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?
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!
The myth that gut strings need to be tuned lower owing to "weakness" has long been disproven: the truth is that gut strings can achieve a higher pitch at lower tension than steel strings. The fact that, at the time, unmodified Baroque instruments strung with gut were able to play along with organs & other keyboard instruments tuned to a pitch well above A=440 would support this - if the "weakness of gut" argument were true, string instruments would have been blowing apart everywhere, which was clearly not the case. Another fact: with the introduction of steel strings in the 18th century, string instruments built before that time needed to be rebuilt & modified to support the greater tension required to tune steel strings to the same pitch the gut strings had been tuned to previously. All of this is well-documented in a brilliant display in the Metropolitain Museum instrument collection.