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The History of Musical Pitch in Tuning the Pianoforte

by Edward E. Swenson

On July 27, 1987, at its meeting in Toronto, the International Society of Piano Builders and Technicians unanimously renewed their support for A=440 as the international pitch standard for piano manufacturers and for modern piano and orchestral tuning. The advantages for the acceptance of A=440 by all makers of modern musical instruments for use in concert halls and recording studios seems obvious. Unfortunately, the question of musical pitch is even more complicated today than it was fifty years ago when an International Conference in London also recommended the international use of A=440. The history of musical pitch as it relates to piano tuning has important consequences. Stringed-keyboard music written in the Baroque and Classic periods (including the music of J.S. Bach, Handel, Joseph Haydn, W.A. Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and Beethoven) was originally intended to be played at a low pitch which ranged from A=420 to A=430, nearly a semitone lower than A=440. Obviously, the musical result of playing harpsichord and early piano music at A=440 is considerably different from the less brilliant low pitch the composers originally intended. In the Romantic Period pitch skyrocketed upward well past A=440 and it fluctuated wildly according to location and performing arena. For example, in 1879 Steinway in New York used a tuning fork which produced A=457.2 while Chickering in Boston preferred A=435, the international pitch standard established by a French Commission in 1859. Still it is likely that most of the late 19th-century pianos (grands, squares and uprights) built in the United States after the Civil War (1865) were tuned at a pitch higher than A=440.

There is a rapidly growing trend to play Baroque- and Classic-period music on period instruments. Major cities such as London, New York, Amsterdam, Vienna and Toronto now have orchestras which are solely devoted to performing early music on period instruments at original pitch. Recently all of Mozart's symphonies and piano concertos and the piano concertos of Beethoven have been recorded using period instruments1. Performers in early music ensembles will never consider using A=440 as a pitch standard because music written before 1830 sounds closer to the composer's original intentions when performed at low pitch2. At present there is still no trend to play music of the late Romantic period at high pitch.

In 1880 Alexander Ellis wrote an important essay on the history of musical pitch for the Society of Arts in London3. Ellis cites early research on the measurement and history of musical pitch in the work of the German physicist Johann Heinrich Scheibler (1777-1837). Scheibler invented one of the first accurate methods for measuring musical pitch. He called the device a "tuning fork tonometer." It consisted of 52 forks tuned from A 219 2/3 to A 439 1/2 at 69 degrees Fahrenheit. The device and his amazingly accurate method of measuring beats were described in Scheibler's book The Physical and Musical Tonometer4. Ellis' research suggests that there was a connection between Scheibler in Stuttgart and the piano maker Johann Baptist Streicher in Vienna. A tuning fork with the name "Streicher" written in ink on one of the prongs and measuring A=443.2 was found in Scheibler's collection of forks after his death5. Scheibler's recommendation for A=440 as an international pitch standard had been adopted by a Congress of Physicists (Deutsche Naturforscherversammlung) in Stuttgart in 1834. It is very likely that the Streicher piano company adopted Scheibler's recommendation for A=440 shortly after the Stuttgart Congress.

Scheibler measured the pitch of many early tuning forks with his tonometer. Many of the forks still existed when Ellis measured them again with more sophisticated technology. Ellis points out with admiration and amazement in his essay, that Scheibler's pitch measurements were extremely accurate.


The Tuning Fork

At about the same time Cristofori invented the first piano in Italy, the tuning fork was invented in England by Royal trumpeter John Shore in 17116. Ellis provides detailed information on the history and care of tuning forks. I have attempted to extract the most useful information from his research7.

Tuning forks vary slightly with changes in temperature. Contrary to the effects of heat on organ pipes, tuning forks are flattened by heat and sharpened by cold. When Ellis made his experiments on tuning forks he took the following precautions in handling them:

1. Tuning forks should not be touched by the bare hand or carried in the pocket.
2. When a tuning fork is sharply struck, the blow causes heat and therefore slightly flattens the fork.
3. Tuning forks are tuned by filing which causes heat and unsettles the molecular structure of the metal. After filing a fork, it should rest for about a week and then be rechecked. It will often rise by several beats in ten seconds in the course of cooling and settling.
4. Tuning forks are damaged by wrenching & twisting the prongs which is usually caused by dropping the fork.
5. Rust will slightly flatten a tuning fork and is generally more serious at the bend than on the prongs. Modern forks are plated or blued to protect them from rust.

Before turning to specific evidence about pitch level measurements for tuning pianos, here is a quick overview. It is very important to note, that, although pitch was generally much lower from 1600 to 1825, pitch began to rise in the early 19th century. A=440 was already recommended as a pitch standard in Germany in 1834. It appears that very few musicians found the standard pitch desirable. By 1879 Steinway in New York used a tuning fork which measured A=457.2 and in London, Steinways were tuned to A=454.7! Tuners don't need to worry about tuning Steinways from the late 19th century at A=440.

In England I saw three tuning forks, enclosed in a special box, which were used by a Broadwood Piano Co. tuner around 1850. The forks were used for piano tuning in different settings. Broadwood's low pitch equalled A=433 and was close to the A=435 pitch recommended by a French commission in 1859. Broadwood's medium pitch was 445 and the highest fork was tuned to A=454. Generally singers preferred low pitch, the medium pitch was probably used for home tuning and high pitch was used in tuning pianos to the orchestra and in concert settings. In the midst of this chaos, it is little wonder that the establishment of a standard, international compromise pitch soon became desirable.



CHRONOLOGICALLY ARRANGED TUNING LEVELS FOR EARLY PIANOS
EXTRACTED FROM THE RESEARCH OF ALEXANDER J. ELLIS

By comparing the date and place of a piano's manufacture to the information given below, at least a general indication of the correct tuning level can be determined. It is clear that much research still needs to be done on the history of musical pitch in the United States.

Year Pitch Place Source
c. 1715 A=419.9 England Crude tenor fork, possibly made by John Shore, the inventor of the tuning fork.
c.1740-1812 A=424.1 Eutin, Germany Tuning fork owned by Franz Anton von Weber, father of Carl Maria von Weber.
c. 1750 A=424.3 London "Common music shop fork."
1751 A=422.5 London Handel's tuning fork. The box which contains the fork bears the inscription: "This pitchfork was the property of the Immortal Handel and left by him at the Foundling Hospital, when the Messiah was performed in 1751."
c.1754 A=422.6 Lille, France Tuning fork found in the workshop of M. Francois, musical instrument maker.
1754 A=415 Dresden Fork used to tune the catholic church organ built by G. Silbermanmn.
1776 A=414.4 Breslau Marpurg's pitch for clavichord tuning.
1780 A=421.3 Vienna Tuning fork of the Saxon organ builder Schulz who lived in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime.
1780 A=421.6 Vienna Tuning fork used by the piano builder Stein. The fork was inherited by his son-in-law Streicher who Ellis calls "the present great pianoforte maker."A=421.6 is probably the pitch which Mozart used to tune his fortepianos and clavichords.
1780 A=422.3 Dresden Tuning fork in the possession of Dresden court organist Kirsten.
1783 A=409 Paris Fork of Pascal Taskin, Paris Court tuner.
1796 A=436 St. Petersburg Giuseppe Sarti's measurement of the pitch of the St. Petersburg opera. Chladni in his book on acoustics mentions that this pitch was "very high."
c. 1800 A=422.7 London From an old tuning fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.
c.1810 A=430.0 Paris Tuning fork belonging to M. Lemoine, a "celebrated amateur."
c.1820 A=433 London "Pitch approved by Sir George Smart, conductor of the Philharmonic. "
1823 A=424.2 Paris Spontini's tuning fork for the Paris Italian Opera.
c.1825-1830 A=435 Dresden Tuning fork owned by Kapellmeister Reissiger.
c.1826 A=427.2 London Old fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.
c.1826 A=427.6 London An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1826 A=428.4 London An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1829 A=425.5 Paris Pitch of the piano at the opera.
1829 A=434 Paris Tuning fork used by the piano maker M. Montal.
1834 A=441.8 Berlin orchestra and opera.
1834 A=436.5 Vienna Pitch given by Scheibler as one of the tuning standards for the Vienna Opera.
c. 1834 A=445.1 Vienna The highest fork which Scheibler measured in Vienna and to which he attributed the "monstrous growth in the upswing in musical pitch."
c. 1834 A=434 Paris Pitch of the Paris opera.
c.1834 A=433.9 Vienna Orchestra fork measured by Scheibler and referred to as "Vienna minimum."
1834 A=440.2 Stuttgart Congress of Physicists, based on Scheibler's proposal of "the mean of the variation of Viennese grand pianos by temperature." Scheibler was the first person to recommend the adoption ofA=440 as a standard pitch for piano tuning. The piano builder J.B. Streicher in Vienna began to include the indication "440" on his soundboard labels shortly after 1834.
c. 1834 A=443.2 Vienna Streicher's fork as measured by Scheibler.
1836 A=443.3 Paris Tuning fork for pianos built by Woelfel in Paris
1836-39 A=441 Paris Opera pianos. Tuning fork owned by M. Leibner who tuned the pianos of the opera at the pitch of the orchestra. In 1849 it agreed precisely with the oboe of M. Vorroust.
1839 A=425.8 Bologna, Italy Tuning fork used by Tadolini, the best piano tuner in Bologna, Italy
1839 A=448 Hamburg Opera pitch.
Date unknown A=440.5 Paris Opera. Fork said to have been adjusted by Pleyel.
1845 A=439.9 Turin Italy Tuning fork.
1845 A=446.6 Milan, Italy Tuning fork.
1845 A=445.4 Vienna Fork used at the Vienna Conservatory.
1849-54 A=445.9 London Broadwood piano company's original medium pitch tuning fork belonging to tuner Alexander Finlayson, who died in 1854.
1852-1874 A=452.5 London Average pitch of the Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Michael Costa (1846-54). Broadwood's tuner Mr. J. Black tuned to this pitch. Broadwood retained this pitch for concerts until 1874 when it was raised toA=454.7.
1854 A=446 Paris Fork used to tune Pleyel pianos.
1854 A=450.5 Lille, France Opera orchestra.
1856 A=446.2 Paris Opera pitch. From a tuning fork sent to the French Society of Pianoforte makers.
1856 A=446.2 The Hague, Holland Conservatory of music pitch. Fork sent to the French commission.
1857 A=448.4 Berlin Opera. Tuning fork sent by the conductor Taubert to the French Society of Pianoforte makers.
1857 A=444.9 Naples, Italy San Carlo opera theatre tuning fork sent to the French Society of pianoforte makers by E. Guillaume, conductor of the opera orchestra.
1859 A=443.5 Braunschweig, Germany Opera orchestra pitch. Fork sent to the French Commission by Kapellmeister Franz Abt.
1859 A=444.8 Turin, Italy Opera orchestra. Tuning fork sent to the French Commission by director M. Coccia.
1859 A=444.8 Weimar Orchestra fork sent to the French Commission.
1859 A=444.8 Württemburg, Germany Fork of the concert orchestra.
1859 A=435 Karlsruhe, Germany Pitch at the German opera. Kapellmeister Jos. Strauss felt that this pitch fatigued his singers the least and was the best pitch for the performance of operas from all periods. Strauss' fork became the pitch standard for the French Commission's Diapason Normal.
1859 A=435.3 Paris Fork representing the French Commission's Diapason Normal Pitch. Presented by the Commission to John Broadwood & Sons Piano Co. in London.
1859 A=435.4 Paris The French Commission Diapason Normal as actually constructed by Secretan and preserved at the Paris conservatory. In the United States this pitch was sometimes called "International pitch." It was recommended by Chickering in Boston as the ideal pitch for tuning Chickering pianos.
1859 A=435.34 Paris Secretan made a dozen tuning fork copies of the French Diapason Normal. Excluding one of these forks which is clearly too flat,A=435.34 is the general average pitch of the other eleven forks.
1859 A=441 Dresden Opera. Tuning fork sent to the French Commission by Kapellmeister Reissiger, who wrote: The great elevation of the diapason destroys and effaces the effect and character of ancient music, of the masterpieces of Mozart, Gluck and Beethoven.
1859 A=446 Budapest Opera.
1859 A=448 Liege, Belgium Conservatory of music tuning fork.
1859 A=448 Lyons, France Opera orchestra tuning fork.
1859 A=448.1 Munich, Germany Opera tuning fork.
1859 A=448.8 Leipzig, Germany Conservatory of music fork.
1859 A=449.8 Prague Pitch of the opera orchestra.
1859 A=456.1 Vienna Sharp Vienna pitch from a fork in the possession of the Streicher Piano Co. The Viennese orchestral pitch as used before the introduction of the French Diapason Normal.
1860 A=445.5 London Copy of Broadwood's medium pitch fork made for the society of the arts.
1860 A=448.4 London Society of the Arts tuning fork.
1862 A=437.8 Dresden Court theatre.
1862 A=445 Vienna Piano pitch based on the tuning fork of Kapellmeister Proch. The opera tuned during this period atA=466.
1862 A=454 Vienna Piano pitch based on tuning fork owned by Kapellmeister Esser. (Compare this pitch with the one above from the same period.)
1869 A=443.1 Bologna, Italy Liceo Musicale.
1869 A=448.2 Leipzig, Germany Tuning fork used by the Gewandhaus orchestra.
1874 A=454.7 London Fork representing the highest pitch used in Philharmonic concerts. Used as the highest pitch used by the Broadwood Piano Co.
1876 A=446.7 London Concert pitch.
1877 A=449.9 London Standard fork used by Collard piano Co.
1877 A=454.1 London From a tuning fork used by Hipkins to tune for the Crystal Palace concerts.
1878 A=446.8 Vienna Opera pitch.
1878 A=448.1 London Tuning fork made by Walker.
1878 A=436 London Standard pitch of church organs taken from Metzler's tuning fork.
1878 A=445.1 London Society of Arts pitch.
1878 A=449.9 London Covent Garden opera orchestra during performance as measured by Hipkins.
1878 A=451.9 London British army regulations. Pitch for wind instruments.
1879 A=445.5 London Her Majesty's opera orchestra during performance from a fork made by Hipkins.
1879 A=449.7 London Pitch of the opera orchestra at Covent Garden during performance.
1879 A=454.7 London Tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons to tune pianos in London.
1879 A=455.3 London From a tuning fork representing the concert pitch used by the Erard Piano Company.
1879 A=457.2 New York From a tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons!
1880 A=444.9 London Her majesty's opera. From a tuning fork of the theatre as measured by Hipkins.
1880 A=446.2 London Tuning fork used by John Broadwood and Co for in house tunings but not for public concerts.
End note #8 (entire section)



END NOTES


1. See, for example, the complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos, recorded at low pitch by Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Elliot Gardner, Archiv recordings.
2. Experiments have shown that a low pitch A tuning fork held between the F-holes of a Stradivarius violin (originally constructed to play at low pitch) produces a richer and stronger resonance than a high A=440 fork.
3. Long out of print, Ellis' studies have been reprinted by Frits Knuf publishers in Amsterdam in 1968. This book can be found in any good music library.
4. Johann H. Scheibler. Der physikalische und musikalische Tonmesser Essen: Baedeker, 1834. Scheibler also wrote a treatise on organ tuning: A method for correctly tuning the organ in equal temperament by means of beats and the metronome, Krefeld: Schüller, 1834.
5. Alexander J. Ellis."On the History of Musical Pitch," Journal of the Society of Arts, (March 5, 1880). Reprinted in Studies in the History of Music Pitch, Amsterdam: Frits Knuf, 1968, p. 44. Ellis measured the pitch of the Streicher fork at A=442.78
6. Ellis, op.cit., p. 15
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.

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