Baroque oboe legend Bruce Haynes has researched the issue of historical pitches in detail. I suggest reading his book The Story of “A” if this post interests you. Bruce points out that we talk about pitch levels by means of two coordinates, a pitch name and a frequency in hertz, e.g. “A-415.” For about the last century, the standard pitch level has been A-440, meaning that, wherever you go in the world, Western classical music is likely to be played at a pitch level in which the note A in the middle of the treble staff is tuned to 440 hz. (Editors note: a hertz is a unit of frequency – one cycle per second – that measures, in this case, the traveling wave or oscillation of pressure caused by vibrations that we discern as sound). Having a pitch standard is a convenience for musicians, nothing more.
Prior to the late 19th century, however, there were no universally recognized pitch standards. One could travel from one part of Europe or, in some cases, from one city to another and find music being made at different pitches. For a string player, this in no problem – the string can be tuned to any pitch (within reason) – but for a fixed-pitch instrument, like a flute or an oboe, this can be a huge problem. It might mean that if you were an oboist, you could play in tune with a violin band but not with the church organ, or you could form your own band with your friend with a recorder made in your village but not with your friend with a recorder from the next town over.
In the Baroque Era, pitch levels as high as A-465 (17th century Venice) and as low as A-392 (18th century France) are known to have existed. A few generalizations can be made:
- pitch was high in North Germany and lower in South Germany
- pitch was low in Rome but high in Venice
- pitch in France depended on whether you were playing chamber music, opera or something else.
Pitch levels in the Renaissance and Middle Ages were similarly varied according to location and historical period. By the Classical period there was more interest in standardized pitch levels, again as a matter of convenience for traveling musicians.
One of the pitches used during the baroque period was A-415. Since 415 hz. is about a half-step below the modern standard of A-440, the pitch of A-415 was seized on as a convenient modern “baroque pitch” standard, because in the early days of the historical performance movement a harpsichord would sometimes play with groups at A-440 and sometimes at a lower pitch, and if the difference in pitch is a half-step, the keyboard could be made so that it slides over one string so that the A key played a string tuned to 440 hz. in one position and a string tuned to 415 hz. in the other position.
“So when you play baroque music, you tune to a G-sharp,” some people say at this point. Not so! We tune to an A, but we define the A differently depending on what kind of music we’re going to play. A baroque violinist may carry 4 different tuning forks (or one handy iPhone app), and a baroque flutist probably owns two or three different flutes at different pitches.