Historical Temperaments: A New Trend in Piano Tuning

By Carl Radford, RPT

(Reprinted with permission from the December, 1991 Partial Post, official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)

It may be that in the next decade or so you will see a change in the temperament of piano technicians.

Recently I went to the Piano Technicians Guild seminar put on by the Madison chapter on historical tunings. The first part of the program was a lecture / demonstration by Owen Jorgensen, with whom I'm sure many are familiar. Owen had two pianofortes, three verticals and two Mason & Hamlin grands, all tuned to differing temperaments, however this time his lecture had a little different and quite unexpected twist.

He began the lecture with a bold and surprising theory. It seems that he received a grant to go to England and study European historical tunings. He expected to come back with an article for the journal. However, he wrote for five years and wound up with an eight hundred page, red book called, simply, Tuning. (It sells for $65.00, which is about .67 cents a pound.)

Various theoretical Equal Temperaments have come up throughout the history of tuning since early China, but Equal Temperament, as we know it today, cannot have existed until 1917 when William Braid White "discovered" beat rates. Up until that time, tuners tuned by fifths, chords and colors. Equal Temperament was only a theory that tuners strove for, had the mathematical knowledge for, but did not have the ability to achieve, because they could not count beats yet. Equal Temperament is based on a mathematical concept (splitting the octave into twelve equal parts, or the twelfth root of 2); not a naturally occurring acoustic concept.

William Braid White, who is sometimes know as the father of the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG), throughout his career began to define Equal Temperament with beat rates and set the standards for which modern tuners would follow. What's more, it was at this time that the PTG began, and they needed a standard with which they could test tuners for competency, i.e. Equal Temperament. Soon, as the PTG grew and gained recognition, Equal Temperament became the only temperament (in the United States at least) and the Meantone and Well Temperaments of earlier centuries fell almost completely out of practice. So, in a way, the PTG fostered Equal, and inadvertently squelched Well and Meantone Temperaments. It was also at the time that the musician, in most cases, no longer tuned his own piano, so the tuner and the pianos, by necessity, became separate.

After stating the above theory, Owen began to show us what we've been missing on the various pianos, namely: color. He went back and fourth from piano to piano, playing various pieces by differing composers, and always comparing to the one Mason & Hamiln with Equal Temperament. The results were astonishing and inspiring. All of a sudden, music which we have played and heard many time before came to life. I never much cared for Italian Renaissance or even Baroque music, but when played on Well and Meantone Temperaments they had meaning that simply doesn't exist on an equally tempered piano. He would play a piece in, say, C major, and then play it again in several other keys. They sounded acceptable in other keys, even passable, certainly not offensive, but when played in the proper key, it suddenly made sense and came alive again. Also Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven came to life. Not only that, after a while one began to dread every time he would go to the equally tempered piano. When I finally had a chance to play the pianos myself, I came to realize that some pieces I had written or arranged in certain keys didn't work as well as they might. The "somewhere in Time" piece that I like to pay in C Major is passable, but a little too still in C Major. Yet when transposed to C# Major it shimmered.

Playing with colors also tends to change the way one interprets a piece. The pedaling is much different and you can mix tones you couldn't before. Tempos are different and almost dictated by the key. Phrasing changes. The bass isn't muddy, but clear. The differences cannot be explained on paper; it must be experienced to fully understand.

"That's all great", you say, "but you can't play in all the keys in those early temperaments. What about the pianos I tune where the customer plays everything from Buxtuhude to Bartok?" Good question. Well, everything up to 1917, and probably even much later, was tuned in these earlier temperaments. That includes everyone from Buxtuhude to Bartok. All Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic and even some Modern music was written on Well or Meantone Temperaments.

There are temperaments in existence for every taste: Temperaments which compromise and can be played in all keys, but still contain color, temperaments which can be played on only certain keys and contain great color, and Equal Temperament, which also can be played in all keys, but has the least amount of color. The closer you get to Equal, the more color you lose and the less offensiveness you achieve. Conversely, the closer you go away from Equal the more color you gain, and less keys in which you can play.

In the future, tuners will probably be expected to have a repertoire of, say, four or more different temperaments to choose from. Pianists will demand it. Which you use will depend on the pianist's taste, the music he / she likes to play, or in a concert situation, the choice of music to be played for that evening. Perhaps there will be one piano tuned Well for the first half of the program and another wheeled out in Equal for the twentieth century music for the second half of the program. Perhaps most piano teachers will keep two or three pianos in their studio with different temperaments or college practice rooms with a differently tuned piano in each room. Just think of all the work we'd have!

Now, before you label anyone a heretic, rebel and a maverick (some of the guys in Madison were a little on the obsessive side), Owen believes that Equal Temperament should remain the standard for the PTG Test. It is the hardest to tune and if you can tune Equal you can tune anything. Also, it will continue to be much requested and required, but most likely Equal will become just one of many temperaments we will have to choose from. Perhaps, to become an RPT you will have to tune Equal, and then to become a "Master RPT" you will have to be proficient in four or five of the historical temperaments. It's something to consider. I'm sure there will be a lot of debate on the subject in the future.

Finally, a quote from Owen Jorgensen's book:

It is possible that in the future Well Temperament could again become the common tuning while Equal Temperament could become a historical temperament reserved for the old twentieth-century piano music of Debussy Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber, etc. that requires it. The great keyboard music of the Classical period composed for Well Temperament will never be forgotten or fall into disuse. In the passage of time, it could dominate the piano and harpsichord recital scene.

If you're interested in trying one to the historical temperament, you might begin with Thomas Young's Well Temperament in chapter 72 and 73 or Owen's book. It's nice, because depending on how fast you tune the first third (anywhere from beatless to 7.4 bps), you can change it to fit your own personal taste. Owen's book also contains beat rates, frequencies and instructions for electronic tuners. Happy tuning!