Concert Pitch
(An essay)

by Robert H. Rogers

Doug suggested that I respond to your request about concert pitch. I noticed that there have been several good responses already, so my comments will be the frosting or whipped cream on the cake which many people can do without or extraneous. Peter Hopkins wrote an especially astute and scholarly reply.

A definite pitch was not agreed upon anywhere in the world. Before the time of the Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova when a chant style in singing was mainly the music used, a pitch was not universal. One would have thought that Gregory the Great would have included such a thing in his codifying of Gregorian Chant to make the whole business easier. Up to that point each monastery even had its own method of notation which made it difficult for visiting monks. If they had been in a monastery for a long period of time, they got to know the music quite well, especially since everyday of the week called for certain compositions that were universally done in all monasteries, so it got to be easier for the more experienced visiting monks as time went along. Gregory the Great had that changed by ordering that a universal notation be used by everyone. A universal pitch was not considered, but that did not seem essential at the time since most men generally sang someplace around the same pitch due to the physical vocal resources of that time since high tessituras were not required as often as in following periods. Women also.

Bach is probably the first known composer who felt a great need to establish something along these lines, so he came up with well tempered tuning - not a universal pitch, but very similar in some ways. I am amazed that Monteverdi did not come up with some ideas on this subject of pitch, but I guess he was really busy and overworked. However, we have to remember that these men worked in their own areas of living and did not get around very much, so they used what they had in their area.

I remember when I was in my 20's, the harpsichordist Wesley Kuhnle had a musical afternoon in his home where he had twenty harpsichords, clavichords and spinets, all plucked instruments and one grand piano. He tuned each instrument to a different tuning and played the same piece on each. It pointed out the problem of so many different tunings and pitch that had existed during early times in music. Of course, Bach's idea was to simplify things for keyboard players more than any other reason. Other instruments followed, probably since the keyboard was primary in continuo.

Various courts, areas or cities had a concert pitch of their own, and it seems that no visiting musician had difficulty.

The conductor, Robert King of the King's Consort in England, who specializes in the early periods of music has written a short treatise in one of his CD's on the subject of tuning during the time of Henry Purcell in England which spanned Charles II, Mary, Elizabeth and after. I will quote it verbatim, and even though it refers to the recording that was made for which he wrote the notes in the booklet, it is a fine example of scholarship by a very fine musician. - -

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"Pitch in the Chapel Royal unusually was much higher than our standardized baroque tuning of A = 415 Hz to 421 Hz. and even higher than the modern A = 440 Hz. This recording duplicates as its pitch center A = 466 Hz. which was the tuning used at the Chapel Royal. Not only does this follow clear historical evidence, but it also makes sense of Purcell's improbably (and characteristically) low vocal writing in his Chapel Royal compositions. It gives a new dimension to the music, creating a choral and string sound that, to those used to hearing Purcell performed at a lower pitch, is quite revelatory. For the works that appear to have been written not for the use of the Chapel Royal, the performing pitch was lower, so the Funeral Music of Queen Mary on this recording is tuned to A = 415 Hz. as the pitch or tuning center. The clearest practical evidence that the composer was writing for this lower pitch is evident from the differing vocal tessitura of these pieces."

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While Johann Sebastian Bach was at the Court of Cöthen, he used the court pitch which was the same as at the Chapel Royal in England, A = 466 Hz. throughout his time of employment there from 1717 to 1723. That year he went to Leipzig where he remained for the rest of his life and used A = 421 Hz. generally or as much as we know. However, it is known that all the organs in Leipzig were not at the same tuning. Even the two in the Nicholaikirche were not tuned the same. This was not usually a problem unless a composer wrote for two distinct choirs with two organs at the same time. Most historians think that Bach's work on the well tempered tuning probably began in Cöthen since he was the court composer and musician, not a church kapellemeister as he was in Leipzig, and he wrote very little choral music during the Cöthen time.

If you have any of the Bach Cantatas on the Teldec Series, you will notice that the tuning is at 421 Hz. throughout the complete series. Both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt who were responsible for the musical direction of the cantata series felt that this tuning was the most agreeable for the chorus, soloists' voices and the instruments. In their research, it was evident that Bach used this tuning throughout his time in Leipzig. There are many vocal exponents today who also feel that 421 to 430 Hz. is preferable for the voice in Bach's works rather than 440 Hz. which seems to be preferable for modern instruments only. In the Teldec Bach Cantata series, the strings have a unique sound described by some as slightly shrill. This has nothing to do with the tuning, but more with how close they play to the bridge. In the Baroque era, many string players played closer to the bridge since it gave a brighter sound that projected very well. Today, the different Baroque period ensembles vary in this respect. Some play further from the bridge as string players tend to do today in modern orchestras since in a modern orchestra there are so many of them. It also gives the modern string player a very silky sound which seems to be especially good for Ravel and Debussy and the later composers, although during the lifetime of Ravel and Debussy, orchestras were tuning at 435 Hz. and wind instruments were still made of wood with gut strings on all the string instruments.

There is a CD of the Handel Coronation Anthems with New College, Oxford, and the King's Consort conducted by Robert King in which the tuning is 415 Hz. It has a very distinct and delicious quality in comparison to the one by King's College conducted by David Willcocks which is an excellent performance but with modern tuning on modern instruments. Although the choir sings extremely well, due to the orchestra and the modern tuning, it does not have that edge of excitement of the New College performance with Robert King. The Dettingen Te Deum by Westminster Abbey conducted by Trevor Pinnock is also at 415 Hz.

Recordings of works by Haydn and Mozart such as the Haydn Symphonies and the Mozart Symphonies conducted by Christopher Hogwood are tuned to 430 Hz. The Haydn Symphonies by the Hannover Band conducted by Roy Goodman also tunes at 430 Hz. Did you know that Roy Goodman was a choirboy under David Willcocks at King's College and does the solo obbligato in the recording of the Allegri Misereri?

The Bocherini Quartet uses 430 Hz. on their recording of the Mozart Flute quartets. David Hill conducts the Haydn Harmoniemesse with the Winchester Cathedral Choir tuned to 430 Hz.

Many musicologists who are interested in the process of the rise in tuning believe it was mainly due to the changing instrument building and the need to have a stronger projection in larger and larger venues. It is considered by many that Haydn used around 421 to 425 Hz. while his orchestra was in residence at Esterhazy, but in London in his later years and last symphonies performed in larger rooms with many people in attendance, the tuning was at 430 Hz. However this probably was also the case with Haydn if he had to perform in larger rooms than in Esterhazy. In his last six masses which were written for a church in the Esterhazy area, he is thought to have used 430 Hz. but he was using larger musical forces in the orchestra and chorus being influenced by the large forces that he heard used in London in the Oratorios of Handel. Even that early, less than 100 years after Handel's death, the English could not resist overdoing it. However, Haydn composed and intended his late choral works done that way, but Handel had no choice in the matter.

I would like to include a commentary by Roger Norrington which helps to explain some of the reasons for the rise in tuning in the very early part of this century. Although it started in Europe, it became prevalent in this country, probably due to the influence of the many European conductors that came here. As you will read, the seating of the orchestra has become flatter and lower. If someone in the audience is in the orchestra floor, they generally cannot see the woodwinds as the common seating is today. The winds, being placed in the area generally behind the violins, are harder to hear. The higher tuning helps this problem.

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A commentary written by Roger Norrington for the program of his concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Beethoven's Second Symphony and Berloiz' Symphony Fantastique The Orchestra Seating at these Concerts

"If you look at the earliest picture of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Music for a Great City exhibit in the Grand Hall, you will see the musicians sitting as every orchestra in the world sat 75 years ago: first and second violins opposite each other, basses at the back on the left, horns usually opposite the trumpets. It is a seating which emphasizes dramatic dialogue and to some extent enhances the bass sound. In particular, it liberates the second violins to be a separate and distinct voice.

"A spirit of aesthetic modernization in the '30s swept the old seating away (along with gut strings, pure tone, and applause between movements). But I find it of great importance to the music of the 18th and 19th centuries, not just because of the sound and the dialogue, but specifically because every single composer, from Haydn to Sibelius, wrote music with that seating in mind. Knowing how it would sound on the stage affected the composer's orchestral language, and understand and conveying that language is paramount to me. In the Beethoven symphony, therefore, you will see a fairly standard classical layout. The Berlioz is more unusual, and I only use it when an orchestra is adventurous enough to try to recapture what the great Frenchman was used to in Paris, and on his European tours. His layout has the familiar dialogue between violins, and adds to it a further dialogue between brass and winds. Meanwhile the cellos and basses form a central spine to the orchestra, which makes for quite an interesting sonority.

"I hope you will enjoy the opportunity to "rehear" these familiar but staggeringly original masterpieces, in something like their original staging."

Roger Norrington

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Doug and I went to these performances as well as to the "Seasons" which Norrington also conducted. I had been accustomed to hearing the Symphony Fantastique played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in this hall, but I never heard it sound like this. Unfortunately, this effect does not happen on Norrington's recording of this work. The basses were on a hollow platform at the rear which raised them above the rest of the orchestra. The orchestra was seated with more room in between each player. It was a great orchestra sound that was not heard in this city before. In the Seasons, the orchestra was on risers so that each player could be totally seen by the audience. There was more space between each player. The orchestra was quite high at the back with the chorus even higher behind. During the Autumn section in the hinting chorus, Norrington had the French horn players stand up and aim the bells of the instruments at the audience. It was a startling and exciting experience. The audience constantly applauded and cheered for a long time after the hunting chorus with standing ovations lasting for over half and hour.

This was a prominent example of modern extremes in instrumental work. With the correct seating for each instrument, an orchestra does not have to tune to such extreme pitches as they do today. There have been situations of 444 to 448 Hz.

I work currently with the leading Gilbert and Sullivan company in the United States, Opera A La Carte. When we perform, I constantly remind the concert master and the orchestra to make an effort to stay at 440 Hz. throughout the performance. This is a problem, and we find the pitch rising sometimes immediately after the overture. Another difficulty is that some instruments are now manufactured to play at 442 Hz. since it has become so common in orchestral work. One of our trumpets plays a fairly new instrument manufactured at 442 Hz. When we do The Pirates of Penzance, I am particularly fussy about the tuning since the tenor part is as difficult as the tenor part in The Magic Flute with the same tessitura problems. If the orchestra gets too high in pitch as it goes along, it becomes very difficult for a tenor, especially if he is young. We also have the soprano sing the high E at the end of her aria which makes for another problem. When a group rehearses with a piano tuned at 440 Hz. and as we know, pianos tend to get flatter as the days pass, the singer's muscle memory get accustomed to that pitch. Then getting with an orchestra that tunes higher and creeps higher throughout a performance becomes difficult and hard on the voice until one gets accustomed to it, and I feel that 440 Hz. is not natural for the voice. Especially with the high tessituras in opera. Although I am the associate director, I sing in the chorus for some of the operas since I have good projection and a very low scale. Towards the end of Pirates of Penzance, the basses have to sing low E Flats. There are times after performances when I tell the orchestra that we never sang a low E Flat due to the creeping up in tuning that is common with all instrumentalists today. Another important point to our subject of tuning is that when Sullivan composed these operas, the tuning was at 435 Hz. and the strings used gut strings with all the winds made of wood. One of our percussionists uses a bass drum made in 1880 which has a very large sound with a resonant projected ringing clarity and long decay. I am certain that this is the kind of bass drum that Verdi wrote for in his Requiem and not for the kind that we use today that have such a dull thud.

When I was very young, around age 7, 8, and 9, I use to attend the opera and symphony quite often. I lived in Chicago so it was very convenient. I loved the late romantic and some of the modern composers but not Mozart, Haydn or Handel. I found their music dull and lackluster and felt it did not fit. When I went to Europe, I heard the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Leonhardt Consort play these composers on the instruments of the period with the tuning of the period. It was a new awakening for me, and now I am a Haydn freak and have a great love for Mozart and Handel as well. I always liked their choral music, but I found the instrumental music lacking. So now, in our time we have a great advantage that has not existed for well over 150 years - hearing these composers in a manner closer to that of their time and as well as can be done today. Even the works of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc. are much improved if correctly built instruments with correct tunings are used in performance. We have this on CD much more than in the concert hall. However, here in Los Angeles we have two baroque orchestras with a large selection of singers who specialize in early periods. Many of them have been educated in Europe. San Francisco also has a famous period orchestra conducted by Nicholas McEgan.

When you speak of concert pitch as it exists today, you conjure up much more dialogue than just tuning. Along with it comes instrument building, strings, change of elements in winds, techniques of playing, orchestral seating arrangement and space between players. All this has taken around two hundred years to come about, and now in our time, we take tuning and all the other things so much for granted that to get to know anything about it takes a great deal of time and large part of one's life.

So now that I have rambled on and on and taken up so much of your time, I will close. I am glad that you have brought this subject to the forum and caused the amount of reaction that you have. It is a good thing.

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Note: Robert H. Rogers served as stage director of the California Boys Choir, Los Angeles, California. 

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© Copyright 2000 Robert H. Rogers Used with permission


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This page was last modified on 06 December 2005