As Time Goes By the Syntonic Comma

February 17, 2013 at 1:30 am (By Tim) (, , )

Intended as bon-bons, I’m afraid my relentlessly didactic musical nougats have not been as popular as I hoped. But unwilling to abandon a niche taste for classical music, I thought I might tempt you with a belated Valentine’s Day sweet:  Chiara Massini, my favorite harpsichordist, in a little video montage, accompanied by her playing “As Time Goes By” on a slightly out-of-tune harpsichord.

In my world, a kiss is still just a kiss. But afterwards, I’ll tell you how the harpsichord is tuned. It sounds like Valotti temperament, one of several common unequal tunings used in the late 17th and 18th centuries, gone off a little bit like Sam’s piano. It’s similar to Bach’s well-tempered system, but maybe a tad smoother. If you listen carefully, you can hear how some chords and maybe a note or two sound a little more out-of-tune than others. Ah, romance!

Even the best harpsichord goes out-of-tune after an hour or two of playing. They need constant tuning. It’s the nature of the beast. If you want something lightly-built and resonant to respond to the plucking of strings, instead of them being smacked around, as on a piano, the light and resonant will not stay in tune as well as the heavy and iron-framed.

So, the first thing you need to do if you want to learn to play the harpsichord is to learn to tune it. You will be doing that every day. Antique temperaments, in addition to the piquancy they lend to old music, are actually a lot easier to tune than piano-style equal temperament. This allows Ms. Massini to smile at us from the keyboard after less than 20 minutes of twanging strings, instead of the hour it would take the usual suspects to tune equal temperament. But there are no kisses to be found anywhere on an equally-tuned keyboard. There aren’t any smacks in the face, either, but, as everyone knows, those tend to go with kisses—except, of course, on the piano, which manages to combine smacking around with a firm rule against smooching in the Tuning Department. It’s also time to abandon this metaphor for growing inconsistent, stale, and excessively kinky.

And, frankly, I’d rather spend the 40 minutes flirting with Ms. Massini while she played, sad as I might otherwise be we never had Paris.


  1. mockturtle said,

    Tim, I relish your musical ‘bon-bons’ and am sorry that I am obviously in the minority here. Do you have an independent music blog where I may continue to learn at your feet, so to speak?

    I haven’t yet listened to the above offering but will later when I have time.

  2. mockturtle said,

    PS: Hope you are feeling better! :-)

  3. mockturtle said,

    BTW, my pastor quoted Edmund Burke in is sermon this morning [don’t know where it came from–a metaphor involving importune grasshoppers] and, along with your comments, piqued my interest in reading E.B. Would you recommend the book you’re reading now Reflections on the French Revolution for a start or perhaps A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful? Or neither?

  4. TT Burnett said,

    Hi mockturtle–You can get a complete edition of Burke in Kindle format from Amazon for $1.99. (I bought it last year for $0.99.) It’s the good Morley edition from the 1890’s, as I recall, and it’s pretty clean and well-edited for e-book format, unlike so much from, say, Google Books or Project Gutenberg. It’s another 12-volume reason to own a Kindle. I’ve got this groaning bookshelf of classics I’ve gotten for maybe $20 total, and having them always to hand has improved my life quite a bit as I grow older.

    Anyway, you can get the electric Burke from Amazon at this URL. They also have the dead tree version at some higher price.

  5. mockturtle said,

    Thank you! Yes, I find I can get almost any classic works free, or nearly so, for my kindle! Great device and great service!

  6. mockturtle said,

    BTW, the harpsichord lends itself surprisingly well to As Time Goes By!

  7. Icepick said,

    Tim, I don’t know why you don’t think your posts are popular. Personally I look forward to them and I’ve been happy to see you posting more frequently lately.

  8. Icepick said,

    BTW, you can get a lot of Burke for free off Project Gutenberg, too. They support Kindle formats as well..

  9. karen said,

    I agree w/all o the above:0).
    Your Miss Chiara is a beautiful lady- plays well- and expresses herself w/great… sexuality, if i may say so. I would prefer to watch her hands on the keyboard, or whatever it may be called- but, she’s not hard to gaze at, either.

    Really- who needs Paris?

    ps- i never took you for a wussy Northern Liberal, either. I sometimes read Althouse threads and see you there(i think it’s you). All good.

    What do have and know of Hayden? Are there are two brothers- i forget… Joesph? I did a little report in the 2nd grade and remember to this day- no more than that. I used clay and made a piano and drums w/men. If we cared more about the classics and less about- idk- PE… our kids would be that much further ahead(or is it farther?). They would remember that which is becoming increasingly lost in these generations.

  10. mockturtle said,

    Ice, Tim recommended the Morely edition for $1.99, which I downloaded today.

  11. mockturtle said,

    Morley, not Morely. ;-)

  12. TT Burnett said,

    Thanks, Icepick and Karen! As I’ve said, I’m pulling some of these musical bits out of cold storage and trying them out before working them into a music appreciation blog intended for the Choir School where I teach. I want to see how they look on a blog. But I also have to resurrect media. You know how volatile YouTube is. And I can’t even find half my JPEGs. So, it’s nice to know at least a few people are reading what I expect to be about 3 musical posts a week until around Easter, when I hope to have enough for the “real” blog to go live. Frankly, I don’t expect too many people to read that, either. It’s intended to be part of our outreach and to improve the general knowledge of, and feeling people might have for classical music among the School’s community. This is an enormous subject, and I will try to do a post exclusively about it soon. But developing a blog for the School is, in fact, part of my Lenten discipline. I am really lashing myself to the mast (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) until it’s floated on its own this Spring.

    It’s interesting about classics and the Kindle. I love the idea behind Project Gutenberg and Google Books. One of the many problems with these efforts, however, is the quality of the actual text as digitized. Old books are invariably scanned and converted to a digital format with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software. This process is far from perfect, and the result is that frequently digital text is shot through with typos. Often, these typos are predictable (“r” and “n” mixed up, for example), but they do need to be found and corrected. Also, more subtle things, such as italics and em- and en- dashes, need to be preserved from the originals. They seldom are. The result may be free of charge, but it is also likely to range from damned-hard-to-read to slam-the-Kindle-down annoying. Try getting through Tristram Shandy, for example, without something like the original typography.

    Amazon seems to have finally recognized this. They now frequently offer decently edited versions of classics at a nominal price. They originally offered classics at usual e-book prices, thinking that people would pay Penguin prices for Penguin content. But people wouldn’t, because something like the Penguin content was out there free. Amazon must have thought they should get at least some revenue from this market, so they started offering solid, mostly Edwardian editions that have been converted and post-edited more carefully. The result is that people like me now go to Amazon first for classics, and, their being easy to check for quality, we’re perfectly willing to shell out a few bucks for something likely to be good. It’s quite possible otherwise to spend a half-hour per book searching through Project Gutenberg or Google Books to find the best, but still typo-laden, alternative.

    Karen—Great question about the Haydn brothers. Franz Josef Haydn as a real mensch and his slightly more difficult younger brother would make a great post. Look for something about them, and/or Franz Josef alone, in a new post soon.

  13. karen said,

    Thank you, Tim.
    I look forward to the listening &learning.

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