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Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

Posted January 01, 2016 12:00 AM
Pathfinder Tags: challenge questions

This month's Challenge Question: Specs & Techs from IHS Engineering360:

A time traveler went back to 1742 and kidnapped George Frideric Handel so he could bring him to the Kennedy Center in NYC in December of 2015 to enjoy his masterpiece Messiah, played by the National Symphony Orchestra. As soon as the first notes are played Handel cringes and shakes his head. What's wrong?

And the answer is:

Handel doesn't like the pitch, which to his trained ear sounds sharp. Modern orchestras use a tuning standard of 440 Hz for A above middle C. However, this has not always been the case. This standard has varied by as much as 50 Hz over the years. A tuning fork from 1740 associated with Handel has been found to have a frequency of 422.5 Hz. Handel's Messiah was composed in 1741 and likely followed this tuning convention. Thus the modern orchestra would sound sharp to Handel. Still, once Handel adjusted to the higher pitch, he no doubt would have appreciated the National Symphony Orchestra's playing of his work. Music has much less to do with pitch than it has to do with the intervals (differences between pitches).

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#1

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 7:16 AM

Concert pitch: the modern tuning for A is different in the US than it was for Europe in the 18th century (440 Hz vs 409 Hz).

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#7
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/02/2016 5:05 AM

..." a tuning fork associated with Handel, dating from 1740, is pitched at A = 422.5 Hz, (info) while a later one from 1780 is pitched at A = 409 Hz"...

..."Overall, there was a tendency towards the end of the 18th century for the frequency of the A above middle C to be in the range of 400 (info) to 450 Hz. (info)

The frequencies quoted here are based on modern measurements and would not have been precisely known to musicians of the day. Although Mersenne had made a rough determination of sound frequencies as early as the 17th century, such measurements did not become scientifically accurate until the 19th century, beginning with the work of German physicist Johann Scheibler in the 1830s. The term formerly used for the unit of pitch, cycle per second (CPS) was replaced by hertz (Hz) in the 20th century in honor of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. The two terms are equivalent: 1 CPS = 1 Hz."...

Basically the tuning of A above middle C is all over the map, even today it varies from orchestra to orchestra...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch

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#13
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/03/2016 10:38 PM

I've read this answer and AH's answer, but I'm wondering why this would cause Handel to 'cringe and shake his head'. The relative tuning of the instruments in an orchestra (each to one another) is much more important for a harmonious sound than the exact pitch of A. Regardless of whether A is set to 409 hz or 440 hz, or 450 hz, the music will sound melodious so long as all the instruments are tuned for A at the same tone.

It is also more likely that a modern orchestra, using the 'equal temperment' system (in which every pair of adjacent pitches is separated by the same interval) for tuning the high and low notes, would produce a performance that is more melodious to the ear than what Handel may have been used to. At the time of Bach and Handel, instruments were generally tuned using either the 'equal temperment' system or the 'meantone temperment' system. (In meantone, each fifth is narrow compared to the ratio 27/12:1 used in 12 equal temperament.) As Wiki describes it, in the meantone system keys with many accidentals sound out of tune'.

So aside from hearing car horns and city noise instead of music (per my response, # 4), nevertheless it may also be that the temperment was wrong compared to what Handel was expecting and the music was 'prettier sounding' than how he'd written it. The symphony's sound may have been missing some slight off tones that would have given the overall performance more character.

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#14
In reply to #13

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/03/2016 10:47 PM

Can't speak for other's but when I was in high school concert band playing trumpet, all sections tuned to the conductor's pitch pipe. This not only ensured that we were all coordinated but that we, presuming the pitch pipe was accurate, were at the intended pitch of the composer, whether the original composer or if a piece was adapted.

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#18
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 9:24 AM

Handel was supposed to have perfect pitch, so it should be easy to recognize the difference between something as gross as 440 Hz versus 409 Hz as a concert pitch in an instant.

Even 422.5 Hz is a huge difference from 440 Hz for normal people, let alone someone with perfect pitch.

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#19
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 9:56 AM

Organ pitches varied across Europe at this time, so Handel would have been accustomed to concert A being anywhere between 400 and 450Hz.

Extract from Wikipedia:

"From the early 18th century, pitch could be also controlled with the use of tuning forks (invented in 1711), although again there was variation. For example, a tuning fork associated with Handel, dating from 1740, is pitched at A = 422.5 Hz, while a later one from 1780 is pitched at A = 409 Hz, approximately a quarter-tone lower.[2] Overall, there was a tendency towards the end of the 18th century for the frequency of the A above middle C to be in the range of 400 to 450 Hz."

BTW, as an amateur cursed with perfect pitch, I find it takes me a while to adjust to playing at a different nominals, but it has never bothered me when listening. I believe that professionals are far more flexible.

Fyz

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#20
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 10:46 AM

Fair point, but this is another challenge question, so I suspect that the correct answer will be the obvious difference between then and now. To me that seems to be a difference concert pitch.

However, tempo, as mentioned earlier, may also be what the original challenge poster intended.

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#21
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 11:25 AM

Correct???

Perhaps we should say "official"?

Possibly relevant to support the interval hypothesis? As a player of single-note instruments, I was brought up with the joint traditions of equal temperament and a modification of equal temperament, in which major and minor thirds are relatively exaggerated and simultaneously-played fourths and fifths are adjusted to avoid beat notes. Even with these traditions beind me, it was a huge shock when in the early 1960s I first heard the intonations used by Irish and Hungarian folk musicians. Quite a few of my contemporaries had similar comments. Now imagine someone reversing the change when playing music that you yourself have composed.

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#2

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 8:53 AM

"Although performances striving for authenticity are now usual, it is generally agreed that there can never be a definitive version of Messiah; the surviving manuscripts contain radically different settings of many numbers, and vocal and instrumental ornamentation of the written notes is a matter of personal judgment, even for the most historically informed performers.[108] "

"Although Messiah is not in any particular key, Handel's tonal scheme has been summarized by the musicologist Anthony Hicks as "an aspiration towards D major", the key musically associated with light and glory. "

The original version is written for a smaller group using instruments of the day, mostly no longer used, like the harpsichord...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Handel_-_messiah_-_01_sinfony.ogg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTMJVvld9ok

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_Part_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_(Handel)

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#3

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 11:31 AM

As well as the already-mentioned differences in pitch and musical instruments, the intervals between notes in the scale in Handel's time were not the same as those we currently (usually) use.

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#4

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 7:44 PM

One problem is that he can't hear anything - but not because he's deaf. The National Symphony Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, not New York City.

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#5
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 9:35 PM

Maybe they returned in a parallel universe where the Kennedy Center was built in NY, or maybe the change was brought about as a result of Handel being removed from that time....who can say...Are there any time travelers present that can clarify this anomaly, if so, please raise your hand...

speak,, speak.....ah, it's no use....

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#6
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/01/2016 10:46 PM

Well, durn, no wonder I was alone at the Kennedy Space Center.

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#8

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/02/2016 3:56 PM

An unanswerable question, with so many possiblities, including those already mentioned. I favour the idea that he objected to the high starting speed and was shaking his head to conduct from the audience; my second choice would be an objecton to the use of equal temperament (and I doubt even the "historic performance" tradition has a good handle on the tuning ratios used for playing multiple keys with a d-major bias). Other possibilities include:

Handel would certainly be surprised by the presence of paying a non-playing conductor (he might have approved, of course).

I understand the (Washington) Kennedy Center is rather large, and the NSO used a size of performing group that would have been familiar to Handel. I suspect he would have found this surprising (vide Bates memorial concert in Westminster Abbey - slightly later, but by performers who would have worked with Handel)

I don't know what pitch the NSO performed this at - a semi-tone transposition would allow them to use the hall's organ within what is currently regarded as the ideal range. Regardless however, pitch varied considerably throughout Europe at this period, and Handel would have been familiar with this - so I doubt even A=440 would have caused a shaking of the head.

Which, I suppose leaves us with period instruments and/or vocal techniques as the culprits. Here again I don't know how far down the period instruments road the NSO is able to go, and in any event I regard it as likely that Handel would not be fazed by the use of new instruments (he regularly adapted his works to suit available forces). For what it is worth, horns and trumpets would have been valve-less; trumpet and bassoon bores would have been narrower; and string instruments considerably less tightly strung, and played with much softer bows.

(You pays no money and you takes your pick)

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#9
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/02/2016 4:17 PM

Well it seems that the beginning of Messiah is sinfony, this is strings only in the key of E minor I believe....So if he winced and shook his head it would seem that the reasons we have cited so far miss the mark....although wincing would seem to mean something was off key....Maybe he never liked it(sinfony) and was painfully reminded of that fact...it is described by many as flat and well, boring...maybe he regretted writing it in this manor and just never got around to changing it to something more,,,,interesting...?

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#10
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/02/2016 5:12 PM

Thank you, I wasn't thinking round the detail of the question.
You are of course are right about instrumentation.

But this doesn't exonerate the possibilities of tuning, a matter that only the time machine would resolve (sic). The NSO are not baroque specialists, so equal-temperament is likely to rear its modern head, and I'm pretty certain that this would worry Handel, at least initially.

But I doubt we have sufficient data that even period musicians can provide authentic intervals. BTW, it could well be that the D-major assertion should stand, as the strings would historically tune to the most appropriate instrument - presumably in this case a chamber organ or harpichord, which would itself have been tuned to the predominationg key.

I understand some groups take a different view again - that where practical every note should be tuned to provide the appropriate emotion; but here again we will doubtless have lost the perspectives of the time.

On the other hand, I don't think Handel would have appreciated the Sinfony being taken at speed...

BTW, I also forgot to mention the vexed issue of vibrato - though I doubt that any professional group would overdo it these dayds.

An off-topic addition: I don't see any point in being rigid on this sort of thing. Anything is good for me if it makes musical sense in context. Others vastly better qualified have written informedly on the subject.

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/may/14/handel-massive-messiah-harry-christophers

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#11

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/02/2016 9:48 PM

What if a modern tune were to be taken back in time to play to an audience not accustomed to the tempo and ferocity. www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT3SBzmDxGk

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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/03/2016 3:13 PM
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#15

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/03/2016 11:42 PM

He might not have heard the piece yet himself. According to WIKI:

is Messiah was first performed at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals participating.[70] Handel secured a balance between soloists and chorus which he never surpassed.

So if you go back too early in time Handel might be disagreeing with what he hears. Also there needs to be a choir or two. Pitch it anyway you want there is no time travel so we will never know.

And maybe somebody added a few notes to the beginning or altered it to fit an unknown wish or scheme.

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#16

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 5:46 AM

http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2015/12/18/national-symphony-orchestra-handels-messiah-at-the-kennedy-center/

I want to distance myself from this, but, would the idea of a female conductor have horrified Handel himself?

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#17
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 9:22 AM

Handel would have registered the presence of female instrumentalists before a note was played. Naturally, the non-playing conductor would have been a shock regardless of gender, and he may not have realised this until after the playing started. Nevertheless I think we have to be looking for something musical.

I think we need to be looking at one of he following: cultural changes in the way we hear intervals; the sound itself (the NSO would presumably be playing on instruments set up in the modern manner); the speed of performance; or maybe even the relative lengths of paired notes.

Personally, I regard the intervals between notes is the only answer we can sensibly give, as Handel was used to hearing his work played by different musical forces*, and other things are unlikely to be that far wrong where the scholarship exists that would allow an answer to be presented here.

*I believe that Handel would have regarded the very different set-up of orchestral string instruments as equivalent to "different musical forces".

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#22

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 3:35 PM

I agree with the issues surrounding tuning, intervals, etc. I also agree that he may well have meant for the music to be sung by males. I also agree that if "timenapped" too early in 1742 he would never have heard the piece played/sung in his own time prior to hearing it performed by a modern group. I also believe he would shake his head if he was taken to NYC to hear the NSO play it, since there would be nothing to hear, unless they put it over the loud speakers, then he would shake his head because nothing like that existed in his time.

Maybe he winces to the language accents.

I really do not know, but I have the ultimate respect for this music not to attempt singing it where knowingly anyone else could hear me.

The first time I heard this sung live was in Salt Lake City, and not by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, although their presentation of this awesomely done as well.

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#23
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 3:55 PM

"sung by males"? "language accents"

Correct for the choruses, but not the solos, so I doubt this would have worried Handel too much; similarly, Handel's own English was rather accented, and the first performance was in held Dublin...

More critically (as pointed out by Solar Eagle), Handel reportedly shakes his his head before the singing starts.

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#24
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 4:03 PM

But what does this have to do with Lindsey Stirling? JK

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#25
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 4:18 PM

"As soon as the first notes are played Handel cringes and shakes his head. What's wrong?"

1. Messiah was composed and first performed in 1741, so no problem with the times.

2. The first several minutes are the string sections, so it wouldn't matter about the choir.

3. Only two things could be at fault. Tuning and tempo.

4. The challenge stated first note. You need two notes to establish tempo, so tuning is probably the right answer.

However, the whole challenge must be negated by a technicality. Going back in time is a violation in causality.

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#26
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 5:19 PM

@AH - it does says "notes" - so possibly just long enough to establish many of the major contentious items - speed, unmarked dotted rhythms (or not), intervals, tone-colours of modern-strung instruments...

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#27
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 6:35 PM

Oops! Good catch.

Dropping my S's again.

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#28

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/04/2016 8:18 PM

Yes since this is indeed fantasy, no time machines yet, the answer to the challenge will be subjective in nature, an opinion rather than a fact....I, for one, don't think he would be so quick to judge a performance on the first few notes, at least to the point of making faces and head shaking, I think rather he would listen to the entire concert and enjoy the performance like any body else, and in the end be quite pleased that his music is still played and enjoyed all over the world after all these years....He might even think that it has evolved into a more beautiful and refined work of art....

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#29
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 6:25 AM

Unfortunately, the reviews weren't that great, but he would probably have found it acceptable. In my fantasy he would have attended a rehearsal anyway.

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#30
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 8:36 AM

Gee I had him conducting...

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#31
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 9:16 AM

You want to get him arrested? (at best he's a central European national without up-to-date papers)

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#32
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 10:06 AM

Wow! I never really saw that coming. I think he should/would be welcomed as if Einstein just stepped off the boat.

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#33
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 10:23 AM

I suspect even Einstein needed a green card or whatever it's equivalent was in the 1930s, and immigration is even more restricted these days
Plus: nobody living in the USA knows Handel personally...

A Lewis Carroll exercise: imagine how the US authorities would react to papers dated 1740s or earlier.

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#34
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 2:14 PM

Darned Grinches and Burrocrats won't even let Santa Claus in any more. Hearts hard and cold as stone.

Handel winced as his music played, but Jesus wept (assuming few in the orchestra are even practicing Christians any more.)...too sophisticated to have faith in something they cannot see, touch, etc.

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#35
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 5:40 PM

We have all but open boarders here.

He's have a driver's license on day one and a social security card a few days later in New York.

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#36
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/05/2016 7:04 PM

Maybe much easier for labourers, but since about 1990 the H-1B visa is no longer open to artists or to entertainers. And working visas have to be organised using up-to-date documentation before you arrive in the US.
As a semi-relevant aside: I have heard that some US universities now use various methods to pay visiting lecturers in their home countries. Maybe urban myth, of course?

And I'm a ******* foreigner - what would I know?

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#37

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 7:40 AM

Period Instruments were quite different in both tone and chromatic scale. Many instruments we hear today sound very different. For instance, most famous violins have been altered by replacing the finger board with a stronger one to allow for steel strings instead of cat gut.

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#38
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Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 7:55 AM

That wouldn't change the sound of a violin substantially and it would have no effect on the chromatic scale. It's like the difference between a steel string guitar and a nylon string guitar. The latter has a more muted sound of the treble.

The first few minutes of this work are played by strings, so I think the argument for chromatic scale does not stand up. At least it is not a valid argument on the part of the instruments. You would need to literally interpret the sheet music differently.

Perhaps someone with a solid background in music theory might comment, but my limited understanding of music then and now is that the 12 notes are all the same as they are today, but concert pitch may not be, which simply has the effect of biasing the frequency of the note A above middle C about 440 Hz (442 Hz for Europe and some US Philharmonic orchestras).

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#39
In reply to #38

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 9:05 AM

I'm afraid you are mistaken about the scales. When practical string players adjust the pitch of individual notes of even 19c/20c music to sound "better" to 21c ears; however, apart from the adjustment of fifths and fourths (which are based on the experience of avoiding beat notes in long wind chords) the level of adjustment is largely cultural. Typically, it is easier to interpret complex (19C onwards) harmonies if we clarify interval differences, so (relative to equal temperament) we often reduce semitones and minor thirds and increase tones and major thirds. Baroque players would not have known equal temperament, and it is believed that where possible the pitch was close to harmonic sequences, but we have no way of knowing whether current 'best baroque' practice is historically correct. I also don't know whether the NSO use 'best baroque' when playing Handel; I rather suspect their practice would be intermediate.
BTW, the harpsichordists I play with tune differently according to the keys of the work being performed; the instruments drift a bit anyway, so there is adjustment between works regardless of key, but programme choices often make for a busy time during intermissions.

Another significant possibility is due to the opening rhythm being dotted (pairs of notes with long note followed by short). Scholarship suggests that such rhythms were played more unevenly than written, but the extent of the adjustment is unknown. I can't speak for this particular NSO performance, but many groups increase the unevenness to the point where the music sounds choppy, which I personally find inappropriate for this particular work.

Then there is the vexed question of vibrato. We don't really know how this was used in Handel's time - although there is strong evidence it was used more selectively than for romantic music. Given that nearly everyone these days makes some effort to moderate vibrato, I doubt that the differences would have been severe enough to upset Handel

Finally for now, instrumental sound: I personally find the difference sufficient that I have two instruments, one set up (so far as we can tell) similarly to the late baroque/early classical period, the other set up for more power (but still compatible with 19c to early 20c practice, so this doesn't use steel strings). The differences between bows and bowing technique are perhaps even more significant...
This is not to say that I would choose not to listen to the music being played with modern sets-up - just that you get a different perspective with old ones; so (again on a Fyzomorphic basis) I doubt that the instrumental difference would upset Handel.

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#40
In reply to #39

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 9:31 AM

Interesting.

So, it wasn't a relative shift in tuning in the mid 1700s?

For example, if I tune the 5th string of my guitar (A) to 409Hz, then tune the 4th string by fretting the 5th string at the 5th fret, and so on all until all strings are in relative agreement, that would be a relative shift, but not be the same as what they did in 1700s?

I know the 3rd string is tuned by fretting the 4th at the 4th fret.

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#42
In reply to #40

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 11:08 AM

I also used to play viols (though not very well). These are fretted instruments like the guitar, so they are subject to similar constraints.

You will find that you can adjust the pitch of a fretted note by a combination of where between the frets you place your fingers and adjusting the pressure. Pulling sideways on the string will also sharpen the note. The size of this effect will depend to some extent on the relationship between string tension and its elasticity (unwound steel strings will typically change faster than nylon, for example).

So we still need to rely on our cultural ears when tuning. The exception is that, once the six-string guitar was adopted the top and bottom e's of the standard tuning would be separated by exactly two octaves; as there is one major third to four fourths there would not be much variation in the size of the fourths - except that even today the fourths are not always tuned to be exactly equal.

In addition to variations between the sizes of individual intervals, there are of course multiple "alternative tunings". As these are derived specifically for playing individual works, the tunings here would match the perceived requirement of the key - cultural yet again.

The wikepedia article on musical interval
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_%28music%29#Quality
has a section on this, entitled "size of intervals used in different tuning systems". In my opinion it's written in a manner to "blind with science", so the reference is solely so you can check I'm not talking entirely through my hat (plus, given that precise frequency-measurement arrangements were not that common, I doubt that any of these corresponds exactly to the tunings of Handel's time).

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#41

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/06/2016 10:32 AM

1. time travelling is a tale!

2. the instrument of the musicians are not the same as 1742

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#43

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

01/26/2016 3:36 PM

Is the work being played a 'musical sketch' or draft of some sort, that got developed over time by following musical directors and their interpretations, whereas what he considered the real deal, was something he made amendments to, here and there, including the opening bars. Quite likely he may have wanted to revert to an earlier version and hearing the orchestra play his 'exploratory opening' he knew cringed because he should have used GitHub ;) Maybe its something as simple as an archivist/colleague assembling a manuscript wrongly after his death. Incidentally I think he might have been delighted with temperament, not for no reason it has changed. Pitching would have been a minor issue.

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#44

Re: Handel's Tune: Newsletter Challenge (January 2016)

02/23/2016 9:54 PM

Sorry to come so late to the game, but I just noticed the this particular CR4 feature.

Though not a musician myself, I've discovered that I can note minute shifts or discrepancies of pitch, such as when a tape is stretching, or a CD player is several RPM off.

After reading all of the posts, I noticed nothing about acoustics: wouldn't the location of Handel's seat to some extent determine what he hears, volume, pitch, timbre, even the prevalence of one voice or instrument over others?

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