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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?

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    '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
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 12:54

2 Answers 2

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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. Commented Feb 16, 2018 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. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 14:46
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    And would the conductor use a Bb baton instead of the more usual C...?
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 14:56
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    @Tim - Actually a transposing baton, so the conductor would read C, but it comes out Eb. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 15:18
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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.

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    "unmodified Baroque instruments strung with gut were able to play along with organs & other keyboard instruments tuned to a pitch well above A=440" - on the face of it, this statement is wrong, as we instead have plenty of examples of the part for the organ being written a tone lower than the other instruments to accomodate the difference in pitch (organ at or about 465 Hz, strings a whole tone lower at around 415 Hz); example in following comment.
    – AlexJ
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 14:35
  • Ex. bach-digital.de/rsc/viewer/BachDigitalSource_derivate_00059566/… (cello/low string part to Bach's BWV 147; notated in C major); bach-digital.de/rsc/viewer/BachDigitalSource_derivate_00059570/… (continuo part for the same, in Bb major). In any case, this late answer does not even answer the OP's question.
    – AlexJ
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 14:36
  • Hi, I think a source of the initial statement would help to make this answer more credible!
    – Tom
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 19:47
  • @AlexJ while that is true, it is also true on the other hand that Venetian strings played in the same notated pitch as organs and brass. The pitch of a string depends not only on its tension but also on its mass, as even a casual glance at the G and E strings of a violin can show. Instead of increasing the tension by a certain factor, you can decrease the mass by the same factor.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:11
  • @Tom string frequency for a given length depends on tension and linear density (which, for a given length, depends on mass); steel is denser than gut, QED. Steel violin strings are only about 100 years old, by the way -- most classical music was written for gut strings.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:26

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