New York Philomusica Newsletter
Some Thoughts on the Subject of Intonation
“most striking was the exposed horn writing in the Handel, played virtuosically and with flawless intonation by Andrew Clark and François Mérand, using perilously difficult 18th-century horns”
New York Times, May 4, 2004
“The horn intonation was slippery but passable in the First Brandenburg. The braying in the Sinfonia to Bach’s Cantata No. 174...did not bode well for Johann David Heinichen’s Sonata in F for Two Horns and Strings, on the same program, and Andrew Clark and Roger Montgomery tumbled through the work, leaving a mess of mistuned notes in their wake.”
New York Times, August 11, 2004
These two reviews are by one critic writing about two different performances by one of England’s acknowledged masters of the natural (valve-less) horn. Could he be so inconsistent as to warrant such an ascorbic description of the second performance?By A. Robert Johnson, Founder & Artistic Director
Tastes change and practices evolve. One thing that cannot change is the length of an instrument made centuries ago to perform the music of its day. Tubing of varying, but specific lengths, bring a horn into the key of a piece. The instrument’s available notes, known as its overtone series, are determined by those lengths, based on the fundamentals (their bottom note) in each key. The population of music lovers is a tolerant one, especially in the presence of unusual offerings, such as those available mostly from the English these days, who have risen to prominence in the field of performance with authentic instruments. This has heightened significance as far as horns are concerned, for the tolerance just cited in music lovers, unfortunately does not extend to “messes of mistuned notes.”
It is terribly perplexing then, to see a reference in print, using malicious language, about something that is simply untrue. I attended those concerts. I certify that both performances were accurate and actually very much “in tune,” secured in the finale of the Heinichen by the astute insertion by Mr. Clark of a precise length of tubing between the mouthpiece and the first crook in anticipation of a specific need in the last movement. What the critic thought he heard as “out of tune” was the phenomenon of valve-less instruments at the upper reaches of their overtone series. In that range they become nearest neighbors to each other, subject to only the most careful manipulation through use of the embouchure (union of lips with the mouthpiece) and right hand in the bell (to alter the length of the column of air). This is not just an opinion. Were these uppermost notes even a microtone away from their available “centers” (in quotes because it is the smallest fraction of the physical space needed to produce a note), nothing of the composer’s intentions would have been realized, resulting in clearly audible catastrophe. Praise for the program of May probably resulted from the fact that the pitches required by Handel in his Water Music are written no higher than the 4th partial before the top note in the key of the pieces.
Intonation is a frequent subject of remark in print and in conversation. People who have the ability to hear a pitch at a given frequency and identify it without reference to an instrument of any kind are said to have “perfect pitch.” They are also said to be cursed, because they are uncomfortable if the pitch being played is not the one they want to hear.
“In tune” is, in fact, a relative perception. Good musicianship results in intervals that sound attractive to the ear by virtue of their relativity to other notes, both in melody and in harmony. The finest musicians know that “good” intonation sounds right by virtue of its being a reflection of characteristics in the fundamental note (the lowest identifiable frequency of every pitch). Innumerable influences have to be mastered by professionals to get a result that sounds appealing to most people.
It is an accomplishment to write criticism of musical events on a deadline for the media. A critic is expected to place the concert under review into its contemporary context succinctly using a minimum of space. The person who wrote the reviews quoted above is tops in the profession. Well done so far, but, as with so much in New York, I notice that there was little or no attempt to persuade. Subtly, nuance and a willingness to engage in the discourse of the inherent mysteries of the art are instead supplanted by an air of final judgment, rendered from on high. The lead critic of The Times uses the pronoun “I” more times than any reviewer I’ve read in nearly 50 years of reading reviews from around the globe, and in New York, every day. Is what he reviews more about him than the subject of the review? Apparently. There is much, much more to say on these subjects, which may be found in my Quodlibet.
There has been a definite move away from reporting the arts as we have grown to know them, with a subject of a review being driven by a comparison of hair styles of performers, or by unusual location, especially places most people wouldn’t think to go to for a concert experience, such as inside a pillar of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Both were subjects of recent reviews in the pages of The Times). On November 30, 2004 The Public Editor wrote in the News of the Week in Review about the controversy generated by the shift in what The Times will list in their events coverage, and when, redefining what to cover to include “experimental arts, the Internet, and >non-art museums and exhibitions.” We have observed vast amounts of space in the paper being given over to graphics, full-color photographs and cartoons. News content now competes against bizarrely juxtaposed full page ads for clothing and cosmetics. The paper must be profitable to exist, and it has been, but radio news reports tell us that The Times is lowering its profit projections for the next quarter. How to draw a content line that will assure profitability is obviously elusive. Leading the cultural inquiry of life in this metropolis in the 21st Century, employing an increasingly degraded sense of what the populace considers worthwhile as it examines its traditions and builds new ones seems suspect as a model for development and growth. And for the critic who chooses to write in ignorance, and with malice towards the people necessary for the practice of his/her profession, the possibility of being replaced by a cartoonist is real. This trend might be reversible, but first the editors would have to acknowledge the appetite for astute coverage that remains.
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