Temperament : How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
Few music lovers realize that the arrangement of notes on today's pianos was once regarded as a crime against God and nature, or that such legendary thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato, da Vinci, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton and Rousseau played a role in the controversy. Indeed, from the time of the Ancient Greeks through the eras of Renaissance scientists and Enlightenment philosophers, the relationship between the notes of the musical scale was seen as a key to the very nature of the universe.
In this engaging and accessible account, Stuart Isacoff leads us through the battles over that scale, placing them in the context of quarrels in the worlds of art, philosophy, religion, politics and science. The contentious adoption of the modern tuning system known as equal temperament called into question beliefs that had lasted nearly two millenia-and also made possible the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, and all who followed. Filled with original insights, fascinating anecdotes, and portraits of some of the greatest geniuses of all time, Temperament is that rare book that will delight the novice and expert alike.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
February 04, 2003
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Temperament by Stuart Isacoff
Chapter 1 Ay me! what warbles yields mine instrument! The basses shriek as though they were amiss! -William Percy, "Coelia" (1594) The piano is perhaps the most generous instrument ever invented. Its range, from bass to treble, is as large as an orchestra's. It allows ten tones-sometimes even more-to be struck simultaneously, and holds them in the air at a pianist's will. The piano can growl and sing and beat time. It can render arid fugues and impressionist waterfalls with equal naturalness. And, unlike the ungrateful French horn or the finicky oboe, if you keep it in tune, it will be an obedient servant. But the principle that truly underlies the piano's versatility is hidden beneath the geometry of its white and black keys. Clusters of two blacks, then three, then two, and so on, form a repeating pattern above a solid row of whites. When one's eye has become accustomed to the terrain, the alternating groupings signal the names of each note on the keyboard. There are only twelve different ones (each tied to a letter of the alphabet), and in our modern tuning they are built in equidistant steps, like a well-made ladder. This arrangement produces wondrous results: Through it, a Chopin prelude can gently weep across the keys; Debussy's perfumed phrases can swirl in gentle clouds; Webern can set in motion intricate strings of melody, like threads of glistening pearls. All of this is possible only because the modern keyboard is a design in perfect symmetry-each pitch is reliably, unequivocally equidistant from the ones that precede and follow it. This tuning allows a musical pattern begun on one note to be duplicated when starting on any other; it creates a musical universe in which the relationships between musical tones are reliably, uniformly consistent. Playing a piano for which this was not true would be like playing a game of chess in which the rules changed from moment to moment. Yet, that is precisely what many European musicians practicing before the nineteenth century demanded of their instruments. In fact, for hundreds of years, suggestions that our modern system be used were taken as a call to battle: Musicians, craftsmen, church officials, heads of state, and philosophers fought heatedly against the introduction of this equal-temperament tuning as something both unnatural and ugly. When Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei, supported it as an ideal as early as 1581, he promptly became embroiled in a feud with Gioseffo Zarlino, one of the most influential music theorists of the day. (Sensing a good thing, Chu Tsai-yü, a prince of the Ming dynasty, soon after attributed the concept to the work of Huai Nan Tzu in 122 b.c.e.) The seventeenth-century instrument-maker Jean Denis-an advisor to Father Marin Mersenne, philosopher René Descartes's most trusted authority on science and math-rejected today's approach as "quite wretched." Denis's Treatise on Harpsichord Tuning was published in 1643, the year that a pupil of Galileo's, Evangelista Torricelli, conducted world-shaking experiments in atmospheric pressure, overturning essential elements of medieval cosmology. Though radical changes in worldview were erupting all around him, Denis remained steadfastly loyal to an old tuning system in which the musical distances between notes were determinedly inconsistent, forming a minefield of "wolf sounds" on his keyboard-notes so dissonant they reminded listeners of the howling of wolves. Harpsichords and organs (precursors of the piano) thus tuned were capable of producing harmonies of magical, uncorrupted sweetness in one moment and-as musicians attempted to duplicate them while navigating the spans of their keyboards-of earsplitting clashes the next. Composers were prisoners of these torturous practicalities, as were vocalists and instrumentalists who tried to join in. Y