If you are not a musicologist, you might be wondering what A415 is as you read this blog. It's a little complicated, but we promise it won't hertz. Jeff Phillips, our Artistic Administrator, explains:
Readers of this blog may wonder to what our name refers. "A=415 Hz" is one of the first declarations any musician must endorse before performing with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. "A" refers to the note, typically sounded before a rehearsal or concert, to which all instruments are tuned; in Baroque music Philharmonia musicians tune their A to 415 Hz or Hertz, which refers to the number of cycles per second. On a modern piano this pitch would sound like A-flat, or a half-step lower than usual.
Historically there were many different pitches to which groups of musicians tuned, based on local tradition or, in the Baroque era, to the pitch the local organ was set as it was impractical to tune otherwise. This pitch varied from about A=380 Hz to as high as A=480 Hz, based on surviving examples. In the nineteenth century it became clear that settling on a standard pitch across Europe would be a good idea--France even passed a law setting A=435 in 1859--but the standard "concert pitch" was finally set to A=440 only in the mid-1900s. While 440 is still the worldwide standard, among professional orchestras the pitch continued to rise to accommodate larger concert halls, with most settling on 442 or 445; a higher pitch is perceived as brighter, and therefore louder, by the listener.
Since period-instrument makers and musicians needed a pitch standard on which to settle, most period-instrument ensembles, Philharmonia included, use A=415 Hz as their pitch standard for Baroque music, since it's almost exactly a half-step lower than concert pitch. Harpsichords and organs are built with the ability to shift back and forth between pitches easily, strings sound a bit warmer, and singers are generally happier to be able to sing their high notes without strain.
The image is above is a page of George Frideric Handel’s autograph draft score of Messiah, 1741 (The Granger Collection, New York).
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Celebrating its 30th Anniversary Season in 2010/11, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale is dedicated to historically-informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music on period instruments. Led by Music Director Nicholas McGegan since 1985, Philharmonia Baroque is recognized as one of the finest chamber orchestras, as well as one of the most exciting period-instrument ensembles in the country.