Magazine article The American Organist

A Guide to Musical Temperament

Magazine article The American Organist

A Guide to Musical Temperament

Article excerpt

A GUIDE TO MUSICAL TEMPERAMENT, Thomas Donahue. Lanham (Maryland), Toronto, and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2005. xii, 229 pp., figs. ISBN 0-8108-5438-4. $24.95. Andreas Werckmeister, the German organist and theoretician in the generation before J.S. Bach, put the problem of musical temperament this way: "Suppose I have twelve glasses of wine and twelve spoonfuls of water. IfI pour one spoonful of water into each glass of wine, I will barely taste the water or perhaps not at all. However, if I pour all twelve spoonfuls of water into one glass of wine, then the water will be easily tasted and there would not be a good temperament because this measure of wine would not accord with the others" (Organum Gruningense redivivum [1705/R1932], §63). The musical problem is that the twelve keys in an octave do not permit perfect thirds and fifths if one wants to play in all keys-one needs a "plan that describes adjustments to the sizes of some or all of the intervals in the circle of fifths so that they accommodate pure octaves and produce certain sizes of major thirds" (Donahue's definition of temperament, p. 213). There is considerable literature on musical temperament, much of it old and in foreign languages. A Guide to Musical Temperament is a convenient introduction in English to this important topic.

Musical temperament can be treated as a purely aural or tactile musical experience by performers and listeners. Musical temperament can also be studied as a mathematical, theoretical, and technical discipline. The second approach is the one emphasized by Donahue. Chapter 3 speaks of "Musical Aspects" of temperament and comments on usable keys in 1/4 comma meantone temperament and the different sizes of major and minor thirds and semitones in the Werckmeister III temperament. (Notwithstanding the quotation above, Werckmeister did not advocate equal temperament but devised temperaments in which all keys were playable but the common keys sounded best. …

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