Petr Koukal's well-untempered organ and a new direction of research into historical instruments.
The organ is accorded numerous attributes and owing to its complex mechanism, unique sonic qualities and large tonal range, it is deservedly dubbed a royal instrument. Moreover, historical instruments rank among the most invaluable treasures of the past epochs. One of the latest publications dealing with this subject is a book by the organologist Petr Koukal, an employee of the workplace of the National Heritage Institute in Tele, with the rather canny title The Well-Untempered Organ, paraphrasing the title of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The author, however, does not focus on the organ's actual structure or design, but inquires into the issue of musical tuning, which to date has been paid scant attention.
The book's actual focus is excellently characterised by the author's rhetorical question raised in the introductory text on page 9: "The currently prevailing notion of the tuning conception mostly coincides with the opinion that musical instruments must be tuned clearly, and that also whole ensembles, orchestras and choruses must be tuned clearly. But what does 'clearly tuned' actually mean? This has been the most fundamental source of errors, misapprehensions and confusions since the 16th century." In this connection, Koukal points out that today's equal temperament, within which the octave is divided into iq equal semitones, asserted itself gradually during the course of the 19th century, and the concert pitch set at 440 Hz was only officially agreed as the international standard in 1939. For a long time, the awareness of older unequal temperaments was merely a prerogative of researchers, yet the rampant development of so-called historically informed performance over the past few decades has resulted in a revival of this practice, together with the use of copies of historical instruments. In his book, Koukal sets out on a quest for the original temperaments which may have been applied in the 17th and 18th centuries in the tuning of organs at Bohemian and Moravian churches.
The first few chapters are dedicated to tuning in general and its historical development. They briefly, yet comprehensively, introduce the issues of tuning, yet the information contained in them is further elaborated on and at this juncture the reader is provided with data that make it possible to better understand the subject in the following chapters. Koukal proficiently offers numerous facts in a very readable way. The one and only inaccuracy in the otherwise rigorous text is the claim that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, which only holds true as regards J. S. Bach's first marriage, to Maria Barbara. In terms of music history, particularly valuable is the chapter "Equal temperament--a history of disputes and errors", giving an account of the development of musical tuning, ranging from various types of unequal temperament up to the currently standard most common 12-tone equal temperament. It reads almost like a detective story, in which Koukal explains variously interpreted concepts, including the well-known "gute Tempertur", which was written about in one of his treatises by Andreas Werckmeister in the late 18th century. The findings gathered by Koukal clearly reveal that the adoption of equal temperament, which only occurred in the 19th century, was far from being smooth and automatic.
Musical tuning itself is the topic dealt with in the fifth chapter, titled "Written documents on organ tuning in the Czech historical lands". Within 50 pages, the author presents, compares and assesses all kinds of sources pertaining to this matter, from well-known theoretical treatises to mentions in other types of writings. An independent section is devoted to prints of Czech provenience. This extensive summary of organ tuning, unrivalled in this country, provides a truly comprehensive view of the knowledge available to organists and other musicians throughout history. The most valuable texts are accompanied by excerpts and recapitulations, specifically illustrating the gradual progress of approaches to musical tuning.
The text that follows, mapping the in-the-field exploration of specific historical instruments, elucidates the original idea of the research. It entails the tuning of those reed pipes that have been preserved in such entirety as to afford an image of the originally applied temperament. Right at the beginning, the author highlights just how demanding such research is. The first problem relates to the impossibility of drawing upon information in theoretical discourses that differed from the practice of organ tuning. The essential aspect, however, turned out to be the condition of the particular organs, as the overwhelming majority of the instruments in whose case it was possible to assume that at least
part of their pipes were original have been preserved in such a bad condition that the initially intended direction of the research proved to be totally unfeasible. The sad condition of the organs is documented in the book by numerous photographs displaying the irreversible devastation of precious historical instruments by means of unprofessional interventions, some of which were actually carried out quite recently. Many of these adjustments have even made it impossible to ascertain how the pipes were originally tuned. Consequently, the research could only focus on the pipes that were modified by means of tuning slots, in the case of which the initial pitch can be determined. This procedure, however, involved their taking out from the instrument and sufficient covering of the slots, which is extremely challenging in technical terms and very time-consuming indeed. Fortunately, the author was afforded the opportunity to closely explore several historical organs that during the time of his research were being restored. These instruments, dealt with in independent sections of the book, include the organs at the Churches of Our Lady of the Assumption in Dub nad Moravou and in Doubravnik, built at the beginning of the second half of the 18th century by Jan Vymola, and the organs in the churches in Klasterni Hradisko, near Olomouc, and in Vranov nad Dyji. Even though Koukal himself considers the outcome of his research with reserve, the data he has acquired are valuable enough to elucidate, at least to a certain degree, the past practice. As regards the two organs built by Vymola, it is interesting that their tuning was akin to that of Werckmeister IV. Moreover, the author also pays attention to the concert pitch, which is essential, since for a very long time the reference pitch did not have any fixed frequency, varying between 392 Hz and 494 Hz (see Table 11 on page 120, presenting the data from Bruce Haynes's book A History of Performing Pitch, further commented on by Koukal), in specific cases the span being even wider. The author attempts to determine, as far as is possible, the pitch of the then used types of tuning, termed, for instance, Cammer-Thon, Chor-Thon and Cornett-Thon. To make matters even more confused, the meaning of the most common denominations was changed. What is more, new terms occurred too, among them the Ton de la chamba, the so called French tuning (attended to on page 124), identified by Koukal with the old German Chor-Thon. The final chapters are dedicated to the psycho-physiological aspects of tuning, which offer a great potential for further research. Another intriguing field is the organ literature, which provides valuable indicia as to the type of tuning practised in history, which Koukal convincingly documents on a particular composition, which would be almost impossible to listen to when tuned in a specific manner. The book is concluded with resumes in English and German.
Although the author has failed to fulfil his original intention, the publication is an invaluable and intriguing source of information about the history of tuning and organology itself. It contains numerous very useful facts and data, and, in addition to the mentioned topics for further research, the book provides an elaborate methodology of measuring the pitch of organ pipes. At the same time, it emphasises the necessity of professional care being paid to the organ. Besides the actual content, the book is very well written and is furnished with an elegant graphic layout, including ample pictorial materials. Accordingly, Petr Koukal's book is worthwhile in all respects, and, notwithstanding its specialist focus, can be recommended to a wide spectrum of readers, from organists and musicians to historians and those attending to the historical heritage.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2015|
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