Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pitch Specificity

One of the hazards of our buying into equal-tempered tuning (the artificial system in which all half-steps are equi-distant) is that we stop responding to the particular aspects of particular pitches on particular instruments.

When I am listening to the radio and I hear a string quartet I can tell within seconds whether there is substance in their intonation or whether they are actually trying to sound like a piano.  By substance I mean the awareness that certain pitches resonate differently on the strings according to the way the strings are tuned.  This, in fact, was the entire point of composition for strings for hundreds of years.

Recently my son came into possession of a natural horn, i.e., the valveless horn for which Mozart composed his many horn concertos.  Just imagining how he must have reacted to that sound in order to write such glorious music for it is reason enough to take the instrument seriously.

Turns out that Beethoven wrote one sonata for the instrument plus piano, Op. 17, in 1800.  I checked on my Beethoven timeline:  Before I knew this work I assumed that Beethoven's flow of fourteen brilliant sonatas involving piano began with Op. 22; I changed my mind this morning when I realized that this Op. 17 was written in 1800.

The piece is written off as "fluff" by people who cannot imagine fascination with pitches so colorful that their function disappears into pure lyricism, just by virtue of the intonation.