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November 04, 2004

HalÚvy, the standardisation of A' and tuning up

Posted by David Conway
I went on to HalÚvy's house, where the heat from his stove was suffocating. His wretched wife has crammed his house with bric-a-brac and old furniture, and this new craze will end by driving him to a lunatic asylum. He has changed and looks much older, like a man who is being dragged on against his will. How can he possibly do serious work in this confusion? His new position at the Academy must take up a great deal of his time, and make it more and more difficult for him to find the peace and quiet he needs for his work. Left that inferno as quickly as possible. The breath of the streets seemed positively delicious.

This terrifying vignette from the Journals of Delacroix shows a once-renowned musician in his decline. Fromental HalÚvy, (whose first name is not, as has been suggested, a little-known variety of cheese, but is the title of the obscure festival in the French Revolutionary Calendar which was his birthday in 1799), wrote one of the most popular and spectacular grand operas of the nineteenth century, La Juive, about which I may write some day, but followed up this tremendous hit with a string of duds. When Delacroix wrote his description of the HalÚvy household in 1855, it was already twenty years after the premiŔre of La Juive and Fromental had, as the diarist notes, taken the option in 1854 of moving towards administration of the arts by becoming Life Secretary of the AcadÚmie des Beaux Arts. (His "wretched wife" by the way, undertook several spells in the asylum of the Parisian society shrink Dr. Blanche, until her husband's death in 1862 seems to have mysteriously prompted a spontaneous recovery of her sanity, after which she went on to become a sculptress of no little merit. And their daughter .ů - but that is another story).

In his new bureaucratic mode however, HalÚvy made a last, profound, contribution to music. He was chosen in 1858 to chair a committee, the other members of which included Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Rossini, as well as various physicists and other assorted pundits, to determine a cornerstone of the art ľ the appropriate level of pitch for the note A above middle C, the diapason normal (usually represented as a').

The report, largely authored by HalÚvy, contained a history of pitch and a comparison of the various levels used all over the world. It is interesting to reflect that, just as time had been different all over the world up to the mid-nineteenth century, so had pitch. Organ pipes of the 16th and 17th centuries range from a' = 380 Hz to 510 Hz, although Praetorius in 1619 was already advising against a' = 455 on the grounds that the tension at this pitch led to broken violin strings.

But nineteenth-century globalization meant that, just as the clocks of the world had to synchronise to make railway timetables possible, pitch also had to standardise. Music too was an international business. London levels were far too high for French sopranos, although they could have an easier time at the opera house of Karlsruhe which had, apparently, the lowest A in Europe. Bassoon makers in Ulm, say, wanted to be able to sell their products in Edinburgh. HalÚvy's report came out in favour of a'= 435 at 15 degrees centigrade, and this was soon given force of law in France (although apparently the State tuning forks which were issued in pursuance of this standard averaged a subversive 435.5). Commercial pressures promoted this standard internationally; and by the end of the nineteenth century, following the Pianoforte Trade Agreement of 1899, a'= 435 was universal. For a reason that I cannot discover (but probably simply because international bodies have do things from time to time to show that they are necessary), the International Standards Organisation jacked this up to the present 440 in 1955.

And that is the sound, played on the oboe, the orchestral instrument with least flexibility in pitch variance, which I came to associate with concert going since my earliest attendances. Indeed some of my truly musical friends had the remarkable gift of 'perfect pitch', remembering and being able to sing out a true "a'=440"; at the Proms they would spook visiting orchestras by chanting the sacred note in unison before the oboe could pipe up.

But in the UK, tuning up on stage is becoming rarer. I do not know what is behind this trend. Possibly it is thought that the brief period of whining, scraping and tooting preceding a concert is off-putting to the audiences classical music needs to attract. Technically it is perhaps no longer as necessary to tune on-stage as it once was: musical instruments are now far more robust, and metal strings will keep their temperaments better (and be less likely to snap) that the gut strings of previous centuries.

But there is also to my feeling a consequential tangible loss of atmosphere in the concert experience. Announcing a' before the concert begins defines a particular social compact amongst the players, who voluntarily submit before our eyes (and ears) to this standard and resolve to orient their actions around it. The audience (or at least those of us who don't have perfect pitch) recognises this proclamation of a' as a call to arms or attention: we are also psyched up, "screwed to a pitch". There may indeed be conversation in the audience between the tuning-up and the epiphany of the conductor, but it is at a quieter level, shorn of boisterousness. Something has changed ľ we are in a distinct ante-chamber to the musical experience, about to enter that other world where performers and audience will unite in a Schopenhauerian communion.

I think therefore I should add a wing to my movement for the suppression of unnecessary applause, touted in an earlier piece, which would campaign for bringing back on-stage tuning. Perhaps this would also help keep the audience in order. At last week's performance of The Damnation of Faust(London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit, at the Royal Festival Hall), the orchestra came on stage already tuned. Dutoit had wisely chosen to play the whole thing straight through without an interval ľ something which this superb aural mindscape unquestionably deserves. But having a tuning onstage might have helped us with the transition from the real world (and the grim and grubby present state of the RFH) to Berlioz's lurid masterpiece. At the end of the Rakoczy March, Dutoit clearly foresaw that rogue clappers might interfere with the flow. But despite his engineering a decrescendo on the final massive chord, and holding his fist imperiously aloft as a sign more to the audience than the orchestra, a couple of dimwits couldn't resist exercising their palms. I would sentence them to at least two hours of listening to 440 Hz to learn them some discipline.

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Another thought-provoking article, thanks David.

Can I ask your sources for the 16th / 17th Century pitch variation you mention of "380 to 510 Hz"? This interests me - I've only come across references to variation between 392 and 470, though these too feel quite extreme!

You mention French singers having difficulty in London, and indeed the Opera in Paris was not only low in comparison to England, it was low c/w other local establishments (at a=404). Northern Italy indulged a little in very high pitch from the early 17th Century (a=465-70), while suprisingly church pitch in Rome was about a=392 until Corelli!!

Of course, people did transpose often - even string players were supposedly quite used to it, and organists then, as now, I'm sure, would have transposed at sight without thinking anything of it. Not only the organists - but I read the other day of organ pipes in some places being replaced with some at a lower pitch (Dresden at the end of the C17th, for example, replaced their cornett with lower pitched French reeds).

Church pitch was invariably different to Chamber pitch throughout Renaissance & Baroque times. Chamber pitch seemed to settle generally to around a=405 - 410 I think - now, of course, we tend to play at a=415 for "period performances" of baroque music, really because it is a conveinient semi-tone lower than standard a=440, and thus not too difficult for our ears to handle. Church pitch was higher than Chamber pitch - one source (I can't remember who now) of the time wrote that this was becuase organ builders thought they could make extra profit by raising the pitch - which required shorter pipes and therefore less materials to make them "use less tin"!

As an aside, I should mention for those sceptics of "period performance" - those who ask "does the pitch really make a difference?" - yes it does, hugely, and much mroe than you would imagine. Period style of playing is important too, but pitch can have a dramatic effect. Here's an example for you: take the hymn tune "Schumucke Dich". In one version of A&M if is printed in Eb major, in another in D major. The two keys are only a semitone apart (the difference between performed pitches these days 'baroque' and 'modern'). The two versions are remarkably different. The D major version is upbeat, slightly jaunty... whilst in Eb the tune is gentle, soulful and reflective...

Although a=440 these days as a standard, note that some orchestras are beginning to use a=442 - it is just slightly brighter than a=440! Enough areas / ensembles are doing this to make it worthwhile for instrument makers to be making oboes whose natural pitch is a=442... and so the change continues!


Posted by: Alexander Van Ingen at November 6, 2004 01:26 PM

Having just posted a lengthy history report, I've realised what I did... all I meant to do was write that I agreed orchestra's don't tune properly, and somehow I got sidetracked into a bitty discusion of pitch. Whoops!

I am not a fan of orchestras who only give a cursory tune. yes, strings and so on hold their pitch better than in the 18th century, but they certainly don't hold it well enough to not need to tune! The C18th would have seen tuning between peieces (if short) and without a doubt between some movements in longer pieces (esp. operas etc).

I hear so many orchestras who receive an "A" from the oboe, and who then loudly scratch and blow away. Barley any of the participants are really tuning - but they'll all make sure that their A is near enough, and their other notes or strings match well enough to it. The process simply isn't quiet enough for anyone to really tune thoroughly.

I prefer a some-time used baroque method (though less practical in a syphony orchestra!), where the leader would take a note for each string from the harpsichord, and then walk it round the group (clearly easier with an ensemble of 12 than 80...). Everyone tunes - not individually, but certainly carefully, and the result is delightful harmony!

Orchestras that tune backstage may be able to indulge more in this perhpas, than those who blast through on stage (the musicians fee is the same whether they spend 20sec tuning or 10 minutes, so getting the gig done quickly...), but I suspect that most will be too interested in their conversation to really tune thoroughly.

I frequently hear far too much poor intonation in orchestral playing. Some of this, I suspect, is a result of lazy tuning, though I imagine much is more a result of poor or lazy playing...

In conclusion, I agree totally with David that orchestras should spend more time tuning. Not only might this help the audience "get into an atmosphere" - it would surely ehlp the orchestra's performance, which, of course, has a direct effect on the way the audience perceive the music and ultimately enjoy the concert.


Posted by: Alexander Van Ingen at November 6, 2004 01:37 PM

I think (or, properly, feel) that elimination of onstage tuning is in fact a good thing. It is, admit it, a minute of purely utilitarian cacophony. And, it resolves to a key that is unrelated to what follows. This bit of preliminary unpleasantness serves no emotional purpose that can't be served by the suspenseful raising of the wand.

My perspective: I am a conservative listener, informed but not a musician. I see no virtue in retaining that which is counterproductive, purely out of custom or sentiment.

Posted by: Neil Ferguson at November 6, 2004 05:16 PM

Indeed, Neil, where it is couterproductive it may as well be done away with! But the issue is that it /should/ be productive - it ought to result in every performer's instrument calibrated the same, so that the ensuing performance is accurate, and not in itself "cacophonic".

I do also believe that it has it's place in forming an atmosphere more than the raising of the baton more as a facilitator maybe - it enables an orchestra of say 80 musicians to get on stage, shuffle around, move chairs, stands and music noisily, fiddle with their instruments... and then gives way to an expectant silence (well, near silence) as all in the hall await the maestro...

Primarily, though, the purpose of tuning should be to establish a uniformity of pitch amongst the instruments, which is absolutely necessary whether done off or on stage.


Posted by: Alexander Van Ingen at November 7, 2004 06:45 PM

AVI - the 16th/17th century pitch information came from the article in Groves' dictionary.

Neil - I accept this is a matter of taste. For me, the moment of tuning was always one of excitement and anticipation, and it 'raised the stakes' rather than being a preliminary unpleasantness. Perhaps I am just trying to recapture my childhood. My original title for the piece was 'Once there was an orchestra, all tuning up....' - words which will be recognized by anyone who recalls 'Tubby the Tuba'.

Thanks for your interest -

Posted by: David Conway at November 9, 2004 08:43 AM
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