Bach bust in a park (photographed by Johnny Reinhard)
What kind of tuning did Bach really use? That is the subject of Johnny Reinhard’s new book, Bach and Tuning. You may know Johnny Reinhard as the host of a wonderful Bach show on WKCR every Christmas Day. He has passionately studied this subject for most of his life, including several pilgrimages to Germany to the places where Bach had lived and the churches where he played.
I am welcoming this book because it challenges a widely accepted misconception: the idea of a connection between Bach and equal temperament; I have been annoyed at times when reading or hearing from respected classical practitioners that Bach â€œcreated equal temperamentâ€. The truth of the matter is a lot more complex and subtle…but a clear answer is provided and well-documented in this book.
Many musicians accept standard tuning as a given or even though they are quite capable of hearing the subtleties of other tunings, they do not want to complicate things for themselves – I have had some violinists refuse to rehearse in a Baroque tuning because they said â€œit ruins my intonation when I go play a Broadway show later tonightâ€. Sad but true. However, I stand by the principle that Baroque music â€œsoundsâ€ much better when using the correct temperaments that bring out beauty of the natural harmonic intervals. It does require a fine ear… or an average ear that can be educated.
When I discovered the power of just intonation through the work of LaMonte Young (even though his his just intonation is highly customized), and the beauty and subtlety of Baroque tunings for keyboards, I had my piano tuned to Vallotti Young for several years and then moved to Werckmeister III, which I find to be an exquisite tuning that works for any kind of material, Baroque, jazz or other. It is as they called it a â€œwell temperamentâ€, as in â€œThe Well-Tempered Klavierâ€.
Reinhard’s thoroughly researched book covers Bach’s family and lifelong relationship with Johann Gottfried Walther, a distant cousin who became more like a brother to Bach; Dieterich Buxtehude and the type of keyboard tuning that his improvisations would necessitate; Andreas Werckmeister, responsible for a revolution in tuning through his published temperament alternatives; a discussion of tuning and very detailed comparison of Werckmeister II, IV, V and VI tunings, Kirnberger II and III tunings, Trost tuning, and Neidhart I, II & III tunings, including tuning tables in cents; Bach cities, through well-informed visits to Germany complete with photos; a chapter on â€œThuringian aestheticâ€, featuring the popularity of certain tunings in Bach’s particular region of Germany, Thuringia; tuning notation including samples of rare manuscripts; a chapter on Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a former student of Bach who introducedÂ tuning innovations; and a conclusion establishing what Bach’s tuning really was, with detailed answers to a multiple choice question: was it Meantone, Irregular Tuning, Equal Temperament, Idyosincratic Tuning (personal), or Well Temperament (Werckmeister III), the latter being the correct answer.
In addition, the appendix features the complete translation of Andreas Werckmeister’s Musical Temperament, which makes this book very convincing.
The book can be ordered directly by email to firstname.lastname@example.org in hard copy or pdf version. It belongs in every music college library.