Below is a response to Richard Todd’s “Temper Temper”, an article published in April. This response was submitted not more than a few days after Todd's article was published, but I only received confirmation this week that it did not fit the submission guidelines of the same publication. Therefore I have copied it in full for you below.
‘Baroque’ is a word which all music students are familiar with. Indeed, even since Mr. Todd’s school days have teachers introduced a music history course centered on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the definition of barocco. Literally taken, it means ‘a deformed pearl’. It wasn’t something anyone in the eighteenth century wanted attributed to their work either, but, though I dare not shout too loud, I believe there is something to be learned about ourselves from it.
As the practical foundations of music theory developed, instruments and the principles which guided their construction advanced as well. For centuries possible solutions to the issue of distributing an octave on fixed-pitch instruments abounded. Equal temperament, the temperament which is most commonly used in western art music today, was out of the question in the seventeenth century, and it was hardly a favorite in the eighteenth either. One of the most commonly-used temperaments (or we think it to be) in the first three-quarters of the seventeenth-century, quarter-comma mean tone, had significant drawbacks. Though it has much purer intervals in certain keys, one would have to tune knowing that other keys would sound horribly warped (pick, for example, a near ‘pure’ Ab and you’d get a lovely F minor chord, but a wretched E major chord since the G# would be too high). For a time, experiments in instrument building, especially in Italy, brought keyboards with split keys on certain notes which would cope with the enharmonic issue. Take a look at this video of an instrument built to facilitate fully ‘chromatic’ music. Or this one. Obviously this was an extreme solution which, due to the obvious practical issues, didn’t last but it was possible then to find an ‘enharmonic’ or justly-tuned instrument, however rare it may have been. There was even some music for it.
Theoreticians therefore looked to distribute the imperfections of quarter-comma mean tone more evenly (but still irregularly), leading to our concept of ‘well-tempered’. During J.S. Bach’s lifetime there were many published writings on temperaments (often multiple recipes per theorist) across the continent, but they did not trumpet ET. The most notable exception was Jean-Philippe Rameau, who, in his Génération harmonique of 1737, made a complete double-take from his decade-old treatise Nouveau système as he replaced his own published temperament for equal. Partially it was a reaction to the development of his theoretical work on harmony and basse fondamentale, but Rameau’s argument for ET didn’t convince his colleagues.
Aspiring to technical perfection (as defined by canon in our case) in the way that we relate it to concert standards is a modernist construction. Our view of J.S. Bach has been skewed since his induction as father of romanticism’s line of musical ‘progress’ and too easily do we want to see him anticipating musical developments. No one can deny that Bach as craftsman, improviser, and keyboardist reached the pinnacle of the north German organ school, but he was just that; inheriting and bettering a tradition. Bradley Lehman argues that J.S. Bach, just like his contemporaries, sought out his own solution, coding it in the loops on the top of the cover page of the first book of preludes and fugues. Ross Duffin, author of How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care), agrees:
“There’s no question that Lehman convincingly solved Bach’s puzzle, and the bad news for defenders of [equal temperament]… is that Bach’s temperament is not ET… [they] can no longer claim [him] as their secret champion.”(p.148)
Duffin doesn’t speak for everyone, but even those who weren’t convinced by Lehman’s findings only counter-argued for other irregular temperaments. So why stay with the status quo?
Sanitizing the performance of any possible ‘distraction’ from the text (this time caused by irregular temperaments) begs us to instill received romantic ideals of performance upon rhetorical music (to borrow a term from Bruce Haynes). In eighteenth-century descriptions of (musical) key characteristics, the further away from common keys one goes the harsher or radical the descriptions get (for example, Charpentier, in his Regles de composition of 1682, calls Bb minor ‘obscure and terrible’). Johann Georg Niedhardt, a theorist and contemporary of J.S. Bach, in his Gäntzlich erschöpfte, mathematische Ableitungen des diatonisch-chromatischen, temperirten Canonis Monochordi wrote that “most people do not find in [equal temperament] that which they seek. It lacks, they say, variety in the beating of its major 3rds and, consequently, a heightening of emotion (emphasis mine).” It confirms that key characteristics were at least partly based on temperament.
To accept and delight in the imperfect is a sentiment which we do not hold in classical music today yet I cannot help but wonder if we lose a depth to rhetorical music if we continue to ignore or reject barocco. If we are to restore that heightening which Niedhart mentions, performers, as artists, must make informed decisions when presenting a work. Especially in Early Music, but even so in the mainstream, modern performance convention should not dictate the conditions of the performance.