Historical Tunings on Modern Pianos

By Carl Radford, RPT

(Reprinted with permission from the June, 2010 Partial Post, 
official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)

I was at Symphony Center a few years ago and I noticed a poster for a concert in which a famous pianist would be playing the entire Well Tempered Clavier. I couldn’t bear to go to the concert, because I was quite certain that the piano would have been tuned to Standard Equal Temperament. I just shook my head and thought to myself; how ludicrous to play an entire concert with a piece that was intended to demonstrate the amazing varieties and colors of a Well Tempered tuning, but instead tuning the instrument to Equal Temperament, which totally removes any key color or variety. And the funny thing is, when you go to these recitals the program notes go on and on about the very things (such as what Bach had in mind by writing this piece for a Well Tempered piano) that you can’t and won’t hear during the performance, because the piano is tuned to Equal Temperament.

When I play my Steinway at home and am constantly thrilled by the key colors and chords and genius of the composers and how they utilized these sonorities in Well Temperament. Then I go to Ravinia and hear the piano concerts and I think to myself; how boring. No color. How much more exciting and beautiful this would have been if the pianist and audience could hear the changes in key colors as the composer meant it to be heard. When I am at those concerts I only long to hear what I know I am missing.

I first learned about Well Temperament almost two decades ago when I went to a temperament recital with the late Owen Jorgensen. My life changed that day in many ways: my tuning life, my musical life, my piano playing life. As soon as I heard those sounds the music made complete sense to me. It was as if I had been born colorblind and now suddenly I could see in living color, as it always should have been. At the time I fully expected that once musicians heard these tunings they would fully embrace it as I and other tuners had, however this has not come to pass; at least not yet. I still believe it will. It’s just happening a lot slower than I thought it would.

Sure, some musicians, most notably Peter Serkin, and many tuners, have embraced the historical tunings and understand and enjoy them as much as I do. But most concert halls and major performing artists and universities still have not. Why? Fear mostly, I suppose. Fear of change or doing anything differently than has been done for the last century or so now. Fear of what will happen if they don’t follow the rest of the pack. The ironic part is that the musicians who embrace this “new old technology” will set themselves apart from the rest and sound better than the rest. 

Another reason may be that the differences in tunings are so subtle that many simply do not hear the differences unless compared side by side. Certainly an audience would not consciously know the difference, but I guarantee you they will be more moved emotionally during a performance of a piano that is tuned to a historical tuning and respond to it more, even though they may not realize why. It has been my experience when doing temperament recitals of my own, that even audience members with virtually no musical background are surprised that, when compared side by side, they can readily hear the difference between the tunings and they always are more moved by the historical tunings.

As a musician, historical tunings also require more musicianship and understanding of basic music theory than does a piano tuned in Equal Temperament. You can’t just modulate into a random key in a historical tuning without knowing the tuning theory and music theory behind it. That requires a basic background is harder to gain and an understanding that many today don’t possess.

I also believe that a large reason why these tunings haven’t come into the mainstream yet is that the recording industry has changed so much. It used to be that we would lie on the floor and do nothing but listen to vinyl records for hours and savor every moment of a recording. Now everything is digital and the quality of the sound isn’t as important as is how many thousands of songs can be fit into an iPod. I have found that the emotion that is gained through Well Temperament is subsequently lost when recorded and played digitally. It seems to make everything emotionally flatter and blander, much the same way the Equal Temperament does. (This is no doubt why ET is very suitable for digital music.) When, for example, was the last time you sat with your full attention to a CD? Probably never. After a few minutes your mind wanders and you start multi-tasking. You start doing other things and the music becomes background noise. I believe that if music was still recorded totally analog, and not digitally, artists would have begun to record in historical tunings, and other artists would have followed suit long ago.

Now, it seems, we have come to a period where, little by little, some musicians are just beginning to embrace historical tunings more, however I have found they still think that these tunings are only suitable for harpsichords and fortepianos. It is not uncommon to hear a concert with Baroque music played in historical tunings on authentic instruments. There is still, however, quite a reluctance to tune historical tunings on modern pianos, even when a modern piano is used for Baroque or Classical music. That’s very strange when you think about it.

During the golden age of the piano, the Romantic period, when the modern piano was in its heyday, for all practical purposes Equal Temperament wasn’t even invented yet, and yet rarely still today is a historical tuning used for Romantic music. The ironic thing is that the modern piano came into being during the later part of the Classical period and throughout the entire Romantic period, and a historical tuning would therefore be more appropriate to that instrument than anything else. Not only that, it would just plain sound soooo much better, more romantic and more emotional. The pianists wouldn’t have to work as hard to express themselves more fully.

I’m a big fan of the modern piano. In fact I’d say I’m an aficionado, appreciator, arbiter, bon vivant, buff, cognoscente, devotee, epicure, expert, fan, freak, maven and nut of the modern piano. Harpsichords are fine and Fortepianos are nice, and they certainly have their place in music and the concert stage, but it’s the modern piano with the bigger, bolder, more resonant sound that really blows me away. And when that modern piano has a tuning that is authentic to the period to which the music was written, there is nothing better.

That day at Symphony Center I thought to myself; how amazing it would be to walk into such a high level concert, with an tremendous artist like Barenboim on a great piano like the ones they have at Symphony Center, with an wondrous program like the entire Well Tempered Clavier, and hear the same concert played on the tuning for which it was intended, and be able to revel in, and enjoy all the subtle nuances that Bach meant for us to hear. And rather than be bored… be moved…

Some day I hope it will be commonplace.