“Well-Tempered Clavier.” I like the sound of that! It is the title of a series of piano pieces written almost three hundred years ago by Johann Sebastian Bach. You’ve heard them…well, at least one or two of them. This time of year, you can’t miss hearing at least one version of “Ave Maria” if you listen to most radio stations playing Christmas tunes. In the mid-1800’s, Charles Gounod incorporated his own melody with the, by then, famous “Prelude No. 1 in C Major” from the little book of piano solos. The result is a haunting, ethereal vocal solo with a wonderful arpeggiated counter-melody which flows around and over and under the melody, adding a depth and power to the song that even Mr. Gounod probably couldn’t have anticipated. But, it was not my intent to make this a music history lesson, or even a music appreciation class. I will simply repeat…I like the sound of the words, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I can’t help but have the image in my head of a piano that behaves itself, all the time.
I like the phrase simply because it implies order, things moving ahead on an even keel. You know, I’m sorry…I can’t go further without at least a small amount more on the theory of pianos and their tuning. The point of Mr. Bach’s composition was to demonstrate that a keyboard could be played in all the major and minor keys possible, twenty-four of them, without the need to stop and re-tune the clavier/piano at any time. This had not been possible before some brilliant technician had concluded a few years prior that it was ineffective to use tunings which worked for some keys, but not for others. The “equal temperament” was developed, a system which took an average of the correct number of vibrations per second for each pitch, based on the standard frequency in use. In our day, we base all tunings on 440 vibrations per second (or A440) as our standard pitch.
Tuning theory lesson over, we’ll move to my real point (finally). I’m wondering why we humans don’t very often have an “equal temperament”. We are, all of us, mercurial to a certain extent…hot one moment; cold the next…in short, unpredictable. Those of us who are easy going when faced with one emergency will be the ones who fall apart with the next crisis, especially if the context is different. I watched a small girl this afternoon stretched out on the floor, kicking her feet and screaming into the hardwood surface, because a toy she desired wasn’t being shared as quickly as she wanted. I realized, as I observed her with some amusement, that I frequently throw my own little tantrums when situations don’t go as I anticipate. It’s just that my tantrums are a bit more sophisticated, and a little harder to detect. The Lovely Lady can spot them a mile away. “Why are you upset?” comes the question, as I sit and fume. “I’m not upset, I just don’t want to talk right now.” It never works. I’m sulking and she knows it. I’m not well-tempered. I want to be, but I’m not. I’m just not tuned correctly for that, it seems.
The piano tuner is coming to our house tomorrow. The old Steinway has gone a few months without his attention and it’s time. The changes in temperature and humidity have taken their toll. There has been some movement in the materials that make the piano function, which results from those environmental changes. It is evident in the pitches I hear when the Lovely Lady strikes the normally beautiful chords as she prepares her Christmas music. The bronze-wound and nickle-plated strings have contracted at a different rate than the huge spruce soundboard, and the steel plate isn’t very cooperative either, causing more than one note to set the teeth on edge. The technician will work his magic, adjusting the tuning pins, changing the tension on the strings, bringing them into an equal temperament once more. We will sit and listen to the sound of the piano, regardless of the key selected for a song, and think about the beauty of the music, rather than the corrupted notes which are audible now. What a joy!
I only wish there were a technician who could make those adjustments for my personal tuning. An equal temperament would be as helpful for me as it is for the piano. What’s that you say? You see where this is headed? Okay, I’ll not state the obvious then. I do know that I am due for an attitude adjustment and I think I know just the place to get tuned up. I’m pretty sure you do, too.
Maybe the next time you see me, you notice that I’m becoming more “well-tempered”. Let’s hope so.
“Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.”
(“Rescue the Perishing~Fanny Crosby~American hymn writer~1820-1915)