New York Philomusica


". . . an excellent performance of Shostakovich’s bleak ‘String Quartet No. 11’, with lovely viola solos. . . .Tchaikovsky’s sextet ‘Souvenir de Florence’. . .was splendid. . .full of fire and enthusiasm."
Strings Magazine, 2000









Quodlibet

Intonation

December 8, 2004
See also New York Philomusica newsletter, December 2004

Intonation is a frequent subject of remark in print and in conversation. Nearly everyone assumes that there is something absolute about pitch that can be described as �in tune.� There is a phenomenon that fits that description, and by contrast, many that deserve the other � �out of tune.� What distinction can be made between the two to which most people would subscribe?

This is a tough question to answer. Some background is in order. I�ve heard a musician claim that �I can tune an instrument within minutes of taking it in hand.� That is an ignorant remark. �In tune� is, in fact, a relative perception. Distinctions in musical hands are made between intervals that are sequential, as in scales, and in harmony, between horizontal movement and vertical relativity - as derived from looking at the printed score. The top of the orchestra derives its pitch orientation from the notes emanating from the lowest reaches of the orchestration, not the other way around. No one can play �in tune� in the abstract. The fundamental pitches are necessary to establish where the pitch will sound best. That too is conceptual, not absolute, but you have to begin somewhere.

Problems abound. The �A� given to an orchestra by the oboe. It has the least latitude to modify its pitch, a fact dictated by its length and the amount of space for adjustment provided by the distance into its neck the reed can be inserted. The �A� 440 used for tuning is the standard today (�440' refers to a wave or oscillation in cycles or completed alternations in a second of time.) Over the years the Boston Symphony became known for tuning to an �A� 444, the Philadelphia for an �A� 438. The higher frequency produced tones throughout the orchestra that seemed to produce greater brilliance. The lower frequency is thought to result in a deeper tonal hue. The difference between a 438 and a 444 �A� is not easy to discern for most non-musicians. Of course the first oboist in the respective orchestras would have to bring an instrument to the job that provided an �A� necessary for that job. The reasons for this discrepancy are not at all clear. The respective conductors� musical interpretive demands probably drove the issue, Munch in Boston, Ormandy in Philadelphia. The culture of their key players would also have an influence, that is, what they brought with them to the orchestra, in each case derived from different European traditions.

When curiosity and the entrepreneurial spirit got the better of them, modern European musicians started taking some of the old instruments that populated the shelves of their museums out into the concert realm to sample their sound in the local halls, old enough to have been there at the time the instruments were introduced. Many discoveries were made. The absolute length of a Baroque oboe or recorder defined its pitch and all the others with it, of course, with a resulting �A� 438 or thereabouts, significantly lower than in the modern orchestra. Gut strings and the height of the bridge across which the strings are strung on the viol family of instruments required a fairly light touch, which was fine while the keyboard instruments did not produce voluminous amounts of sound. The composers of Beethoven�s era and beyond reached for more tonal heft, leading them to persuade manufacturers to do whatever necessary to produce it. They succeeded. A nine-foot concert grand today is probably ten times more powerful than any instrument Beethoven was able to commission. With ever-more-powerful instruments evolving in one of the instrumental realms, others were forced to follow. Bridges on stringed instruments are much higher now, and they employ steel-wrapped strings. These issues are inter-related. 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.

Imagine my pleasure at being able to find for New York Philomusica and its listeners a living, breathing exponent of the natural, Baroque and classical horns. I did so in Andrew Clark, residing in England. I traveled there to confirm that what I�d heard him do on record was his standard in live performance. I went to The Glyndebourne Festival to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performing in Beethoven�s opera, Fidelio, on period instruments. Andrew and his colleagues in the horn section play the assigned key of a given number through the adroit, exchanging coils of tubing of varying, but specific lengths. Because the instrument�s overtone series is determined by those lengths, based on the fundamentals of each key, any inaccuracies in the length of the tubes will have dire consequences. These muscians played magnificently! Composers heard the beauty of the instrument in its uppermost partials and of course incorporated that potential into their scores. Fidelio, in typical Beethoven fashion, asks the three horns to swing around at the top of their range in chromatic passage-work, not just the usual arpeggios. (The premiere was conducted by the composer, who had, by this time, become totally deaf. One of his most supportive patrons was moved to deliver a note to him to �...please stop! It is too terrible.�)

Beethoven, and we, hear chromatic (notes one-half tone apart) as tones of a very specific pitch, which is understandable. Idiosyncrasies exist on instruments, which have to be mastered. On the �natural� horn the notes are in reality determined by their place in the arpeggio known as overtones, which are of the physical science, not the acoustic. The arpeggio is defined in every instance by a finite physical interval, beginning with an octave and proceeding upward in ever diminishing numerical relationships, become just seconds apart about an octave below its top notes, leaving it to the player to sort out the subtleties. Therefore, they do not necessarily conform to what an individual may wish to hear. The player might find ways to bring them into conformity with what the notation dictates and make a credible case for the composer with an unusual degree of talent, discipline, knowledge, self-confidence and faith. The embouchure, the place where mouthpiece meets lips, must be shaped precisely, the hand introduced into the bell exactly right and breath controlled with consummate finesse for the distinctions described to have any chance of realization. In the Baroque horn the hand is not used at all! The bell is too tiny. Andrew Clark does all this with miraculous results. Those who know anything about any of this doff their hats to him for his achievement � No, they are in awe. When he as an off day he plays better than most hornists on the modern instrument on their good days.

Kurt Vonnegut says his own epitaph should read: �The only proof he needed of the existence of God was music.� When Bach and Heinichen, cited in the review of Andrew Clark�s performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, conceived their orchestrations, the joy at the prospect of such sonorities as those produced by the horns, when weighed against their unreliability, assured their inclusion in the ensemble. After all, the whole enterprise was one of taking risk for the sake of a possibly beautiful outcome. Time has not changed that assessment. This is music that speaks to us across the centuries. Informed ears are not only aware of the imperfections inherent in such recreations, they are very, very pleased that there are modern instrumentalists who will take up the challenge.

After conquering all, Andrew Clark has to travel all the way to New York, which once upon a time had a reputation for producing, and recognizing excellence in the performing arts, to discover what a jerk he sounds like to our contemporary New Yorkers, at least those who report on these events. This makes we New Yorkers, if we be represented by our press, one of the more back-water places on the cultural circuit of the contemporary world. I only hope the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will not consider this town too, too insular and unenlightened to bring their fare to our stages in future.

Being out-of-tune

There is more to say about this term, given its frequent misapplication. Do most people know that the piano is at all times, and at its best, �out of tune?� It has to be, for it cannot play in 24 different keys and be �in tune� in but in one of them, and even that one will be subject to opinion. Therefore, it has been tempered -- that is, given a livable compromise by its tuner. This compromise was explored by Johann Sebastian Bach in his famous Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 24 variations, one for each key. How lucky we are that many critics don�t seem to know of this. Assuming they had the disciplined ears to recognize this phenomenon, their reviews would probably dwell on the oddity of it � its �messiness.� [For a thorough account of this issue, consult Groves Vol.20, pg. 337, �Well-tempered clavier.�]

Do you know any of the six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin by Bach? These are great compositions well represented in today�s classical record collections. Listen to six different violinists play any one of those pieces and compare them. Each will sound �in tune� and be entirely different from the other. How is it possible? Their unique musicality is what makes us want to listen. The extreme lowering of a minor third (easily done on the fingerboard of a stringed instrument) may not be to the liking of every listener, but could be heard as the definitive interpretation by some. To a person being paid to write a report about it, this could become something terrible - �out of tune.� There is no way a performer can respond to this charge. S/he is damned by someone who will never be heard giving his own account of pitch.

The cult of personality in a reviewer is, to begin with, a terrible thing to see. My sole investment for writing this is in time, if I have fundamental knowledge of the subject, an opinion about it, and basic writing skills to express it. Getting paid to do this, even on deadline, provides time for correction. Not so in performing. Time is absolute tyranny to the performer. Our late Board Chairman, George Plimpton, described his experience in the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic as a �ringer� the most terrifying of his life in participatory journalism, more than baseball, boxing, football, hockey or being flung off the trapeze at the circus. His fright was because of the absolute function of time in music. There is no �time out.�

Performers have to make allowances for the critic, and most wouldn�t dream of countering what is said in print, because they do not have a reliable platform on which to base a response. Moreover, since the critic does appear on a regular basis, any exceptions to the way in which s/he practices the craft could draw condemnation, not for the criticism, but for the next and subsequent performances. The playing field is definitely tilted in favor of the writer, not the performer. This last feature of being a critic greatly extends the license they are able to take as they offer their opinions in matters of taste.

Yet a useful purpose is served, for discussions of �taste� and interpretation in any medium can be engaging, informative and entertaining. Furthermore they can arouse interest in the art. And news is made in the realms of culture that deserves to be reported to the population of readers, not all of whom can get to the events under review. However, given the recent evidence that prose in print media is being subsumed by cartoons, the astute critic might wish to write reviews that acknowledge the pleasure derived by listeners, as happened resoundingly in the hall where the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment presented Bach and Heinichen in August of 2004.

Is it not true that all media need profit to remain viable? Aren�t concert-goers consumers? Critics, employed by the media to write about events in the arts ought to be encouraging listeners into the seats of our concert halls while they can - while there is still something going on in them to write about.

They know change is afoot. The Columbia School of Journalism held a conference in October, 2004 entitled: �Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism.� Seminars included �Looking Back to Look Ahead: How Music Criticism Has Changed in 100 Years,� which asks �Do music critics serve the same function that they did in earlier times?� and �The Gatekeepers� View: Editors Discuss Changing Paradigms in the Arts Beat� that posits the following: �Each newspaper has a unique vision of arts coverage, yet there is also a national standard. This panel explores five views of arts coverage: what factors determine how much coverage is accorded to classical music vs. the other arts and why, and what new areas of knowledge and journalistic skills an effective classical music critic must possess today: closing with: �Now What? A Speculative Conversation on the Critic of the Future:� in which �Summarizing three days of trend-spotting and debates, two critics try to glean some lessons, both for themselves and their successors.�

�Now What� may already have been answered. Coverage in the print media has been reduced significantly. At the NY Times, music criticism has indeed been reduced significantly while ever-larger graphic representations of subject matter swallow vast amounts of space on the page. If the subject is hairstyles of performers, or music heard inside the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge (two recent reviews in the �Arts Section� of the NY Times were on these subjects), then indeed, �the arts� are being covered. In the Sunday edition of the NY Times, dated November 28, 2004, The Public Editor wrote: ��Readers make noise when a newspaper replaces a symphony with a jingle.� Editorial reaction to the outcry was dumbfounded, a little defensive, a little dismissive [and] only one part of a [long-planned] mammoth remaking of the cultural coverage of The Times.� Proclaiming their vision of the future, the editors have cited the fact that twenty staff positions were created to produce the new content and improve the old. They are being assigned to cover the �experimental arts, the Internet, and �non-art museums and exhibitions. The decision must seem right to editors who read from their reporters that listeners are subjected to a �mess of mistuned notes.�

The likes of Andrew Clark will be on the scene for some time to come, I predict, but the newspaper critic seems imperiled by the cartoonists. This change is devastating to the culture of music, its patrons and its practitioners. The corollary fall-off in attendance at events put on by arts institutions, both large and small, resulted in the massive protest to the NY Times, referred to above, which centered on the perception that the owners, through their editors, have concluded that very little of what these institutions offer is worth the newspaper�s time, attention and money.

To whom can we look?

Who are the worst critics? In the 19th Century Hanslick rates. He condemned every note Brahms ever wrote, but he has a competitor in the late Harold Schoenberg, writing in the latter half of the 20th Century. His stock in trade was to condemn. He blasted Leonard Bernstein incessantly. Lenny was enough of a talent to withstand the onslaught, but there have been many others who were not. Schoenberg�s successors employ his model in describing events. A single note missed in performance by a brass player becomes �The trumpet, played by Mr. So-and-so, had an off night.� Or, �Mr. So-and-so managed to squeeze out the high notes, but the effort was certainly not up to the standards which we have a right to expect, etc.�

And the best? My favorite is Neville Cardus, who was the lead critic for the Manchester Guardian for many years during the early period in which Schoenberg was active. Mr. Cardus compared pianists in recital, for example, by taking note of how they addressed their audience and their instrument as they emerged from the wings off stage. What he was describing of course, was their personality at the keyboard. It was insightful, respectful and the next best thing to attending the recitals under review. In an obituary of a noted conductor who everyone knew drank too much, his account of the man�s life made no direct mention of it. Only those who knew of the drinking problem could tell that Cardus knew it, and he conveyed his knowledge only to those able to �read between the lines.� When was the last time anyone living in New York could say that about the taste and discretion of any of our city�s reviewers?

This is such a crabby issue, criticizing critics. I rest my case. Try to go to concerts and find out for yourself what takes place. Take a friend. Talk about it. Buy records. Listen to music on the radio. Enjoy the plethora of music made in this city by its residents and its visitors. The cultural riches here are not sustainable without your informed support. New York Philomusica has always tried to take the lead in doing whatever can be done to make it possible for you to have good musical experiences. I hope we�ll be around to share them for a while.

By A. Robert Johnson, Founder & Artistic Director



PREVIOUS EDITIONS:

Quodlibet

December 16, 2002

Quodlibet: "What you will...As you please."

April 16, 2002


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