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.

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