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Book Review

Bruce Haynes. A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A". Publisher's details. This study "refers to the original pitches of some 1,382 historical instruments, including cornetts, Renaissance flutes, traversos, recorders, clarinets, organs, pitchpipes, and automatic instruments from all over Europe and compares this information with music and written texts. . . . [I]t locates a number of historical pitch levels, discovers several that were previously unnoticed, and disproves several common myths about pitch." Scarecrow Press, 2002. 632 pages. US | UK

I started reading The Story of "A" a few days ago and found it difficult to put down. The author has uncovered and organized a huge quantity of evidence about historical pitches at various places and times. As an example of the kind of detail provided, here follows a note I sent to the Handel-l responding to a question about the performance pitch of Handel's stage works, based on this book:

In The Story of 'A', Bruce Haynes cites specific evidence showing that orchestral pitch at the London opera in 1712 was Q-3 (ie, three semitones down from Quire pitch a=473), the same as A-1½, where A represents 440. He also cites strong circumstantial evidence that the same was true at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1713, and at Cannons during Handel's residency. Thus the pitch of Handel's early operas, the Utrecht Te Deum, and and music composed at Cannons would have been a=403.

The best evidence supporting this conclusion is:

1. In a letter written from London in January 1712, a French hautboist ordered 2 bassoons from a Parisian maker, for use by members of the opera orchestra of the Queens Theatre. He ordered the instruments made "at the pitch we play here, almost ¼ tone higher than the pitch of the Opéra in Paris". There is definitive evidence that the Ton d'Opéra in Paris was A-2 (390). "Almost ¼ tone higher" would have been about two commas higher, or the equivalent of 403 Hz, ie Q-3 & A-1½.

2. The organ at St. Paul's, where the Utrecht Te Deum was performed in July 1713, was at Q-1. Q-3, using a whole tone transposition, would have been a practical pitch for the orchestra.

3. The opening andante of Chandos Anthem no. 5A is an hautboy solo in the improbable key of A major. In later, alternative versions, it is written in the more probable key of B-flat. Haynes opines that it seems likely that the hautboy played in B-flat at Cannons, where the organ pitch was Q-2 (424) -- known because the organ survives.

Haynes cites circumstantial evidence that London opera orchestra pitch went up to the emerging Continental standard of A-1 (413) by the early 1720s. Two arias, Guido's "Amor, nel mio penar" in Flavio (1723) and the second version of "Sà la sponda del pigro" in Tamerlano (1724), are in the unusual key of b-flat minor. An hautboy is involved in both arias, and its part was originally notated in a-minor. Haynes considers it likely that an hautboy a semitone higher than the orchestra was played in these arias only, probably by the hautboy virtuoso Giuseppe Sammartini, who was visiting London at the time. If he had been playing at the common North Italian pitch of A+0, the orchestra a semitone lower would have been at A-1. The transposition would not have worked if the orchestra had been tuned at the older pitch level of A-1½. Haynes suggests that the reason for the change was that it would have been expedient for the opera to have the pitch at the approximate pitch used in Venice, A-1, since many of the great singers hired by Handel came from or via Venice.

Haynes cites additional circumstantial evidence that performance pitch at the Chapel Royal was A-1 in the early 1720s. Revisions of pieces composed at Cannons were set in a lower key, implying a higher pitch at the Chapel Royal. The organ at the Chapel Royal built by Smith in 1708 was measured at 468 (A+1) in 1880. If the organist transposed down a tone, as was common in Italy and Germany at the time, the orchestra pitch would have been A-1.

Sammartini figures in Haynes's analysis of the next upward move in pitch, to Q-2 in the 1730s. In 1733, in all likelihood, Sammartini played arias in Athalia and Deborah, as previously, at A+0, a semitone above the orchestra at A-1. However, in arias for Arminio, Giustino and Berenice (all 1737), Sammartini's parts were not transposed. Haynes's explanation is that the orchestra was already playing at Q-2 (424), the pitch of the Foundling Hospital organ in 1751, as corroborated by Handel's tuning fork. "Sammartini probably played hautboys by the Milanese maker Anciutti, and in fact one of Anciutti's surviving hautboys dated 1722 has alternative top joints. [Footnote omitted.] Thus it seems Sammartini played the arias at Covent Garden in 1737 with his longer top joint at Q-2, the pitch of the opera orchestra."

Haynes concludes that the pitch of La Resurrezione (Rome) was A-2 (390), and based on vocal ranges, believes that the pitches of Almira (Hamburg), Dixit Dominus (Rome), and Aci, Galatea & Polifemo (Naples) were the same. However, Agrippina and contemporaneous works by Vivaldi are notated about a major third lower than the above, leading to the conclusion that pitch in Venice was already at A-1 at the time of Agrippina.

These are just a few excerpts from a fascinating book that not only cites hundreds of specific, useful, footnoted facts, but explains why other evidence is unreliable, except as corroborative material.

To summarize Haynes's conclusion of the performance pitch of Handel's operas and oratorios:

1. Hamburg operas and works in Rome and Naples, A-2 (a=390).

2. Haynes cites no information for Rodrigo, performed in Florence.

3. Agrippina, Venice, A-1 (a=413).

4. London prior to the Royal Academy of Music, Q-3 (a=403). I.e., operas prior to Radamisto as well as the Cannons Acis & Galatea and Esther.

5. Royal Academy of Music to a time between 1733 and 1737, A-1 (a=413).

6. At least 1737 until the end of Handel's life, Q-2 (a=424).

Copyright © 2002-2015 John Wall