Red. Bright red, with huge, gold letters stamped on its three-inch spine. The surrounding sea of other publications blended quietly to a drab, blue-gray wash on the library shelves, like an enormous picture frame engulfing a small masterwork. I really had no choice but to rise from my desk, walk across the room - carpeted with brown and tan mosaics and lined with light oak cubicles - turn my head ninety degrees to read the fine print and wonder what on earth was so important about this subject that it warranted such magnificence in color and volume. I had come to the university library to explore, and this book became my first stop. That was twenty years ago.
TUNING. The gold letters were set in a timeless, dignified serif font. I shoved the surrounding books aside and hoisted it down from its perch. Flipping past the few blank pages and copyright notices, I came to the full title page, and though the words that greeted me were written in English, I struggled to understand their meanings. “Tuning: Containing the Perfection of Eighteenth-Century Temperament, the Lost Art of Nineteenth-Century Temperament and the Science of Equal Temperament.” I was an obsessive piano student, and was taking an independent study in piano literature. My only assignment was to explore, and so my explorations began. Music is a difficult enough subject to write about, as it is defined by vibrations and time, not literary phrases; so reading about various tuning techniques from two hundred years ago requires a bit of imagination to hear in your mind's ear. The first few chapters of the book confronted with strange names, terms, and mathematical charts; the moment of clarity came when I read this (and I summarize): Equal Temperament, the tuning system that all modern musicians use, requires a sophisticated mathematical understanding that was not published until after 1900. That means that all of our beloved Romantic composers – Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and even Brahms, composed and played music based on tuning systems that are different than what we use today. For me as a pianist, this news was as shocking and upsetting as discovering by flipping through the evening news that my parents were not my own. What sounds had I not been hearing? Were all of our musical concerts really just a hollow shell, devoid of their original beauty? What is this lost art?
I finished my independent study with an undergraduate-level paper on the very broad topic of unequal temperament. A class in “performance practice” during my master's studies gave me an opportunity to return to the subject; and when the time came for me to choose a dissertation topic, I decided to apply my energies to the subject in full. The result was an electronic paper including 432 musical examples in 12 different tuning systems, and a performance with two pianos on stage: one with modern tuning, and another with an altered baroque tuning. The music was a collection of Chopin's Mazurkas – short, colorful dances, written in eleven different keys and expressing a range of emotions. After only a short explanation and demonstration, the audience embraced the baroque tuning, and complained when I returned to the bland, modern tuning. Twenty years since my discovery of this lost art form, I remain entranced by its beauty.
What you will hear on this recording is a nine-foot Steinway grand, tuned to a system published in 2001 by Bradley Lehman. This tuning system is a fascinating study on its own, and I applaud Dr. Lehman's insight and marvelous work. It is based on the proposal that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier contains tuning instructions on the title page of the work, embedded in what looks like a decorative border. It is a wonderfully versatile system, and works beautifully with all music through the Romantic era.
This recording pair pieces from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier with romantic works in the same key. It is fascinating to hear the emotional congruity between pieces whose only tie is the key in which they are written. You, the listener, will be able to discern some of this through your headphones or speakers, but there is nothing like sitting in front of a giant wooden and steel instrument – 20 tons of tension on the strings – and feeling the purity of perfect thirds, or the stress of diminished sevenths, course through your chest cavity, skull, and large muscles. When you're ready to experience that, give me a call. Live music is always better.
July 15, 2014