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I recently attended a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto by Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Marin Alsop. At the end, Nicola played an encore: a version of Auld Lang Syne. She commented that she was not used to playing the piece on gut strings and at this pitch. My initial reaction was that since it was a solo piece, why would she feel the need to transpose it rather than play at a familiar pitch. I then realised that this was probably not what she meant but that her violin was not tuned to the modern standard concert pitch. Not having perfect pitch, I had not picked up on this. What is a likely tuning that was used or is that an impossible question and it was a matter of the particular instruments they had or the judgement of the conductor?

  • 'Baroque pitch' is widely agreed to be around A=415, a semitone down from today's A=440. 'Beethoven pitch' can be more tricky to pin down. He seems to have owned a tuning fork at A=455, rather HIGHER than today's standard. Do we know what pitch Benedetti and Alsop picked? – Laurence Payne Feb 16 '18 at 12:15
  • I would like to know what was used in this concert but I am not sure how to find out. It was only afterwards when I thought about Nicola's comment that the question occurred to me. – badjohn Feb 16 '18 at 12:54
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Great question - the answer has everything to do with the violin strings.

The performer’s comment about the strings is important, and here’s why:

Contemporary strings are often steel with a nickel-winding around the lower strings. This gives violins their brilliant sound. It also means we can put more tension on them and tune to higher pitch tunings (setting off things like pitch-inflation).

Okay, so what?

The performer was playing on traditional gut strings. These strings are made of organic material. They’re softer, sweeter with richer overtones, and not as brilliant. They also can’t support as much tension (and therefore higher tuning) as their contemporary counterpart. Thus, by our modern ears, are typically played at lower tunings (when in fact historically it has been the other way around!).

This opens up a larger conversation about pitch that goes beyond this question, but historically speaking, in the Baroque and Medieval times, tuning had not been standardized and often tuning would even change from town to town, sometimes making it difficult for musicians to play together. It is for this reason that “A”, now the international tuning note, was usually heard somewhere between 380-416hz - a far cry from our standard 440hz and the sometimes popular 441-443 range.

So, because of the lower tuning frequency, the entire instrument sounds lower, even though it plays the same way. Even if that performer were used to playing on that instrument, the act of switching from contemporary instruments to historical ones can be pretty jarring at first until your ears adjust. It’s likely the violinist tuned to A 380-416hz and gave their comment acknowledging how much lower the violin sounded.

I remember once hearing a piece by Ben Johnston for just-intonated piano. It sounded really weird to me until my ears adjusted and I heard that was a bluesy sort of shuffle. I had no idea! It was almost like my ears came into focus.

I this answer brings that performance into focus!

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    @Tim - In the WEIRD case of a modern orchestra specifically, yes, they could theoretically compensate: all strings would tune down, brass would pull out all their valve slides, woodwinds would pull out headjoints, barrels, bocals, and reeds, and the conductor would sag a bit. – jjmusicnotes Feb 16 '18 at 14:45
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    @Tim - Yes, the last part of that was a joke, and yes, I made another comment specifically so I had space for that joke, and yes, I made another comment explicitly explaining that other comment. – jjmusicnotes Feb 16 '18 at 14:46
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    And would the conductor use a Bb baton instead of the more usual C...? – Tim Feb 16 '18 at 14:55
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    @Tim Transposing instruments are already enough of a nuisance, now you want to introduce transposing batons. Slightly longer, I guess. – badjohn Feb 16 '18 at 14:56
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    @Tim - Actually a transposing baton, so the conductor would read C, but it comes out Eb. – jjmusicnotes Feb 16 '18 at 15:18

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