Concert Pitch
(A discussion)

Question:

I have a question concerning 'concert pitch'. To the best of my knowledge today's concert pitch is A=440. I seem to remember reading (and this was quite a few years ago) that concert pitch has *not* been a standard pitch throughout the centuries. I seem to recall that at one time it was A=400.

If this is true then are not musical pieces written by Bach and others in past centuries being sung higher than actually written.

I am interested in finding out how the variations of concert pitch have affected performances over the years. Or if in fact it does affect performance. It would seem to me that a piece of music written with A=400 and performed at A=440 would require the singer to try for notes higher than intended.

Please do correct me if I am wrong.

Regards,
Larry Ford

Answer:

I am hopeful that someone far more knowledgeable than me will eventually supply a more definitive answer to your query. In the  meantime let me share with you my less-than-expert observations.

The standardization of pitch is a relatively modern development.  If you consider the practices of organ builders in the past (whose instruments to a certain extent determined the pitch of accompanied music), individual organ builders often had their own personal take on temperaments and relative pitch. This could vary from organ to organ and from region to region.

The relative pitch of choral music has been a matter of speculation and debate for a long time.  When Tudor church music, after a long period of neglect, once again started to take its place in the cathedral repertoire it wasn't very popular.  The problem was that the editions being printed often pitched anthems far too low creating a muddy, lifeless quality.  Modern scholarship has corrected this problem, but it is a far from an exact science simply because there was no standardization of pitch.

Another source for consideration of pitch is the hymnal.  Generally, hymns are pitched considerably lower today than they were at the turn of the century. The pitch of certain hymns is a third lower than it was in the eighteenth century.

The point that I'm trying to make (not too successfully I might add) is that pitch is a relative matter.

Now, hopefully, someone else will clarify the matter so that this convoluted post won't be last word.

Regards,
Steven Rhode

Larry's reply to Steven:

One of the things that prompted my inquiry was a statement made on one of the lists that there were treble boys who could sing higher than the piano keyboard. If the boys were singing music written with notes that high wouldn't it seem reasonable that the music was written on an instrument that was pitched lower. It doesn't seem reasonable to me for a composer to write music his instrument can't reproduce.

Of course, if there were no 'standard' pitches in the past then your answer is probably the most likely.

Regards,
Larry Ford

Answer:

(Larry) I have a question concerning 'concert pitch'. To the best of my knowledge today's concert pitch is A=440. I seem to remember reading (and this was quite a few years ago) that concert pitch has *not* been a standard pitch throughout the centuries. I seem to recall that at one time it was A=400.

In the early-days of music (baroque music for instance), the pitch was indeed lower than A=440Hz, it was (I believe) A=425Hz. Any performance on 'period-instruments' will thus be a bit lower (I believe it's a bit less than half a note lower).

(Larry) If this is true then are not musical pieces written by Bach and others in past centuries being sung higher than actually written.

Yes, that is true... But would you hear it? For singing this doesn't really matter, but for instruments this is of VITAL importance of course. For instance: We've got an organ (actually, we've got two organs), but it's pitch is A=440Hz, if we use one of our organs, we won't be able to perform with period instruments. It's also very difficult to change the pitch of for instance a violin from A=440Hz to A=425Hz, it tends to 'go back' to it's former pitch a bit.

(Larry) I am interested in finding out how the variations of concert pitch have affected performances over the years. Or if in fact it does affect performance. It would seem to me that a piece of music written with A=400 and performed at A=440 would require the singer to try for notes higher than intended.

It will not really affect the performance, it's just a bit lower.

Sven van Heel

Answer:

I am not familiar with how it was on the continent, but I remember writing a paper in grad school about this issue with regard to music written in the 16th century in England.  At that time there was no standardized pitch in England.  It was different from one town to another.   However, someone discovered writings by Thomas Morley in which he referred to an organ pipe of a certain length as being a certain pitch.  We know what pitch that pipe would be in today's terms, so they were able to figure out that in general, music written in the 15th-16th century in England should be performed today about a minor third higher than it was written.  (There is a school of thought that believes it should be even higher than that.)  But in any case, this has been known for quite a while, so editors of English 16th century music have taken this into account for the past 60 years or so, and it is likely that anything you would buy now has already been transposed. I imagine it is the same with continental music.

Martha Ainsworth


Answer:

This is a very difficult and complicated matter. There is very little hard evidence as to which pitch has been used in the past. Steven has already written about the vocal music of the renaissance. With voices you can basically use every pitch that suits you. As soon as you are going to use instruments you have to standardize pitch, at least to a certain extent. That is exactly what happened in the baroque period. But there were enormous differences in pitch in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is known that in Salzburg in Mozart's time different pitches were used in Salzburg!

I don't have any reference material at hand right now, so I am willing to dwell on this subject later. I hope to go to the library tomorrow and I'll see what I can find.

I would like to make a couple of points though.

In Germany the situation is most complicated, I think. In church music the organ was decisive. In an ensemble - with voices (and instruments) - the organ was used for the basso continuo parts (not the small chamber organs which are mostly used in modern performances). The organist could play in transposition, when the pitch was too uncomfortable for the singers or using the organ pitch would result in strange keys. When wind instruments were used their limitations had to be taken into account as well. In those days they couldn't play in every key.

The problem is that there was no standard pitch for organs. It is thought that in the region in which Schütz and Bach lived most organs had a pitch of a semitone or even a whole tone above modern standard pitch. This is what is called organ pitch. Just to make things even more complicated there was also the chamber pitch, which was a semitone *below* modern standard pitch.

Naturally the pitch has a big influence on the performance. When music from the 17th or 18th century is performed the parts are often very difficult for singers. In the high pitch there are problems for the sopranos. Women often sound stressed when they have to sing such high notes. (That is a strong argument in favour of using trebles, who take these notes with ease.) Often the middle voices are problematic: too low for an (male) alto, too high for a tenor. The cause is not the music, but today's singers. In early days singers had very flexible voices. Altos used their chest voice (most male altos of today don't do that) and tenors didn't bother to use their falsetto register when they needed it. That is very uncommon today - to use your falsetto to sing the top notes is seen by most singers as a sign of technical failure. Of course, the sound is different. But contrast was an ideal of the baroque - look at the contrast of light and shadow in baroque paintings. The baroque flute sounds very different in the high register compared with the lower register. That is not a technical failure, but a reflection of the baroque aesthetics.

In the 19th century attempts were made to standardize pitch. There were many virtuosos travelling through the world to play with orchestras, and it was very difficult to get used to a different pitch every time. Since about the middle of the last century the standard pitch is more or less A=440. There was a discussion about this subject some time ago in one of the newsgroups on the internet, and someone wrote that Verdi was in favour of a somewhat lower pitch. It is said that today the pitch tends to move upwards, to achieve a more brilliant sound. But many singers are complaining: their voices are stressed by such high pitches and they are afraid of ruining their voice. One of the 'three tenors' (I forgot who it was) advocated a lower pitch, more or less a semitone lower - that would be the baroque chamber pitch. (Who would have expected that from one of them!) That is all I can say right now. As I said, I would like to add something later.

Johan van Veen
Utrecht (Netherlands)
jvveen@casema.net

Answer:

Historical pitch was truly all over the map. Variations by town and country, household to household. Tuning instructions for lutes in England during the 1500's were quite specific -  "Pull up the 1st string until just before it breaks, then tune the others by use of the proper intervals."

As I recall from grad school, many of the "A's" during the Baroque era on the continent were lower than 440, some by almost a whole step, many about a half step lower. But again, it varied from town to town, not just from country to country. My string friends tell me that if you tune a violin (especially an old one) down a half step, the top string loses all of its stridency and matches wonderfully with the other strings. Because of that, they believe that the pitch was generally lower when violin design was "standardized" during the early 1600's by the likes of Stradivari and Amati.

The 20th century has seen a rise in the demand for ever-brighter sound. Even 15 years ago, some of the orchestras in Germany were playing A= 448 (That was a real killer for an oboe friend of mine who moved there to study. Says she was sore for months while learning how to make it happen)

Personally, I take all sorts of liberties with pitch if it sounds better to my ears.  I have no problem with transposing a piece up or down. The only drawback is when there is an accompaniment, in which case you either need a gifted accompanist who can transpose on sight, or you have to do the work to rewrite it.

As an example, we have done Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes" more than once. The first year it went fine in the written key of D.  The next time we did it (a few years later) it never came together until I took it down to Db. The change in the quality of singing and the effect (and affect) of the piece was dramatic.

Dan Krunnfusz
Madison Boys' Choir

Answer:

(Sven) In the early-days of music (baroque music for instance), the pitch was indeed lower then A=440Hz, it was (I believe) A=425Hz. Any performance on 'period-instruments' will thus be a bit lower (I believe it's a bit less than half a note lower).

I have heard instances (from my history teacher, who is something of an expert on early music) of A being as low as 398.

(Sven) Yes, that is true... But would you hear it? For singing this doesn't really matter, but for instruments this is of VITAL importance of course.

I disagree! The human voice only GOES so high, after all, and in the case of obscenely high pieces of music such as "Der Holle Rache" from Mozart's Magic Flute; when it was written, those darned Fs were SIGNIFICANTLY lower than they are now!

Maria Holub <sopraniste@yahoo.com>

Answer:

We are only now learning enough about historic pitch to learn that we shouldn't make any assumptions! Pitch changed from town to town, church to church, organ to organ. For example, Bach's St. Matthew Passion parts has the chorus I organ part written a whole step lower than the other parts, because the organ was pitched a step higher than what orchestral instruments were used to playing (there was chorton and kammerton). Not only where "A" was set was highly flexible, but the temperment one sang and played was flexible. 17th-18th century opera singers in Paris were used to using different temperments when they went from one house to another, something no singer can do today. One wonders whether choral singers did the same. Here in Grand Rapids, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, we have a replica of a 17th century French organ built by Gene Bedient of Nebraska, tuned to a mean tone temperment with 6 perfect thirds. It's interesting to hear French baroque music on it, but useless for anything else, especially the Anglican liturgy; plus the congregation and concert audiences will always think of it as being out of tune in any key besides C. It is played once or twice a year.

One should be wary of anyone who claims to know exactly what pitch particular music of one era or country should be, it is probably a gross generalization. Be especially careful about the claim regarding English choral music of the Tudor period being a third higher. Many pieces during this time were written for AATB or ATTB, no boy singers being available or reliable. Putting them a third higher makes them accessible for men and boys or men and women, but that is not the same as saying that this is how they "should" be done.

If you want to know far more than you can absorb about pitch, find the books by (retired) Prof. Owen Jorgensen of Michigan State University. He's about the only person who has read every English treatise and most continental ones about pitch and temperment. His overall conclusion is that it boiled down to what the musician in charge thought of as "in good taste." While that doesn't give us the definitive answers we always seem to crave, it does allow us to use our best judgement and still be "authentic." "Lift Thine Eyes" has always sounded better to me in D-flat anyway! One fact that is undeniable is that truly equal temperment and A=440 was not standardized in Europe until 1917-19!

Peter Hopkins
Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys

Douglas' reply to Peter:

I think the nexus of your commentary is absolutely correct:  that no one can nail down very much regarding musical pitch through history, any more than we might be able to recreate the exact sound that a castrato might have made (the movie "Farinelli" notwithstanding, in which the movie producer decided to co-mingle the sound of a countertenor with that of a female contralto to evoke some of the characteristics of both types of voices, an experiment interesting but doubious at best as an attempt to recreate the castrato sound that once thrilled Europe).

Your point that a certain "comfort level" is more important to the reality of live performance than is theoretical accuracy.  Common sense must enter into it, as well.  I also agree with Dan with regard to the trio "Lift Thine Eyes" that while written in the key of D major, there are choirs that would benefit from singing it in Db, assuming the piece is being sung out of context, of course, of the work from which it derives, "Elijah."  (The following chorus, "He, watching over Israel" continues in D major, preventing any key transposition from within "Elijah" itself.)

One other example of "historical accuracy" besides pitch might be instrumentation and voicings.  For my own taste, I want to hear a boy soloist when I hear a Baroque oboe, while if a modern oboe is employed, a woman's voice (again, to my ears) is a better match.

Douglas Neslund

(Printable version)

Return

© Copyright 2002 Larry Ford All rights reserved
This page was last modified on 06 December 2005