hole; tuning slide) was made at the low French pitch. I can testify that Quantz’s flutes are among the very best of the old flutes; and that the old French pitch works brilliantly on the old flute–I have played an original Hotteterre flute in Boston. In his book, Quantz himself speculates on the possibility of re-scaling his flutes to Kammerton (422); but argues that doing so would change the nature of the instrument. The argument continues today; and there is, in fact, some truth to it. Quantz, by the way, did on occasion build flutes to different scalings more in accordance with the usual pattern; and anyone who tries to convince us that the old masters were as doctrinaire and pig-headed as modern early-music cultists is a liar.

Now, it is therefore probable that Bach tuned his harpsichords, at least occasionally, to the low French pitch.


You Tube Channel:


A sample of Waitzman’s artistry is offered in the modern day key of B minor:


To fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th Century, vintage pianos may have been tuned under 440 as well, but certainly not down a whole step from today’s concert A.

http://www.piano-tuners.org/history/pitch.html, provides a list of important dates:

1880 Steinway may have been using a pitch of A436. According to Steinway of New York, 1880 is right around the time they switched from three piece rims to the continuous rim that is used today. So it is unlikely the pitch was any higher before 1880, yet Steinway of London had a fork A454.7.

1885 In Vienna a pitch of A435.4 was adopted at a temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit for A.

1885 At an international exhibition of inventions and music in London a pitch of A452 was adopted.

1896 Philharmonic pitch A439, giving C522

1925 On the 11th of June the American music industry adopted A440.

1936 American Standards Association adopted A440. yet; New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, use 442 Hz

1939 At an international conference A440 was adopted.
The pitch of A440 has remained the standard since 1939. Pitches have risen a little, particularly in Eastern European countries, which often wish pianos to be tuned to A 444 or even a bit above. Some concert halls in the UK and European countries have two pianos on site, one tuned to A440 and one tuned to A 444. This is to keep the pianos stable, as constantly raising and lowering the pitch is not good for the piano; it makes it hard for the piano tuner to make the tuning stable.

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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