Aspiring to Well-Tempered

Johann Sebastian Bach is a favorite of violinists – of all musicians, I assume.  I wrote a post a while back about Hilary Hahn and her appreciation of the great Baroque composer and organist, and his music’s usefulness, in her view, for both tempering a crowd at a nightclub in Berlin as well as for appeasing small children.  I’m having quite a bit of fun with my new Gavotte in G Minor, arranged for the violin in Suzuki Book Three out of Bach’s harpsichord suite in G minor.  I’m playing with over half of it now and am enjoying making the minor qualities of the piece sound as lovely as I can.  I also chose a Bach minuet to work up as my first duet piece and am having a lot of fun with that too.

For ages all I’ve known of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is the title – I’ve only known it to be a monumental work of some type.  So this past week I began investigating the piece a bit – I was surprised to learn that at its heart it’s a study in keys – a prelude and a fugue written for each key, laid out in two books in the order you would expect them in a circle of fifths.  To play the piece through at once is quite a large project, one that a number of pianists have undertaken.  I’m currently listening to Part One of Book One being played by Maurizio Pollini; just this half of Book One promises to be a little under an hour in length.

Ignorantly, prior to my investigations of the past week I didn’t even know that “tempered” had to do with tuning.  I’ve now discovered a wealth of information on the various temperaments in which people play, but I understand very little of it – I’m coming to view the whole matter as a historical progression toward the modern way of tuning instruments, but I do understand that choices on temperaments are made even now, and that musicians still explore tuning variations, and that many pieces have been written with certain temperaments in mind.  I wonder what percentage of modern symphony-goers understands anything about the subject?

Of course tempering a keyboard (a clavier) is a much more challenging undertaking than tempering the four strings of my instrument!  I do know that A440 is a relatively new invention – even now 444 hz is a common frequency to which to tune A.  I’m just starting to learn about this subject, and frankly it’s not one that greatly intrigues me about music, but as I start to sink my teeth into Music Proper these little lessons will help me understand more.  It helps me to engage with the subject when I can do so under the guise of appreciating a well-known piece of music.

Most importantly, I need to develop a better ear for all of it – I’ve always thought of myself as a person who has a fine appreciation for pitch, but working with minor keys and playing with others has me realizing that I don’t appreciate subtleties as well as I might have thought (or, at least, not as well as I would like!).  As my fingers become more adept on the fretless violin, I know that the best sounds I can make depend first and foremost on being precisely in tune.

The other part of being in tune is the hardware – I’m definitely getting pickier about my strings being perfectly in tune (as is Teacher), and, though I love my instrument dearly, I fight with my A string almost daily.  I daresay Bach would not have deemed it well-tempered.  One remedy could be installing a fine-tuner for the A string on my violin.  Like most better quality violins, mine only has one fine tuner installed, on the E string.  I can’t help but have noticed that Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the greatest, has a fine tuner on both her A and E strings – if she feels fine trotting one out on a Stradivarius on the biggest stages in the musical world then I think my Roth will not feel too amateurish (student grade violins all have four fine tuners) should I follow suit.  My tailpiece, however, has a tiny crack in it near the site of where the additional tuner would go, and from a practical perspective I’m not sure the luthier can drill into it to do the install without causing damage.  I also don’t know if replacing the tailpiece would be worthwhile if I need to do so to accomplish installing a fine tuner, nor do I know enough to properly weigh the variables.  But I’m getting close to having enough motivation to get some answers.  I need to be well-tempered.

Thanks for reading.


One comment

  1. […] were more standard when older pieces of music were written and played.  A while back I wrote about learning of temperaments – different ways of tuning instruments to make them sound good from one note to the next in a […]

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