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Pitch

Musicians have been using a so called "baroque" pitch for many years now, but it is unfortunate for many reasons, the main one being of convenience, that one particular system has achieved prominence. This is the well known A=415 which sounds a semitone lower than our modern A=440, and although this pitch seems to be the nearest equivalent to that used in Germany at the start of the 18th century, it is nevertheless only one possibility amongst many. It should also be realised that only certain instruments such as flutes, trumpets and organs in their original forms can give an exact idea of an earlier pitch usage and that there are many other elements to be discussed before we can arrive at any decision as to what pitch was used during any particular period in a specific locality. It is also true that these pitch levels varied frequently between 1600 and 1750, although there is now general agreement on French classical pitch (approximately one tone below modern pitch) and Venetian pitch (higher than that used today).

Our best reference is, of course, the relationship between the music that was actually written and the range of the human voice, given that composers of that time seem always to have been very attentive to the possibilities and the limits of the human voice. French classical pitch (used until the end of the 18th century) provides us with an explanation for the extremely high tessitura of classical French opera and its use today for these works means that singers do not have to force their voices to cope with the high lying vocal writing. The generally low tessitura of Monteverdi's vocal writing can be explained in the same way, Venetian pitch of the period being higher than the accepted A=440 that we use today.

Instrumental music is easier to standardise, although such problems are therefore somewhat different, since the pitch definition of A=415 has in a way brought these problems to light. Instrument makers who today are copying period instruments have recognised that it is often difficult to copy these instruments faithfully, for the basic qualities of the instrument are often altered when they modify the instrument's basic pitch. We therefore arrive at a problem for which common sense alone can provide any solution; what is most important is that the instrument must above all sound well, as several contemporary sources also prescribe. This dictum is not only applicable to period instruments, but also to the human voice.

By Jérôme Léjeune
Translation: Peter Lockwood

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Click here for Jérôme Léjeune's feature in French



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