We would like to perform excerpts from Monteverdi's Orfeo on period instruments. According to recent research, what is the most authentic temperament that could have been used for the keyboard instruments in the Italian early baroque?

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    Can't vouch for early baroque, but by the mid-baroque meantone seemed to be most common. This is the reference era for the discussion of temperament, though, so really many different types were practiced and theorized. By picking the temperament you think suits the pieces best (by the range of keys, duration of each key, etc.), I'd say you're practicing the authentic experience. Of course, if you find a good text on Monteverdi and temperament, please let us know! – oliTUTilo Jan 12 '14 at 5:19
  • Thank you, I already thought of 1/5 comma meantone. I know the best temperament varies from piece to piece, so it has to be determined by practice and hearing, effectively playing through the piece and carefully listening. Unfortunately the instrument tuner needed an urgent choice and I didn't have the opportunity to try things out, that's why I posted a question here. Next time I'm going to have a suitabe MIDI software at hand. :) – thSoft Jan 12 '14 at 11:35
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    I would also think that the entire frequency range should be shifted downward from A=440. How much? Not sure. Maybe A=435 or lower. – tjb1982 May 22 '14 at 1:07
  • No, tjb1982, in Monteverdi's time the tuning would have been around A=392 or A=415, which are a whole step and a half step below A=440, respectively. In Bach's time most orchestras tuned to A=415, but there were pipe organs tuned to A=466, which is a half step above A=440. The tuning of A=430 appeared around Schubert's time. A=440 did not become widely adopted until the early 20th century. – user1044 May 31 '14 at 2:02
  • @thSoft, what is the name of your musical group, and where do they perform, please? Do they have a website? – user1044 May 31 '14 at 14:30

FWIW, late organ builder and writer Stephen Bicknell, in this introductory description of temperaments mentions tuning a continuo organ to quarter-comma meantone for a performance of Monteverdi by the Taverner Choir & Consort.

  • So I would say quarter-comma meantone with the pitch A tuned to either 392Hz or 415Hz (I am not sure which was used in Monteverdi's Italy; in France around that time it was A=392Hz.) We refer to the tuning of A as the diapason or kammerton. – user1044 May 31 '14 at 2:06
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    The person asking the question said that their group plays on period instruments, which would be designed for the lower diapason. In order to play in A=392 or A=415, you have to have special woodwind and brass instruments that are built for that tuning. You can't "re-tune" woodwind and brass instruments that were built for A=440 down that low. By the same token, if you are going down to A=392, bowed string musicians may have to change to a thicker gauge of strings. – user1044 May 31 '14 at 2:08
  • Tell me about it! It's slightly annoying whenever I try playing my A=440 Recorder along with a Baroque music recording on Youtube, only to discover it was recorded in historical pitch. – Caleb Hines May 31 '14 at 2:26
  • Thank you for your insights! For the record, due to our budget, we were playing only with string instruments & continuo, so it would have been easy to tune the organ to 1/4-comma meantone, but we were playing at A=466Hz, which we achieved by usig A=415Hz instruments and transposing a major second up, so we played with equal temperament. – thSoft May 31 '14 at 7:20

For a number of years I was publicity, marketing and business manager for a Baroque chamber orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. I have put the question of temperament and tuning for Monteverdi's Orfeo to several friends who perform with that group. If I hear back from them, I will post their answers here.

I fear that I may have confused things with several of my comments here, so I need to use an answer to explain myself. Temperament is one issue (the most important one to the person asking this question), and base tuning (in cycles per second, or Hz) is another. Throughout the Baroque period, different cities, nations and locations in Europe and elsewhere used different base tunings (referred to as kammerton in German and diapason in other languages), and sometimes within the same location an entirely different base tuning would be used depending on whether the music was for choir, for orchestra, or for pipe organ. There are even examples of pieces of music for combinations of choir, orchestra and organ where the composer wrote out the sheet music in different key transpositions for the different sections because of different base tunings employed between those sections.

While A=392 was the most common "early French Baroque" tuning, and A=415 was the most common "High Baroque" tuning, and A=466 was used for some pipe organs and instruments such as recorder, there was wide variation. Just as every town had their own official time and clocks, it was not possible for all the different nations of the world to standardize on a certain base tuning at that time in history.

In the modern era, the most common base tuning is A=440Hz. Early music groups today usually choose between A=392 (one whole-step below A=440), A=415 (one half-step below A=440), and A=466 (one half-step above A=440). Also, for Classical and early Romantic-period music, such as that of Mozart and Schubert, an agreed-upon base tuning is A=430.

Base tuning is a very important issue for musical instruments and for singers. Asking a modern singer or choir to "re-tune" the performance of a piece as much as a whole-step down or a half-step up can put a strain on the tone quality the singers can produce. Furthermore, brass and woodwind instruments are constructed in a way that severly limits their ability to tune up or tune down. There have been times and places in history when professional brass and woodwind players were expected to own two or even three sets of instruments, built for different base tunings, to accommodate whatever base tuning was required for different repertoire.

With regard to the tuning used by a particular composer some three hundred years ago or more, musicologists only know for sure if they can find actual tuning forks used in those places and times, or can take measurements from actual playable historical instruments whose tuning did not vary by much, such as recorders or organ pipes.

  • +1 Nice historical overview that this page very much needed. ... In your second-to-last paragraph, you mention "sets of instruments"; is this because, before the introduction of valved-instruments, brass players needed instruments in several keys? – luser droog Jun 1 '14 at 5:53
  • I guess the answer is "sort of". In the Baroque era, all music for trumpets was written in D major, unless you had a trumpet that could employ a certain kind of mute that dropped the pitch by 1/2 step or 1 whole step (and that was rare). At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, however, one trumpet player would have two trumpets because he might play the same piece from the same sheet music with one orchestra that tuned to A=440 and another orchestra that tuned to A=415 or A=430. – user1044 Jun 1 '14 at 18:27

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