Organ matters - Organs matter!

Tuning => Questions of Temperament => Topic started by: David Pinnegar on December 29, 2018, 01:30:25 PM

Title: Meantone and the Mysterious. How long did it last?
Post by: David Pinnegar on December 29, 2018, 01:30:25 PM
I was inspired by Percy Scholes' question "How could the Bach 48 have been played on Dr Burney's piano?". In the late 18th century pianos in England were tuned to Meantone. How long did this endure? My researches into Mozart suggested that Meantone was important to interpretation of Mozart's music.

What about Beethoven? A friend visited and kindly recorded The Tempest . In my view it adds to the magical atmosphere alluded to in the presumed association with Shakespeare's play.

Best wishes

David P
Title: Re: Meantone and the Mysterious. How long did it last?
Post by: Ian van Deurne on January 13, 2019, 05:53:18 PM
As far as Europe was concerned, the employment of basic meantone temperaments had long ceased by the time that Mozart had started to compose. By the 1770s, modified versions of either 5th or 6th comma meantone systems were all in favour,  hence the creation of Bach's 48 preludes and fugues. As for Charles Burney, I really couldn't speculate, given his strange ideas on his contemporary musicians, but it's perfectly feasible that he may still have been cemented to the even then archaic tuning system.

The only firm evidence that I can provide from this period is of course for organs. Mozart we know was very fond of them, and it was he who first coined the phrase as the organ being "The King of Instruments" after visiting the Christiaan Müller organ at Sint Bavo in Haarlem in 1767 when he was 11 years old. From its inseption this organ was well-tempered, to a modified form of 1/6th comma meantone. Händel also visited this organ around a decade earlier and was also suitibly impressed. However, Charles Burney, when writing in his 'Diary of a Musical Journey' in the mid 1770s stated that after visiting Sint Bavo, he found that the organ "be crammed full of noisy stops, all out of tune". This is one reason why that we all need to take his opinions with a pinch of salt.

On the face of it, I cannot think of any reference to Beethoven playing the organ with any regularity, although it is known that he did so occasionally. At any rate, his Graaf piano, which he would one day saw the legs off, would also have been well-tempered.

During my own life as both an organ builder and player, whenever I would build a new organ, I would always set the tuning as being well-tempered as standard, unless otherwise instructed by the client (and I have to say that in this I wasn't always successful), for to my musical ear the organ sounds far better, more integrated when tuned unequally. The Mixtures and Cimbels also calm down and fail to scream, even in a really dry acoustic. A few weeks ago I gave an organ concert of music by Widor :excerpts from his organ symphonies culminating in the 5th Symphony in its entirity. This was performed on one of my own organs at the Liebfrauenkirche in Lindau, III/64. This organ is tuned to the well-tempered  system devised by Neidhardt in 1724 but believe me, the music of Widor sounds just wonderful when played on an instrument tuned in this manner!
Title: Re: Meantone and the Mysterious. How long did it last?
Post by: David Pinnegar on January 14, 2019, 03:30:43 PM
This is really interesting and very helpful indeed. I think there's a lot of pointers to 6th Comma Meantone being in common use and used by Mozart. I've been experimenting with 1/4 comma really as a form of X-Ray to the music revealing starkly to less sensitive ears where really interesting things are going on.

How does 6th Comma Meantone compare in effect on the keys for instance with Vallotti dividing errors among 6 fifths? I have a preference for Kellner or Kirnberger III compared to Vallotti simply because I like the stronger flavour of curry and nearer to the 5th Comma meantone variation.

Are you using the Neidhardt "Village" temperament or the weaker ones?

Best wishes

David P
Title: Re: Meantone and the Mysterious. How long did it last?
Post by: Ian van Deurne on January 22, 2019, 07:38:19 PM
Hi David,
It would appear that several decades before the birth of Mozart, most examples of the well-tempered system were based upon 1/6th comma meantone to a more or lesser extent. This is also true in the case of Beethoven. It wasn't really until the 1840's that equal temperament began to find great favour within the musical fraternity, mainly because of performers and composers such as Franz Liszt began to push the musical boundaries much further by modulating into ever more remote keys which proved too much for the tuning systems of the time. So much so that eventually something had to give, and that of course Was the gradual adoption of equal temperament until it became virtually universal, at the expense of individual nuances between the various key signatures and "key flavour" resulting in a more dull and lifeless sound, given that every note is now out of tune to its neighbour by 1.1/2th of a degree.

Although well-tempered systems had started in the early 18th century, some organ builders, brought up with the less flexible meantone systems still tefused to have anything to do with these "modern usurpers". The irascible master Gottfried Silbermann for example would have absolutely nothing to do them and positively refused to tune his instruments any other way than in 1/6th comma meantone, even when requested to do so by his very good friend Bach, and it is on record that they quarelled frequently over the matter, with Bach being quoted after shugging his shoulders this particular day and saying: "Well, you may tune it just as you like, but I will play it just as I like!" - and with that he started to improvise a prelude and fugue in A-flat Major, thus causing Silbermann to run quickly out of the church, holding his ears against his own 'Wolf".

I have never employed Vallotti temperament myself, although had I built an organ of any significant size in England I would have probably considered doing so as I know that at one time it was very popular in the country. Like you, I prefer well-tempered systems with a stronger key flavour, so therefore I have used both Kellner and Kirnberger I - III (both one time students of Bach) quite often. Others, including the early temperaments of Werckmeister, himself an organist, Sorge (1760 - ideal for music from the classical period, like Mozart) and of course Neidhardt I (1724), your "Village" example, which is stronger than his later temperaments, although it does seem to favour the sharp keys somewhat. Two others that I of course often employ were devised by myself: Van Deurne I and Van Deurne (Bach) II. Unfortunately, I don't have the tuning tables at hand  for these at the moment but I will post them sometime after I discover where they are (Im thinking my eldest daughter Karina has "borrowed" them as usual but I cannot think why. She's never tuned an organ herself ever, she always relies on me to do it for her!)

To end, I'll quote the tonal specification of our company's own organ mentioned before, at the Liebfrauenkirche in Lindau. I wouldn't normally do so because the flaunting of one's own work to me feels like posturing. Please note that this church is not the principal  "Notre Dame" Cathedral in the city centre (that church contains an organ by Steinmeyer), but is much further out in the suburbs, therefore not on the island itself.


Gedackt 16
Principal 8
Rohrflöte 8
Quintaden 8
Octave 4
Spitzflöte 4
Rohrquinte 2.2/3
Superoctave 2
Waldflöte 2
Tertia 1.3/5
Spitzquinte 1.1/3
Sifflöt 1
Scharff 4-5 fach
Dulzian 16
Trichterregal 8


Principal 16
Principal 8
Bifaria II 8 (c)
Viola da Gamba 8
Doppelgedackt 8
Octave 4
Traversflöte 4
Tertia 3.1/5
Quinte 2.2/3
Superoctave 2
Flachflöte 2
Cornet 5 fach  (g - hochgefürt)
Mixtur 6 fach
Cimbel 3 fach
Trompete 16
Trompete 8
Saboiana 8

III. Rècit expressif

Contraviole 16
Diapason 8
Salicional 8
Voix colestis 8 (c)
Flûte harmonique 8
Nasard 2.2/3
Doublette 2
Echocornet 3 fach (g) 
Fourniture 6 fach
Acuta 3 fach
Basson 16
Trompette 8
Hautbois 8
Clarion 4
Voix humaine 8


Untersatz 32
Principal 16
Violonbass 16
Subbass 16
Octavbass 8
Violoncello 8
Superoctave 4
Dolkan 4
Nachthorn 2
Mixtur 6 fach
Contrafagott 32
Posaune 16
Trompete 8
Altotrompete 4
Singend Cornet 2


III/16  III/4  III/-8


Tremblant fortè (whole organ)
Tremblant doux (Chorwerk)
Schwebung  (Rècit expressif)
Philomena (birdsong)
Tastenretierung (Hauptwerk - locks the keys down to enable large chords to be built up).

Compass: C - g' - a''' (32 - 58 notes)

64 Register           4,720 Pipes

With best wishes,

Title: Re: Meantone and the Mysterious. How long did it last?
Post by: David Pinnegar on January 28, 2019, 12:06:50 AM
Thanks so much for these thoughts and considerations on temperament history.

I'm organising a temperament awareness day on 6th May rather more specifically geared to the piano but on the basis that attention to tuning encourages listening, by players, and better more sensitive playing in an effort to reinvigorate people's interest in classical music.

On account of this and the need to demonstrate alternatives to equal temperament I've encompassed Pianoteq which is great for research and demonstration purposes. To tune a whole instrument for instance from Kellner to 6th Comma Meantone doesn't really allow instant comparison :-) but the ability to simulate electronically is a great privilege. The extent to which 1/6 Comma still retains features of the strength of 1/4 comma is remarkable but whether the temperament is 1/6 Comma or Werkmeister III or Kirnberger III or whatever, they all have common features and not greatly differing strengths of spice. Certainly with pianos I think that many temperaments were variously used and that there wasn't a "right" temperament universally in use, the only wrong temperament being the universal one as used now.

The specifications of your instrument are really wonderfully comprehensive and a feat of which to be very proud. This forum is a place where people can talk unashamedly about their works and their instruments. We have to kindle the spirits of enthusiasms.

Best wishes

David P