Performance pitch in Western art music has always been, and to an extent remains, flexible. That is to say, the frequency of any given pitch has not been consistent across different locations and at different times throughout history (Haynes, 2002). Even today, with access to electronic tuners and reliable communication between musicians across the globe, different orchestras tune to slightly different pitches. This is particularly true in the HIP movement, where attempts are made to replicate the performance pitch for particular repertoire based on current understandings of what pitch that repertoire was played at when it was written.
It is not always possible to say what particular frequencies were being tuned to at a particular location and time in history. However, where this is possible to ascertain, usually through the existence of surviving original historic instruments with fixed pitches, it has often been documented by Bruce Haynes in his 2002 work A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A”. It is certain that before pitch was able to be based on a specific universal frequency in a global music world, pitch was a more fluid concept, based more on intervals than frequencies.
Pitch on the baroque violin:
As with baroque violinists, baroque violins handle tuning to different pitches well. Raw gut is more adaptable to different pitches than metal or synthetic materials. However, for large variations in pitch, different string gauges may be required. As gut strings can deteriorate over a shorter period of time than is typical of steel strings, it cannot always be assumed that every baroque violinist will have gauges on hand that are suitable for less frequently used pitches. For instance, most HIP in Australia, where I am based, is undertaken between A=415Hz and A=440Hz. Therefore, I consistently stock string gauges that are suitable for this pitch range. On the infrequent occasion that I have a project requiring performance at A=392Hz or A=466Hz, for example, I need to order different string gauges in advance.
Another very important factor to consider is how the performance pitch of a piece impacts on programming. For instance, changing tuning from A=415Hz to A=440Hz in the same concert is not advised, as the strings require some time to settle into a new pitch. Some of the pieces discussed in this research project must be performed at specific pitches to correspond with the other instruments in the ensemble, or with electronics. For example, Alexander Garsden’s 2013 work Law II requires tuning to A=414Hz, as the electronics part is based on that pitch, whereas Jacob Abela’s 2018 work In Consequence demands tuning to A=440Hz so that the baroque violin can be in tune with the MIDI-keyboard and the ondes Martenot.
The following is an example of a G major scale played on the baroque violin at the pitch A=440Hz.
Video 21.1 – G major scale at A=440Hz
The following is an example of a G major scale played on the baroque violin at the pitch A=415Hz.
Video 21.2 – G major scale at A=415 Hz
If not specified, performers in the 21st century will usually assume that performance pitch is intended to be A=440Hz. If clarity is desired, or an alternate performance pitch is required, “A=415Hz”, or whichever other pitch is relevant, may be indicated either in the legend or at the beginning of the score.