Thursday, December 15, 2011

Richard Sparks on the beauty of earlier tuning systems

Yes dear friends, we need more people blogging about classical music and especially our art of choral music, won't you enter in? Well one brilliant fellow who has been at it quite awhile is Richard Sparks, a most awesome musician with an amazing amount of musical experience all across the globe. Richard's blog is titled "Richard Sparks- Music, Conducting, Choirs". Well that's straight and to the point, no mention of Saint Olaf lutefisk dinners, wookies, or retrograde hemiolas- I say keep it that way, don't distract the readers, eh? You can read Richard's wonderful posts here:

What made me want to reference this currently is that Richard blogged a few days ago about the NCCO conference (which my blog dissected completely via 3,122 posts and which I am still recuperating from via really cheap wine from Trader Joe's) and he mentioned something which I totally missed and which I now feel stupid about (especially since I studied under Ben Johnston for awhile- a master of tuning systems)--namely the tuning options in early music, including the Bach which Helmuth Rilling conducted at NCCO. Richard is not critical of Rilling, he simply points out the options available and so on and it is great reading. And just earlier tonight via email he elaborated even more to me- I am hoping he will add those elaborations to his blog soon. So keep an eye out for that as you check back on on his blog.

Richard now teaches at the University of North Texas alongside Jerry McCoy. UNT is a leader in live streaming their choral concerts. The live stream info can be found here:

Also, Richard's Collegium performances, whose broadcasts are not as restricted (under copyright law), can be found on YouTube here:

It's amazing the amount of resources we have today that us old folks didn't have "back in the day". Hmmm...I still have my eight year old sort of believing I grew up with dinosaurs. And heck, he doesn't even really know what a videocassette tape was/is, or for that matter a vinyl LP, blah blah, blah.

Anyway, here is some of what Richard wrote about Bach and some tuning ideas (yes, my immediate thought was too many choirs rehearsing with a piano present-- with the piano's percussive, uber high major thirds overwhelming the ear!). But to read the entire Sparks blog on this subject please go here

And now excerpts from Richard:

"I was able to attend the NCCO (National Collegiate Choral Organization) conference in Colorado Springs in early November.

It was a marvelous conference with both excellent concerts/choirs and sessions.

Helmuth Rilling was the headliner, working with James Kim's excellent CSU Chamber Choir. Everyone knows Rilling's work, of course, from his Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and his work since 1970 with the Oregon Bach Festival.

Certainly, his work had a big impact on me. As an undergraduate I was tremendously interested in baroque music and got to know his recordings and those of Wilhelm Ehmann, among others. In 1971 the University of Washington Chorale, under the direction of Rod Eichenberger, took part in one of the Vienna Symposiums organized by Paul Koutney..."

"Since I've done lots of work with period instruments (it's one of the reasons the job at UNT was intriguing to me, and certainly one of the reasons I got the job)--the Bach Ensemble in Seattle from 1978-80 began using period instruments--my ideas about performance have changed as well.

With that in mind, it was interesting to listen to the concert at the NCCO, which had two motets (Singet dem Herrn and Jesu, meine Freude) plus the Magnificat. I found that there were two things that struck me most strongly: some aspects of phrasing and the tuning of major thirds. As I mentioned, Rilling has certainly changed many things about the way he phrases baroque music (with the example of the Kyrie in the B Minor), but there are other aspects where my way of phrasing has changed.

In addition, I've gotten so used to different tuning systems that my ear now wants a considerably lower/pure major third, particularly at cadences. For me, the thirds I heard in Colorado were far too "jangly," the only way I can describe the difference between the "beats" of a tempered third and the beatless relative calm of a pure third (the purity refers to a major third which matches the third heard in the natural harmonic series.

Since I'd just done Jesu, meine Freude with my Collegium Singers at UNT, that was very fresh in my mind. Given what I've said, it's only fair that I provide a link to what we did, not that I'm claiming anything for it, but it represents in a more concrete way what can only be expressed poorly in writing. You can find that performance here: the Bach begins at 1:04 (that's one hour, four minutes). You'll know it's live, not only because it's on video with no possibility of editing, but also because our organist (the fabulous Christoph Hammer) played a decidedly non-picardy third at the end of one of the movements! We were using Vallotti for tuning the organ, a decent compromise for this program, which was mostly mid-baroque from northern Germany (Buxtehude, particularly). For other repertoire (Monteverdi Vespers, for example) we've used quarter-comma meantone, which has extremely pure thirds (in some keys!)."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, Paul -- but now I *really* have to get working on the tuning post for my blog!