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Equal and Unequal Temperament: A Comparative Listening

Our ear has always been accustomed to hearing music with equal tuning, in which the 12 semitones of the octave are all the same. This implies that the colors of the various shades are very similar, and the same piece can be transposed into other shades without particular differences.

This was not the case in the eighteenth century: then keyboard instruments were tuned according to unequal temperaments, which included some pure intervals, with a greater difference between the various keys. This allowed listeners to be able to recognize each tonality based on its color, even though they did not have the so-called "perfect pitch", as the great fortepianist Robert Levin writes in his essay "Mozart and the keyboard culture of his time":In Mozart's time keyboard instruments were tuned in a number of compromise temperaments, in which some tonalities were more pure, others less so, giving the chords of each key a different and characteristic sonority deriving from their relative acoustic purity or dissonance.Such temperaments, which are susceptible of considerable alteration and invention, are often named after the musicians who devised them, e.g., Werckmeister, Kirnberger, and Vallotti.

The result was a unique flavor for each key, which enabled those without perfect pitch to have a sense of the distance of a foreign key from the principal one.False reprises thus sounded as peculiar to the listener as they looked on the page.(the complete essay is available in pdf at this link: ).

There are many different types of unequal tunings: the most "radical", such as the Pythagorean one, do not allow playing in all keys, as some intervals are completely out of tune, and therefore unlistenable. For the music of the late Eighteenth Century, the so-called "well-tempered" tunings are used, i.e. those that "temper" the roughness well, so that all the keys can be played without too much listening difficulty, while preserving the differences between each key.

This is the case with the Vallotti temperament used in my recording of Mozart's Sonatas.It is a circular temperament, because, in fact, it works with all keys (therefore it is a "well-tempered" tuning), but still giving a color that is very different from the modern equal temperament.Comparative listening proposalI propose here, therefore, a small "tasting" experiment of different tunings.Naturally, these are differences that must be understood by listening particularly attentively.Today, unfortunately, our ear has lost the habit of enjoying the nuances given by the different tunings.Yet a little concentration in listening is enough to sharpen one's sensitivity and discover a great variety of nuances and inflections that derive from a given tuning.It is a process of listening refinement that is somewhat reminiscent of that of those approaching the tasting of quality wines: initially it is not possible to distinguish a Brunello from a Montepulciano, but gradually the palate is refined and the differences are much more evident.

When I started recording the first Mozart Sonatas at the Fazioli Concert Hall, last November 28, 2015, I did some tests, recording the same sonata on two Fazioli F278 pianos, one tuned normally and the other according to the Vallotti temperament.The two instruments were positioned in the exact same point of the room, and recorded a few hours apart from each other, with the same microphones. I also tried to play in a similar way, even if, listening again, I realize that I was greatly conditioned by auditory feedback, and therefore my interpretation was slightly different, also in the choice of tempos and in the use of dynamics.

For this recording, I chose to tune the Fazioli piano F 278 with the unequal “Vallotti” temperament, decidedly unusual today on the modern piano, but very popular in the years in which Mozart composed these Sonatas.

The difference with respect to the common modern tuning lies in the different color that each tonality acquires, due to the division of the octave into twelve unequal semitones, with the presence of five different types of major thirds.

Thus each Sonata has a completely unique character, and it is understandable why Mozart set some movements in a certain key.For example, the F minor of the Adagio of Sonata K 280 here takes on a decidedly dejected tone, not generically melancholic. And when, after the initial section, we move on to the section in A flat major, this sounds more precarious and illusory, suggesting the idea of a happiness only imagined, far from reality.In the transitions from one tonality to another, whether they occur abruptly or gradually, it is thus much easier to grasp the movement from one harmonic (and emotional) place to another in a much more engaging way.

The dissonant harmonies sound more strident and "painful", emphasizing the dramatic and visionary power that is already present in these first Sonatas, and which make them, almost 250 years later, music of great strength and modernity.


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