This may sound like an outrageous sacrilege, but I really struggle with the intonation of pianos, and I find myself very much at odds with Franz Mohr’s description of equal temperament as perfection. Even at the KZ concert the other day, it took me a good part of the Bach to let go of the fact that none of the chords were in tune, in spite of it being one of the most perfectly maintained pianos in the world.
Sorry, guys, but pianos just are not in tune.
Of course, neither are most orchestras. How do I cope with the varied intonation standards of orchestras? Well, I don’t, really. I get frustrated, I get down, I work at it, I try to let go of it. Talking is not the friend of intonation, so a conductor working on tuning is always a clumsy business. If you really, really want to take a section’s intonation to another level, you need lots of time and patience and goodwill- not something easy to find. I break down the work of conducting into two areas- 1: painting the picture, which is sorting out all the details of phrasing, color, dynamics, mojo and articulation, and 2: tuning the piano, which includes not only intonation work, but putting the right people on stage, sorting out accuracy issues and so on. Just as some pianos can never be as in tune as others, even in the hands of Franz Mohr, so to some orchestras can only ever be so in tune, but you still have to paint the picture the best you can as a conductor.
I think the thing I enjoyed most about my time in Ischia with Byron and David was their commitment to intonation work. Call me crazy, but I like working on intonation, as long as doing so is not a substitute for individual preparation. I could write a book on the tuning issues of playing a chamber music with strings and piano. It is not as simple as the strings simply playing in equal temperament- that actually ends up sounding like crap. On the other hand, you can’t simply go all idealistic and try to tune like a string quartet as some keys and chords wander too far from the fixed reference point of the piano. The Mozart Piano Quartet in Eb we did in Ischia is SO challenging for intonation, and there are no easy answers. A string quartet can play a chord in isolation perfectly in tune, and shape the tuning to suit the mood of the piece, but playing music involves constant compromise and, er, fudging…. You can’t just say that strings can play more in tune than pianists- we’re both dishonest in our own ways.
Ivan Fischer used to have the Budapest Festival Orchestra do Bach Chorales in rehearsal, a marvelous idea, but not something you could try in most orchestras. They also did regular sectionals- much more so than I’d ever seen in American pro bands- where intonation was a prime focus.
But today, I’m talking about piano intonation. Funny that Mr Mohr said that in his entire career, no artist ever asked him to use a historic temperament. I find that a little depressing.
A bit of personal backgound- I grew up with a nice but modest Baldwin upright in the house, but we had a secret weapon- my best friend’s (from the age of about 2 1/2) dad was a semi-legendary piano tuner. That Baldwin punched way out of its weight class when he worked on it. After he moved to Chicago, we actually had a few local tuners come to the house and say that since the humidity in the house was stable, they felt it was better to leave John’s work intact than attempt to tune it.
Eventually, a string broke and I looked long and hard to find someone who could sort the piano out to John’s exacting standards. Finally, I found a friend of John, named Tim, who came round to the house one quiet Saturday morning when everyone was out. Like many good tuners, Tim struck me as extremely, well, eccentric. And opinionated! When he saw the cello and heard a bit about my background, he decided to educate me on his beliefs about piano tuning.
You see, Tim couldn’t have disagreed more with Franz about the merits of equal temperament. Tim actually thinks that equal temperament killed composition and the understanding of and appreciation tonal music. His point was simple- in any of the other temperaments, each key has its own very distinct color. This is because the major third in a C major chord will be a different width than the third in a Db major chord or a B major chord.
The expressive potential of such a system is powerful- the difference in the speed of beats in different keys can be used to create varied tiers of intensity, much as string players can vary the speed of their vibrato.
Tim retuned our piano using a modified mean-tone temperament, but over the next few years he rotated through a few different tunings so I could hear the characteristics of the different tunings. It was quite an education, in spite of the tuning limitations of our piano’s rather short strings (physics dictates that a piano’s tuning potential is limited by the length of the strings, which means a bigger piano can be more perfectly in tune than a small one, which is the main reason for using a 9 foot concert grand, not for volume).
Another of Tim’s points was that composers like Brahms and Schubert tuned their own pianos, and that he felt that modern composers suffered for that lack of training and experience.
More and more, we hear musicians returning to using fortepianos and period instruments for music of the 18th and 19th centuries, but those smaller instruments have inherent tuning limitations because of their string length. Wouldn’t it be lovely if more major artists were experimenting with the possibilities of tuning? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear Brahms’ piano music on a piano tuned as his would have been?
As it happens, one of the commenters (Brian Barone from Wrong End of a Telescope) on my Mohr piece has found a book that seems to speak to this very subject, which I’ve now ordered. What a thing the blogosphere is when it works!
Anyway, to me, equal temperament is an illusion- at first everything sounds out of tune, but since everything is equally out of tune, your ear quickly gives up the fight and can revel in everything the pianist is doing. Maybe this is right, because the piano is the instrument of illusion- what other percussion instrument can convince us it is crescendo-ing on a single note when we know that to be a physical impossibility? Those Horowitz recordings are pretty sublime- would he have sounded any better in modified mean-tone temperament? I’d certainly rather listen to Horowitz in equal temperament than Joe Schmo in well temperament.Which reminds me- I’ve heard from several sources that Mohr’s Christian prosteletyzing used to drive Horowitz up the wall. Mohr must have been a very great technician indeed. I was just reminded this week that Horowitz also once said that there were only three kinds of pianists- Jewish pianists, gay pianists and bad pianists….