Baroque era, Baroque era tunings, classissima,, Daniel Waitzman, Elaine Comparone, flute, harpsichord, piano blog, piano blogging

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., 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.

Elaine Comparone, J.S. Bach, Ornaments in the Baroque, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press,, you tube, you tube video,

Baroque Ornaments, execution, style, context and taste: A Conversation with Elaine Comparone


On a rainy Saturday morning in New York City, I packed my tripod, camcorder, battery chargers, and Henle Urtext edition of J.S. Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G, and headed for Elaine Comparone's gorgeous harpsichord and piano sanctuary on Manhattan's West side.IMG_2354-2 We'd planned to discuss ornaments in the Baroque using the springboard Sarabande, though wide-eyed and inspired Elaine wove in the Loure with a bedazzling reading framed by a Harvard Dictionary introduction.

A two-part exchange, in an impromptu spirit captured the essence of "improvisation" in the Baroque period, and found expression in harpsichord and piano renderings.

A big Thank You goes to Elaine Comparone for her illuminating words and profoundly beautiful music-making!

Loure rendered on the Piano

Updated rendering by Elaine Comparone on the harpsichord:


Elaine Comparone teaches harpsichord and piano on Manhattan’s West side with a Baroque period emphasis.



Bach with Pluck on Amazon:, Elaine Comparone,

Piano Instruction: Piecing out and Practicing J.S. Bach Little Prelude in F, BWV 927

One of my colleagues who filmed a tutorial on this gem, called it a “BEGINNER” composition, yet, in truth, it’s not in the easy column. It demands a fluent technique and a thoughtful approach to learning that includes harmonic analysis, blocking, understanding counterpoint, making sensible decisions about articulation, and shaping phrases. Therefore, this “LITTLE” Prelude is not diminutive in content given its thought-provoking musical mosaic.

I’ve uploaded two readings. The first precedes my tutorial and applies slurs in the left hand starting in measure 5. These were at the advice of Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist and Baroque scholar.

The second posting has detached bass notes in the same parallel measures.


Bach Little Prelude in F BWV927


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Should a teacher demonstrate phrasing and interpretation for a student?

I asked a few piano teachers and a harpsichordist if they felt playing passages, phrases for a student was a viable way to teach, and why?

Seymour Bernstein, author, With Your Own Two Hands, rendered a riveting opinion:seymour_bernstein_home revised

“I have never taken a lesson with a pianist-teacher who didn’t demonstrate musical and technical points under discussion. I don’t swallow the idea that they decide not to demonstrate for philosophical reasons: “I don’t want my pupils to copy me. They have to develop their own style,” etc. My feeling is that that when teachers do not play for their pupils, it’s an indication that they can’t demonstrate with any degree of control. Teachers who are injured, notwithstanding, there is no logical reason why a teacher should refuse to demonstrate a musical or technical passage. We’re not talking about a teacher sitting down and tossing off the Chopin 2nd Etude, or the Etude in 3rds up to tempo. But when a pupil sees/hears a demonstration, even at a slower tempo, his ears and eyes absorb vital information that words alone cannot impart. Comprehension is augmented, and the student makes faster progress.

“Some teachers find that when they play too convincingly for their pupils, they defeat them. The pupil thinks, “I can never reach that level!” Really? Send the pupil to a psychologist.”

Rada Bukhman, author, Discovering Color Behind the Keys, The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing, kindly translated the opinion of Russian pianist/teacher, Oxana Yablonskaya where it concerned “copying the mentor.” (I preserved the original Russian text)Oxana

Я предпочитаю, чтобы они подражали моему музыкальному стилю.
Рахманинов приветствовал подражание на разных этапах обучения: “Педагогу следует играть, а студенту – подражать ему. Когда талантливый студент мужает, он должен углубляться в свою интерпретацию”.
Кроме того, я думаю, что пример педагога оказывает огромное, если не решающее влияние на развитие музыкального вкуса ученика. Как говорится, о вкусах не спорят. Но существуют понятия хорошего вкуса, манер, благородного вкуса.
Даже если ты сначала просто копируешь красивый звук твоего педагога, это хорошо. Позже этот звук станет твоим. Чехов говорил, что если маску не снимать, она станет твоим лицом…


“I prefer that students imitate my musical style. Rachmaninoff approved imitation for various levels of the educational process: The teacher should play while the student copies. A talented student will be deepen his own interpretation as he matures.

“The teacher serves as an example of noble musical taste and by copying the teacher’s tone, the student can achieve the same quality of sound production. Chekhov said that if you wear a mask it can become your own face.”

Might this lesson conducted by Nairi Grigorian Akimov, meet the parameters of “copying” the teacher?

Rada Bukhman
provided her own slant on the subject:Rada pic

“This is a very broad topic. It depends on many factors including student level, choice of repertoire, the student’s learning type and so on. An accomplished pianist can learn from any great musician, even if this musician plays another instrument. However, if a pupil is seeking help related to technique, then it’s beneficial to learn from a teacher who knows how to solve the problem and can effectively demonstrate.”

Elaine Comparone, Harpsichordist/teacher shared her thoughts:portraitelainecomparone2

“I just think you have to leave an open area for those who are advanced enough to “interpret”. You just have to be careful not to overwhelm them with, for example, a tempo they cannot handle so that they might feel inadequate to the task. A teacher must always take the level of a student into account when demonstrating. It should not be a situation where the teacher is ‘showing off.’ ”

Jeffrey Biegel
, Concert pianist/teacher expressed the following:Jeffrey B
“I studied with Adele Marcus, who quite often demonstrated and played for her students. It was this ‘aural’ art that we learned, about singing out loud while practicing, counting out loud, breathing within the phrases while singing, which gave us the ability to help ourselves as students and stewards of music.

“First and foremost, is the total respect for the score. Nuances are simply the way we play a phrase, the slightest hesitation perhaps, or breathing between phrases–sometimes within a phrase. These nuances, after time, never repeat themselves, because we don’t exactly say the same thing the same way more than once.

“Teaching interpretation is more, for me, teaching the basic intentions of the composer. What each student and each re-creating artist does with these basic principles is what makes their interpretation uniquely their own. I often say that I learn more about music from teaching, and from students first impressions of works that are too familiar to us. I believe in this approach to teaching, because it is easy to offer fingerings that fit under the hand, almost any hand for that matter, and to write in pedaling according to the harmonic structure or melodic line, but having that unique voice in phrasing, and having the musical touch that each hand can indeed have, is what makes teaching challenging and rewarding. The feeling of the sound emanates from the fingertips–the departure point between the player and the instrument.”

Here’s an example of Biegel teaching a piano lesson by SKYPE:


What Jeffrey Biegel says resonates strongly with me. There are so many elements to explore in the teacher/student exchange and we learn decisively from our pupils as attentive listeners. A two-way feedback allows for mutual demonstration, experimentation, trial and error.

As for the breath and phrasing, here’s an example of my breathing back and forth with an adult student where we both gained from the interaction.

And following, a supplemental “demonstration” video with a tie-in to the breath/phrasing that I sent to the same student. She was studying the Chopin Waltz in A minor:

Video of a Boris Berman masterclass: See for yourself what teaching techniques are used by this distinguished Russian mentor.

Gyorgy Sebok’s Masterclass (Chopin Sonata no. 2, Op. 35)

RADA BUKHMAN comments: “I love master classes of Sebok. What a musician, what a person!”


S.K. I attended one of Sebok’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and it made an indelible impression in the area of phrasing and the singing tone.


In conclusion:

From all that I’ve gathered in this post from teachers and performers who have generously shared thoughts about teaching, it seems that demonstrating for the student is an important ingredient of the learning environment. Yet each mentor decides what best meets the needs of an individual pupil without adhering to a fixed or rigid approach.

Bach D minor Harpsichord Concerto, Baroque music, classissima,, Elaine Comparone, Elaine Comparone Harpsichord, harpsichord, Harpsichord Unlimited, J.S. Bach, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, wordpress,, you tube,

Comparone plays Bach on the harpsichord with a palette of emotions

Elaine CD cover best

I must admit that I usually experience the “minor” key with poignant intensity, but when I heard Elaine Comparone’s most recent performance of J.S.Bach’s celebrated D minor concerto, I felt her inner smile radiate through ripples and waves of luscious phrases even as a tragic dimension blanketed the work. Comparone’s tapestry of moods, feelings and affect, made the reading more than one dimensional.

The performance fueled my desire to import a collection of photos I’d taken at Elaine’s harpsichord palace, for her CD soundtrack. (first movement)

Finally, the Maestra provided an enticing dessert in encore comments about Bach’s monumental composition, her relationship to it, and matters of interpretation.

Elaine Comparone

“I first played the d minor concerto in my senior recital at Brandeis University almost 50 years ago. It was a disaster! I hadn’t memorized it at that point.

“Once I began my professional career in my early 20s, I decided it was important for me to memorize solo pieces and concertos, just as most pianists do! Some harpsichordists feel exempt from this particular requirement. For me it is a sine qua non that enables me to internalize a piece and probe its depths.

“Memorization was tough, almost painful, but it was necessary for me to hear everything that goes on. Unlike other concertos of J.S. and certainly anyone else’s, this one is perfectly complete without the string parts. Sure, the strings add to it, but you could play it without strings for someone who hadn’t heard it and they wouldn’t miss a thing. Everything’s there! There’s a certain amount of doubling of the harpsi-part by the strings in the tutti passages, which makes the piece sound HUGE! I had fun rehearsing with the string players separately. It helped me to hear all the lines along with my own. In particular, I’ve rehearsed it a lot with Veronica the violist over the years. Johann Sebastian probably played viola in the first performance of this piece with one of his sons as soloist. It’s a fantastic part. As in all his works, the line is complete and self-contained from beginning to end. This particular immersion resulted in our recognizing and making audible more subtleties than we had before.

“For instance, to outline the structure of the middle movement, I added new dynamic contrasts to the first statement of the bass line theme that my left hand, cello and bass continue throughout the piece. No other interpretation that I have heard treats the line this way.

“In the first movement cadenza I added new stresses (in the form of time stretches) to several spots that, again, recognize and reinforce the harmonic structure. In the first and second movements especially, I stretch some phrases for expressive purposes in addition to structural ones, but always maintain the basic beat.

“In choosing tempi for the recording, I opted for a slightly broader tempo for the first movement than one usually hears from period instrument ensembles. I wanted to convey the tragic nature of the first movement which gives it its singular power. It is not a light, dancing piece and should not be played too quickly nor flippantly. The last movement can dance and should fly!!

“The middle movement in my mind reflects Bach’s response to the tragedies he experienced in his life, from the deaths of his parents when he was quite young, to the discovery of his wife’s having died while he was away traveling, to the deaths of a number of beloved children. This man intimately knew sorrow, but was able to channel his life experiences through music into the creation of this magnificent and moving work.”


Elaine in a relaxed, unguarded moment:

Elaine and dog


Vibrant Music-making at Rest or at Play

Bach with Pluck, Bach with Pluck recorded by Elaine Comparone and Dusan Bogdanovich, classissima,, Elaine Comparone, Elaine Comparone Harpsichordist, harpsichord, J.S. Bach, J.S. Bach Sinfonia in F minor BWV 785, Johann Sebastian Bach, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube video, yout tube,

My side-by-side harpsichord/piano chat with Elaine Comparone in her NYC musical sanctuary


My visit with Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist, was the first of my musical treats after touching down in hometown New York. While the weather was a bit gray and unseasonable, Maestra Elaine lifted my spirits with her impeccably beautiful reading of Bach’s D minor concerto. Soon enough, it was recorded in full force with ensemble on the day I departed for California. (My loss)

Nonetheless, the perfectly gorgeous playing I had sampled, was a tantalizing entree to the main course that’s soon to be served up on YOU TUBE. (I’ll be embedding it, hopefully, with engaging commentary from Comparone)

Meanwhile, I posted a CONVERSATION Elaine and I had about the J.S. Bach Sinfonia in F minor, BWV 795. Naturally, we shared camera duty and danced between the harpsichord and piano. (She has a sonorous Knabe grand that is among four musical treasures)

You might call her place a “palace” like the one in Versailles, having acoustical brilliance that complements an impressive collection of ornate harpsi’s.

In any “case” the video attached includes Comparone’s complete rendering of the F minor Sinfonia as well our impromptu comments between short playing segments.




Bach with Pluck on Amazon:

Bach with Pluck played by Elaine Comparone and Dusan Bogdanovic, Dusan Bogdanovic guitarist, Elaine Comparone, harpsichord,,, you tube, you

Bach with and without Pluck

images-1Elaine Comparone and Dusan Bogdanovic produced a stunning CD, combining harpsichord and guitar in their J.S Bach Inventions and Sinfonias collaboration.

Both musicians have firmly established reputations as fine performers and recording artists so their get-together has surely been a treat for listeners far and wide.

Just today, I broke out my Bach with Pluck!, and dashed off a few emails to Elaine about my reaction to the disk, piece by piece.


It was an overwhelming thumbs up, but the thought popped into my head to post a side-by-side acoustic piano rendering of the first offering, Invention 1 in C.


The Harpsichord has a new lease on life

Dusan Bogdanovic