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Pitch and temperament(s), mid nineteenth century

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  • Pitch and temperament(s), mid nineteenth century

    I'm probably opening a can of worms ...

    What pitch (A=396, 415, 435, 450, etc) and what temperament (just, meantone, equal, well, etc.) were used by builders in mid-nineteenth century American pipe organs?

    Tom M.

  • #2
    Since about the 1850's, basically every pipe organ builder in Europe, Canada and the US used a kind of equal temperament (though it wasn't as precise as it is now until the 1920's). Before that, in the US there was a mix of temperaments, but most of them were based on some kind of meantone, probably pretty strict quarter comma meantone, after the English fashion. There were probably some US organs before 1850 that had one of the other well temperaments after the practice in Germany, such as the 1/6 comma meantone.
    I know less about the pitch standards, but for reed organs in the US and Canada, A=440 was not common until the 1910-1920's. Every reed organ manufacturer seemed to use a different standard though. Earlier reed organs (1850's-1870's) tended to use a higher pitch standard, whereas there were some manufacturers that started using lower pitch standards closer to the 1890's, before moving to A=440. As in Germany, I'm guessing that high pitch standards were considered best if the instrument was going to be played by itself, whereas low pitch standards were necessary if the organ was going to be played with instruments. A=440 didn't start to become a worldwide orchestral standard until the late 1890's/early 1900's, starting first in Europe then moving to other countries, if I recall correctly.

    Current: Allen 225 RTC, W. Bell reed organ, Lowrey TGS, Singer upright grand
    Former: Yamaha E3R


    • #3
      Thank you sir!

      We're restoring an 1826 five rank organ; most of the pipes have been replaced or "restored" over the last 200 years, so we have no idea how to determine original pitch and temperament.

      I knew a bit about the pitch issues, but actually thought the meantone had disappeared from common use by 1800. Thanks for letting me know it continued into the nineteenth century.

      Is there an online reference to determining appropriate temperament(s) for keyboard instruments of that time period? So far I've only found modern examples of the temperaments, but not which ones were used in the early nineteenth century.

      Tom M.


      • #4
        The trouble with meantone and related temperaments is that it limits what you can play on it. If you have an organist that loves renaissance keyboard works or hymns only in the 5 or so easy keys, then 1/4 comma meantone is good, otherwise it's quite limited. The organ may have been tuned to meantone originally, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea now! Baroque organ works also sound good in a well temperament like 1/6 comma meantone, but most romantic and modern pieces don't.

        Same with the pitch. Every time you adjust the pitch, you have to damage the pipes. Best to leave them at whatever they are at now, I would think. In 1826 it would have probably been a high pitch standard if it was going into a smaller church, probably around A=450. If it was lowered, typically they shifted the pipes over, then cut them down, so you're missing a pipe on the bottom end (you have to make the pipes longer so they sound lower). The pipes they removed at the top were usually lost or you find them in the organ cabinet, or a closet somewhere. If it was a lower pitch standard, they usually just cut them down to raise them to A=440. But after 150 plus years, the A=440 is usually a bit flatter, say A=435. If that's where it's at, I would leave it there. Again, historically accurate is nice, but playable is nicer! The pitch is usually not so much a sticking point as the temperament though, you can probably get away with it being a little off concert pitch.

        Current: Allen 225 RTC, W. Bell reed organ, Lowrey TGS, Singer upright grand
        Former: Yamaha E3R


        • #5
          Thinking about temperament and tuning reminds me of a thought I once had. Most hymns in the US are from the English tradition and their pitch may be related to the English brass/wind ensembles of the eighteenth & nineteenth century's . Maybe one reason that so many hymns are in flat keys. Printed hymn music was printed to avoid ledger lines and should be transposed. Which was an expected trait of the early organists. So pitch may not have been as important as was an organists skill. As I said, just a thought.


          • myorgan
            myorgan commented
            Editing a comment
            @aeolian pat,

            I also suspect hymns were kept within the staves to stay within the ranges of the various voice parts. I wish I remembered more from childhood, but I suspect people also sang parts in the past.

            IIRC, A=440 didn't become a "standard" until the middle of the 20th century ('40s/'50s). I seem to remember a couple of threads to that effect about 10-12 years ago. I'm sure you can search the Forum and find the threads.