Monday, May 07, 2007

Break out the cornetti!

On May 14-16 WGBH (89.7 FM in New England) will be airing Monteverdi's Vespers (1610), performed by the Boston Baroque. WGBH's press release was thoughtful enough to provide a link to this essay on the Vespers by Pedrag Gosta. Here is a good reminder of how amazingly different historically informed performances can be:

The pitch in the 17th century was not standardized. Thus, a’ kammerton would differ from country to country, or even between cities in the same country. Such was the case in Italy as well, where the pitch was “moving” up or down as much as by a minor third.

How do we know which pitch was used in the music by Monteverdi? We know this from surviving tuning forks, wind instruments (such as cornetto), or organ pipes, which were made with a fixed pitch. We know that the pitch in Rome was, therefore, around 392 Hz (equal to today’s g’), and in Venice as high as 466 Hz (equal to today’s b’ flat).

The same piece could be played at a variety of different pitch levels, which (if you believe anything about the characteristics of keys) would change the character (temperament?) of the piece greatly. And here is Gosta's review of the recording to be aired by WGBH:

Martin Pearlman is known in the North-American community as a notable presenter of historically informed performances. With his Boston-based ensemble, he presents a recording which follows traditional theories about Monteverdi’s Vespers, but with a slight “romantic” approach. The singers are decent, but less experienced in early music style than on the Parrott’s and Pickett’s recordings. His tempi and division of sections are unconvincing and too vague for an experienced early musician. However, this recording is a pioneer in Northern American learning early music community.

The last sentence doesn't make any sense, but overall Gosta recommends Andrew Parrott's recording with the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players. However, I plan to listen to the webcast, since I haven't had a chance to hear Pearlman's version and I do like his recordings of the Brandenburg Concerti. The Vespers will be aired in parts at 10 am on each day in Cathy Fuller's Classics in the Morning show.


fredösphere said...

Thanks for the link, Scott. Considering how passionate certain sensitive souls become when the pitch changes, can we assume things were different 400 years ago? I wonder if traveling musicians had flame wars over whose tuning fork should be used?

This also reminds me of the way each town used to set its clocks according to high noon (so-called "God's time") and how bitter some people were when they were required to switch to a time-zone system (imposed by governments bowing to the will of Big Rail, BTW). I remember reading a sad, hilarious editorial from an ancient edition of the Indianapolis Star mourning the loss of God's time. Thank heaven for giant corporations!

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Yes, I read that editorial, I believe it was yesterday. Seriously, people still write letters to the editor of the Indy Star complaining about the shift to daylight savings time.