Cracking a Centuries-Old Tradition

Published November 22, 2014

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Johns Chapel[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I went to Cambridge, England, on sabbatical in 2013–14, I never dreamed I would wind up conducting one of the world’s great choirs, and possibly changing the way they sing early music. My project for the year was to write a follow-up to Shakespeare’s Songbook (Norton, 2004), my study of all the songs sung, quoted, or alluded to in the plays of Shakespeare. The sequel is a broader look at songs in English Renaissance comedy, from the 15th century through the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Being at Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge allowed me easy access to the resources of the superb University Library across the street, a wonderful advantage for my work. But it also allowed me the option to attend choral services, virtually every day if I wanted, at any of the thirty-one Cambridge colleges. Nowadays, colleges post the music for all the services each term in an online “Term List,” so I could pick out in advance the repertoire I wanted to hear and take a short walk for an hour of choral bliss on any given evening.

While overseas, I was also fortunate to be invited to give talks around Britain. Many of those talks were on historical tuning. In fact, the Faculty of Music at Cambridge asked me to give four talks on various aspects of historical tuning: one on my book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and why you should care) (Norton, 2007); one on Just Intonation in the Renaissance; one on keyboard temperament; and one on Just Intonation in the 18th century. So, in spite of the central purpose of my sabbatical, my tuning work was getting a lot of attention, and I was pleased when Stephen Cleobury at King’s College and Andrew Nethsingha at St John’s College each asked me to coach their choral scholars (the men from the men and boys choir) in Just Intonation. By coincidence, it happened that both coachings were to occur on the same day, and that became a red-letter day on my calendar—the expected high point of my entire year in Cambridge.

Just Intonation is a subject I’ve thought a lot about for decades, and much of the theoretical background is in my article, “Just Intonation in Renaissance Theory and Practice,” in the journal Music Theory Online (2006). I’ve worked on Just Intonation with Quire Cleveland and with the Case Western Reserve Early Music Singers, so I know something about the practice as well. Just a month earlier, moreover, Stephen Rice of the Brabant Ensemble had mentioned to me that they used my Just tuning article to solve tuning puzzles in their recording of Lasso’s complex and chromatic Prophetiæ Sibyllarum (2011), so I knew my theories about it had practical value as well.

The practical application of Just Intonation has not been universally accepted in modern times, however, with many experts saying that it simply cannot work. The complications of the system were understood even in the 16th century, but what struck me was how unanimous Renaissance writers were in describing intervals according to their ratios in the harmonic series. I just didn’t believe the historical writers could be so unanimous and not mean what they said. So, my approach became finding ways for those ratios to be maintained to the furthest extent possible, while very occasionally making passing or momentary compromises that would allow the texture to remain on an even keel. The reason for making the effort is that music in Just Intonation, especially in the live acoustic of some historical church, sounds fantastic—infinitely better (to my ear) than music in equal temperament, which, because of the tuning of organs in many churches, is still a widely used standard, even at old colleges like King’s and St John’s.

In a way, you can understand how this tuning situation developed. Those famous choirs are not exclusively early-music choirs. Sure, when King’s College Choir sings Orlando Gibbons, the chaplain can mention that he was “a choirboy in this church,” but they are also singing a full repertoire of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century works that were not designed for Just Intonation, and that mostly need some kind of temperament, if not necessarily equal temperament. And the choirs are often directed by organists in chapels that have equaltempered organs. But still, a lot of their repertoire is from the Renaissance—Tallis, Sheppard, Byrd, Morley, Weelkes, Gibbons, Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, and many others—sung a cappella with no reference to or need for the organ. That is the music that most benefits from Just Intonation. I would attend services and hear things I knew could be made better—the top part needed to sing a leading tone lower or the basses needed to sing a flatted upper-neighboring tone higher—and that’s why I was so pleased to be asked to share what I knew about tuning. Imagine hearing that music with purer intonation in those magical rooms.

Finally, my red-letter day arrived. Just before 10 a.m., I presented myself at Stephen Cleobury’s office and walked with him across the grass of King’s front court—a no-no for the public—to the scholars’ rehearsal room. It is fair to say that King’s and John’s get the best young singers in England, so I was really excited. I guessed, however, that the scholars were likely to be ambivalent because, in their place, I would probably be ambivalent, too. They sing about eight services per week, with barely enough time to learn new music, and sing it in front of 300 or more people for every service. They were, moreover, just finishing exams (they’re all undergraduates), so an added morning session that did not involve rehearsing required service music was unlikely to be a popular thing.

Still, they were very good sports about it. They sang my G and D Just Tuning Exercises (composed for the CWRU Early Music Singers), learning new melodic and harmonic interval sizes, and hearing the unfamiliar sound of music in Just Intonation. Then they sang the Tallis motet, Suscipe quaeso Domine (from which Washington, DC’s Suspicious Cheese Lords take their name), and Byrd’s Ave verum corpus. I made specific comments about pitches I thought needed to be higher or lower, and it really sounded good. I went for a celebratory coffee at a nearby café, and three or four of the King’s scholars, happening by, came over to say how interesting they found the session. Afterwards, Stephen wrote to thank me and say they looked forward to trying the techniques in the future.

Riding the crest of that wave, I floated into St John’s College Chapel at 3:30 the same afternoon for a session with “the Gents of John’s,” as they call themselves—the gentlemen choral scholars. When the day was over, all the Cambridge people I met wanted me to spill the beans on which group was better. After all, no one ever gets to work with those rivals in such close proximity. The answer: they were both fantastic. John’s, however, had the advantage of working in the chapel, rather than a carpeted rehearsal room, so they got a lot more positive feedback from the room. After the first time through a tuning exercise, with unfamiliar melodic interval sizes and new-sounding harmonies, one of the Gents said, “That felt really weird, but wow, it sounded fantastic!” By the end, Andrew Nethsingha was saying they could probably use some elements of it in singing the Rachmaninoff Vespers! That’s an outcome I wasn’t expecting, but it showed that Andrew immediately appreciated the harmonic advantages of tuning in that way and realized it could work on any a cappella repertoire that was harmonically based.

I went back to my apartment at Clare Hall, glowing with excitement and exhausted at the effort of concentrating and listening so hard for two intense sessions. That evening, I went to dinner with friends; my time in Cambridge was ending in a few days and I was scrambling to get in some last-minute socializing. Afterwards, I went back to my apartment to find a message that was so astounding I thought I must have misread it: Andrew was asking if I would be willing to conduct the St John’s Choir in evensong the following night. The Gents had been excited about working with me on Just Intonation and hoped they could do more before I left the country.

The service the next day happened to be only the men (no boys). They were already singing all early music, except for the Preces & Responses, which could easily be swapped for something early, and Andrew had to miss the pre-evensong rehearsal anyway. It was a “perfect storm” of coincidences that made it possible for me, on twenty hours’ notice, to guest-conduct one of the great choirs in the world, one that NEVER has a guest conductor— never mind a random, non-Oxbridge North American interloper like me. It was like a dream come true, except that it would never have occurred to me to have that dream in the first place.

I downloaded all of the music slated for the service and started thinking about what I would ask for in terms of tuning: flats high, sharps low; major 3rds narrow, minor 3rds wide, of course; but also what other notes in these modes needed to be adjusted up or down, depending on the context. After studying the music, I felt I was ready, except I emailed Andrew the next morning and asked if he would conduct the Preces & Responses. The timing of the alternation of priest and choir is tricky, so it seemed safest to me not to worry about that.

I arrived fifteen minutes early for the rehearsal, which turned out to be a good thing, because most of the editions they were using were transposed. Instead of sexti toni on F, it was sexti toni on E, with four sharps in the signature: all of my easy recommendations for the general adjusting of pitches went out the window. At the start of the rehearsal, there were also more singers than had been at the coaching session: because of make-up exams or performance juries or papers, a few singers had not been able to appear the previous day. So there was the added difficulty of getting about a third of them up to speed on Just Intonation. What is it? What does it sound like? How is it achieved?

In the end, I asked them to concentrate on the linear aspects of what they were singing. Those of us who study Just Intonation usually spend time annotating scores, calculating where adjustments need to be made, but, after all, singers in the Renaissance were not looking at a score, only at their own parts. For them, the interval sizes of Just Intonation were, first and foremost, melodic, though the intended result was pure harmonic intervals as well: narrow major intervals (3rds, 6ths, etc.) and consequent wide minor intervals; wide diatonic semitones and narrow chromatic semitones. The quickest way to approach that is to sing flatted notes high and sharped notes low. But there are notes without accidentals that fall into those same categories, too: I sometimes say, “E and B are the new sharps, and F and C are the new flats.” Wherever there is a semitone relationship, the upper note likely needs to be high and the lower note needs to be low. Accidentals—flats or sharps—simply create new semitone relationships from the ones in the signature, so that’s why those notes need to be adjusted.

This melodic approach was a seat-of-the-pants way to get a choir to sing in Just Intonation, and yet it worked beautifully. Granted, the Gents of John’s caught on very quickly. The sound of purely tuned chords in the live space of St John’s Chapel was absolutely wonderful, and once the singers heard what they were striving for as a harmonic result, it all seemed perfectly natural and easy. As they left the choir stalls after rehearsal to robe for the service, they were clearly excited, and a couple of them gave me the thumbs-up sign.

Andrew arrived and shepherded me into a gown and through the procession. As soon as we were in the chapel, I moved to that legendary place for the music director and gave the downbeat for Lasso’s Jubilate Deo. Shortly afterwards, Andrew led the Tallis Preces and I wondered what he thought, giving the downbeat and hearing the block chords in Just Intonation for the first time. He had, after all, missed the rehearsal, so he hadn’t heard what we were doing with the tuning. After that, I led the Palestrina Magnificat sexti toni and the Gents sang the Nunc dimittis in chant. Then, after Palestrina’s Loquebantur variis linguis and a final hymn, we were done. I was practically shaking with emotion at the experience, and shook hands warmly with the singers, with Andrew, and with the clergy, who also seemed visibly moved by the beauty of the music.

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Later that evening, Andrew tweeted:
Invited Ross Duffin, USA Just Intonation expert, to conduct Evensong tonight. @rosswmd Inspiring, revelatory, extremely thought-provoking.

The next morning, the Gents themselves tweeted:
@rosswmd A huge thank you from the Gents for an amazing experience with Just Intonation. Think you might have started something…


By then, the choral Twittersphere in the UK was abuzz, and it seemed like something fundamental had shifted. That evening, I attended the Gents’ annual Garden Party at John’s and, while they let their hair down and sang cappella arrangements of pop songs, even former choral scholars were coming up to me with congratulations and remarks about how “unprecedented” it all was.

Scholars Kings College
The scholars of King’s College, Cambridge, with director Stephen Cleobury (left) and the author (center).

One of the things I’ve learned about tuning is that no single system is perfect for all music. There are 20thcentury pieces that were conceived for equal temperament and sound absolutely fine under that system. Many works from the 18th century, similarly, do not work well in Just Intonation: there are simply too many complex harmonies with seventh chords and diminished triads for Just Intonation to make sense, much less sound good. For that repertoire, I think some kind of extended meantone works best. But it is still worth making every effort to tune in Just Intonation when the music uses primarily triadic harmonies and when the voices or instruments have the flexibility to adjust the pitches “on the fly.” The sound of justly tuned chords in a live acoustic is enough to convince anyone of that. What surprised and excited me about my experience with the Gents of John’s is that they didn’t know all of the subtleties and complications of Just Intonation, and yet, using the simple precepts of aiming for Just harmonies and trying to sing with those same intervals melodically, they achieved a magnificent result. Was it perfect? No. But it was absolutely remarkable as a demonstration of what well-trained ensemble singers could achieve with very little preparation. I may have helped to change the tuning culture in Cambridge, but the Gents of John’s also changed my conception of what is realistically possible for singers today.

If I have indeed managed to crack the tradition of tuning in Oxbridge choirs, it’s due to the courage of Stephen Cleobury and, especially, Andrew Nethsingha in inviting me to work with their supremely talented pre-professional singers and to help demonstrate that musicians from earlier centuries knew what they were doing: that the evolved tuning system of equal-temperament is not necessarily best for all the music they sing. I can hardly wait to hear the results, both in the singing of the college choirs and in the professional work of these young men down the road. Now, to get the boys in those choirs singing in Just Intonation, as well…

St John’s Evensong services are webcast at Look for June 11, 2014, to hear their service in Just Intonation.

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