Aviaries and Tuning Forks

Maybe it was turning the calendar over to March that did it. But it’s all about the birds today. The robins have come back to the bird feeder outside my office window. The cardinal that spent the entire winter bashing himself against said window has mysteriously and thankfully moved on. And the woodpecker that marks his territory every spring by drilling on the southwest corner of our house woke me up this morning.

Weather’s still chilly in these parts, though. And in a way, that’s good. I seem to have developed this slightly panicked visceral reaction to unseasonably warm weather in the spring. Warmth = summertime = curtain up! And we’re clearly not ready yet for the last part of that equation.

The List

Chorus auditions tomorrow and Friday. Lots of spots to fill this year. SATB in all 3 shows. Ordered the supertitle projection equipment yesterday. Contacted our improv coach at Comedy Sportz about prep for Instant Opera. Got a huge and important funding proposal put in the mail yesterday afternoon. (Thanks, Danna.) Wrestled orchestra and chorus schedules to the ground. And confirmed arrangements for the Boston Brass’ upcoming residency in two Fairfax County schools.

That’s why I make lists. So I can check things off of them.


It looks as if we’re going with A415 for our Telemann opera this summer. In attempting to explain this whole tuning craziness yesterday (not on the blog, but in person), I talked myself in circles trying to explain how we know that 1) there were a variety of pitch centers floating around Europe in the 18th century, and 2) most of them were lower than our contemporary standard of A440. The notion of organ pipes being a measurement of pitch did occur to me afterward, but I had forgotten the real evidence – tuning forks. After a little digging this morning, I realized that there are extant tuning forks from Mozart, Handel, and (it seems) even Rameau. (No Telemann, but since our Orpheus is a truly cosmopolitan work in German, French and Italian, I figure that gives us plenty of latitude)

I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re already well-versed in what I’m talking about, skip the next section. If not, spend an extra 2 minutes with me. (If you are knowledgable, I encourage you to skip it because I’d rather not hear from you when you disagree about the way I’ve explained it.))

Concert Pitch 101

After searching the internet for good introductions to this subject, I prefer this explanation from the University of Houston.

For singers, the decision to remain at modern (~440 cycles per second) pitch or to go lower to “Baroque” pitch is critical. Singers can look at a role and tell pretty quickly if the range (high note to low note) and tessitura (where the bulk of the pitches lie, excluding infrequent outliers) will fit their voices. But if a piece of music was written assuming a pitch of A392 (purportedly Rameau’s standard), every note you see on the page actually represents a pitch that’s a half-step (the next key down on the piano) lower. For pitches at the extreme ends of singers’ ranges, this is a big deal. A bass may have nary a prayer of nailing some repeated high F’s in an aria, but if it’s sung at 392 (or even 415, which kind of splits the different), it’s suddenly doable.

Welcome Back the Experts

So, if this helps reproduce what the composer was actually thinking in terms of pitch (granted, this is a guess, but a fairly well-substantiated one), why not just do it? Well, there are those pesky string and wind players in the orchestra, most of whose instruments were built around the concept of A440. Why not just tune them down? Two reasons. First, the wind instruments pretty much wouldn’t be able to do it. At least not reliably. Pure physics. The second reason is a bit more complicated.

It’s past 9:30am and I promised myself to be done blogging by now, but I’m going to persist. Without a lot of proofreading.

“Authentic” instruments – made with similar design and manufacture specifications to those actually used in the 17th & 18th centuries – have certain acoustical properties that are essentially different than modern instruments. The players themselves can go into tremendous detail about this. But I’ll address it from the listener’s point of view. The modern sound is, generally, warmer, “thicker” and more abundant in lower overtones. Lush. The older sound is clearer and higher – not in pitch, but in the way its tone and timbre make it sound.

Assemble a bunch of modern instruments. You can even tune them down in pitch a little if you’d like. Put the Telemann/Rameau/Handel score in front of them. The result is certainly beautiful, but a little tubby. Thick. Ask them to play more quietly and clearly. Adjust the bow pressure and the air column. You’ll get a cleaner, quieter sound, but it will feel a little emasculated and indistinct.

Now do it with some instruments that were designed to play at this lower pitch center. The color of the sound is different, but more importantly, the tension on the strings is higher. The player can dig in with lots of guts and determination, and the resultant sound will be dramatic and energetic but not tubby. Making it possible to create lots of drama and vitality while the overall sound remains crisp and transparent.

Not exactly a linear treatise on the subject, but with any luck, the beginnings of an answer to why we (and other organizations) occasionally hire specialists who have instruments authentic to this older time period and who have developed specialized skills in playing them.

Enough. Back to the birds and the budgets!

One Comment

Jason F.

The robins are back!! I am calling Cio Cio San….finally, someone has the answer.

Cheers, from Birmingham!

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