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Pitch Battles

How A Paranoid Fringe Group Made Musical Tuning an International Issue
DISCUSSED
Hybrid Voices, The Rights of All Humanity to Progress, The Clock of Mankind, Truth-Seeking and Mail Fraud, The Brightest Orchestras, Universal Standards, Sunlike Tones, Top-Down Control, The Island Princess, A Little Leak, A Sort of Number Mystique, The Juicy Sound
by Colin Dickey
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Pitch Battles

Colin Dickey
22 Snaps

In 1988, more than a dozen of opera’s greatest superstars—including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Birgit Nilsson—added their names to a petition before the Italian government, asking it to lower the standard pitch at which all orchestras are tuned. At the time, international standard pitch was set at 440 Hz, which is to say that the A above middle C should be tuned to resonate at 440 cycles per second. The petition asked the government to lower this to 432 Hz, claiming that “the continual raising of pitch for orchestras provokes serious damage to singers, who are forced to adapt to different tunings from one concert hall or opera to the next,” and that “the high standard pitch is one of the main reasons for the crisis in singing, that has given rise to ‘hybrid’ voices unable to perform the repertoire assigned to them.” The petition ended with a demand that “the Ministries of Education, Arts and Culture, and Entertainment accept and adopt the normal standard pitch of A=432 for all music institutions and opera houses, such that it becomes the official Italian standard pitch, and, very soon, the official standard pitch universally.”

Clearly, the vocalists who’d signed this petition were exercised over something. Among the most strident critics at the time was the Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, who spoke at a conference on the subject of musical pitch that same year. “Why should the color of the mezzo-soprano voice suddenly have disappeared off the face of the earth?” she demanded to know. “Why do we no longer have baritones who sing by unfurling and broadening out their voices? The basso profundo has disappeared; to find a Sparafucile to play in Rigoletto is impossible. Voices are now used that perhaps can sing low but have no body. They don’t say anything.”

The petition had its origins in one of the strangest conflicts to have overtaken classical music in the past thirty years, and many of the luminaries who signed it were completely unaware of what they’d gotten themselves into. The sponsor of both the petition and the conference that featured Tebaldi was an organization called the Schiller Institute, dedicated to, among other things, lowering standard musical pitch. At the time, the New York Times identified it as “an organization that promotes a strong alliance between the United States and Western Europe”; its website defines the organization as working to “defend the rights of all humanity to progress—material, moral and intellectual.”

But behind this respectable front lurks a strange mélange of conspiracy, demagoguery, and cultish behavior. At its founding, in 1984, its then chairman, Helga Zepp-LaRouche, laid out the institute’s role in surprisingly apocalyptic terms: “The clock of mankind has advanced to a point where the old lackluster ways will no longer work. According to all established criteria, mankind has gambled away all its chances for survival. Too many catastrophes are crowding in upon us, the entropic process has proceeded too far, and the rift between the U.S.A. and Western Europe is all but accomplished.”

Far more extreme, even, is Lyndon LaRouche, Helga’s husband and the intellectual heart of the Schiller Institute. LaRouche, who has run for United States president eight times, and whose followers can often be found handing out pamphlets on college campuses, has been in the news on and off for the past four decades. LaRouche is a former labor advocate who, in the ’70s, shifted radically to the fringe of the hard right, and whose work has increasingly focused on bizarre conspiracies involving both Jews and the Queen of ­England (who, according to him, controls an international drug cartel), and international monetary policy (like many libertarians, LaRouche is in favor of returning to the gold standard). As the Schiller Institute petition was going before the Italian parliament, LaRouche was going to trial. Since 1986, the U.S. government had been building a case against him for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, part of a scheme to embezzle over thirty million dollars through defaulted loans.

That fall was a busy time for LaRouche, since he was also running for president. On November 5, his presidential campaign broadcast a program in which several musicians extolled the praises of the candidate, including violinist Norbert Brainin, who opined that LaRouche “displayed the kind of analytical mind, the kind of truth-seeking one associates with a real scientist.” Unfortunately, such endorsements weren’t enough; three days later, George H. W. Bush won the election, and, just over a month later, LaRouche was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

*

Musical pitch is a little like structural engineering: a necessary thing that only specialists pay attention to until something goes wrong. For centuries, standardized pitch was largely unimportant: writing in 1539, music theorist and composer Pietro Aaron began his discussion of tuning an instrument this way: “You must first consider the string or degree called C, giving it whatever pitch you please.” The important thing for Aaron and his contemporaries was that the instrument be tuned relative to itself, not tuned to some external, objective note. This attitude prevailed throughout Europe for centuries. In 1713 the German musician Johann Mattheson likewise stated, “Now whether or why this or that tone is called a or b, chamber, choir, or opera pitch—this is a matter of no basic importance.” As music historian Arthur Mendel put it, “To musicians before 1750, the notes on the staff, and the names by which they were referred to, represented degrees in a gamut that had no permanent anchor at a standard pitch level, but was freely movable up and down according to the nature of the voices or instruments involved on any given occasion.”

All this changed in 1814, at the Congress of Vienna. While the congress was a triumph from a political and diplomatic standpoint, from a music-history perspective it was a calamity. During the proceedings, Czar Alexander of Russia gifted a new set of musical instruments to a regiment of the Austrian army, all of which were tuned significantly higher than what most European musicians and listeners were used to. Until that point, most instruments were tuned so that the A above middle C was roughly 424 Hz, but Alexander’s instruments were tuned around 440 Hz. As a result, they had a sharper sound that, to many, sounded “brighter.” This brightness comes from natural overtones, the higher frequencies that resonate above a given played note. Particularly in stringed instruments, higher-tension strings will produce more audible overtones, creating a larger, more resonant sound.

Like a disease that gradually but inexorably blossoms into a pandemic, Alexander’s military band set off a craze that would result in various musicians, orchestras, and nations vying for higher and higher tones, with sharper and sharper notes. Pitches began to rise in symphonies and operas throughout Europe, with cities competing to be known for having the “brightest” orchestras. The London Philharmonic went from playing at 433 Hz in 1820, to 441 Hz in 1842, and then to 452 Hz in 1852. The Paris Opera was at 434 Hz in 1829, but by 1836 had jumped up to 441 Hz, and by 1855 had shot up even more dramatically, to 449 Hz. Around the same time, Vienna, where all this had started, had symphonies playing at 456 Hz. The problem was not only that pitches were rising, but that they were rising inconsistently and, in many ways, arbitrarily. In one city, there might be several different pitches between the philharmonic, the opera, and the church; the Dresden Symphony, for example, was obliged to keep two sets of instruments, one tuned to 415, for when they played with the church organ, and one tuned at 439.

By 1859, the tuning issue had gotten so out of hand that the French government put together a commission (which included, among others, Berlioz and Rossini) to determine a standard pitch. They finally settled on A=435, as a compromise between the various prevailing pitches, and this pitch became known as the “diapason normal” (diapason being the technical term for “pitch”). This standard gradually prevailed throughout continental Europe in the following decades. Spain adopted it in February of 1879, and England, Italy, Austria, Prussia, and Russia all adopted it in 1885.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this universal intonation did not go as smoothly as planned. While countries and orchestras had finally agreed on adopting the diapason normal, no one was quite sure what the diapason normal actually was. The English decided that since their concert halls were a bit warmer than French concert halls, they would have to adjust pitch accordingly, and so the London Philharmonic tuned its instruments to A=439 Hz.1 But somehow this stuck, so that while France played at 435, England and America were playing mostly at 439, what became known as “philharmonic” or “concert” pitch. A universally recognized standard pitch, allowing musicians to freely travel internationally, was by this time so important that at the end of World War I it ended up in the Treaty of Paris. Once again, though, there was confusion: the French version of the treaty spoke of the diapason normal, while the English version spoke of “concert pitch,” the translators apparently unaware that these were two distinct tones.

The issue of the two rival pitches, barely but noticeably different, was not resolved for another twenty years. In the 1920s, the Musical Industries Chamber of Commerce and the American Standards Association adopted 440 over 439, mainly, it seems, because it was a nice round number. Likewise, when the BBC began broadcasting an electronically produced pitch tone, it convinced the London Philharmonic also to move to 440, a frequency that (not being a prime number like 439) could be produced electronically much more easily. Finally, in May of 1939, the predecessor to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) held a conference in London to establish international standard pitch once and for all, setting it unanimously at 440 Hz.

*

This treaty was ratified again in 1955 by the ISO, but if international agreements were supposed to settle the issue, they did not. The standard pitch has continued to fluctuate, and continued to move subtly higher. Most of all, it has been the vocalists who have suffered from this inflation; the higher one goes up the musical scale, the more these pitch changes are magnified, and, as a result, opera tenors and sopranos face increasing difficulty hitting higher registers. Instead of following what music historian Alexander Ellis called “the compass of the human voice,” heightened tuning demands singers who can transcend their own bodies. As Time reported in 1971, when the ISO once again tried to return concert pitch to 440, “In Berlin, the Radio Symphony Orchestra soars to 446, enough to make singers’ eyes pop on a top note.”

The participation of singers like Pavarotti and Nilsson in the 432 Hz petition no doubt came about because of this long history of ­Sisyphean ­attempts to standardize an ever-fluctuating intonation baseline. Some didn’t question where it came from. Many later claimed they had simply received a letter asking for their endorsement of a petition to lower the standard pitch to help singers who were uncomfortable at a higher range. But others were well aware of LaRouche’s presence behind the petition, as well as his politics; the same year that the petition came up for a vote, Renata Tebaldi and mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri were running, unsuccessfully, for seats in the Italian parliament on LaRouche’s Patriots for Italy party. Either way, by the time they signed up with the Schiller Institute, the entire discussion of intonation had developed strange metaphysical overtones, thanks largely to two separate theories that had been advanced in the preceding years.

The first came from Maria Renold’s 1984 book, Intervals, Scales, Tones and the Concert Pitch C=128 Hz. Renold, herself a musician, was the child of two associates of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, best known for founding the Anthroposophical Society, an association dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the human and spiritual worlds through the practice of inner development and the cultivation of sensory experience. Music was one of Steiner’s many concerns, and his writings feature a number of fairly inscrutable comments about its power, including his belief that music “will solve the riddle, in a purely artistic way, as to how one can symphonically bring the Christ impulse that lives in cosmos and earth to life in tones.” According to Renold, Steiner also told musicologist Kathleen Schlesinger that the correct tuning for such “cosmic potential unlockings” was C=128 Hz, which translates (roughly) to A=432 Hz.

In her book, Renold claims to have carried out “aural experiments” on “more than two thousand people of all ages and different occupations in the USA, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.” She played tones tuned both to the standard 440 Hz and 432 Hz, and then asked her subjects about the “character” of the tones. In her words, “The results were extraordinarily interesting and unequivocal. Almost all of the people questioned said that the two pairs of tones and their octaves had unmistakably and individually different qualities for them as listeners.” “Over 90 percent” of listeners found the 440 Hz tones “uncomfortable,” “oppressive,” “irritating,” “aggressive,” and “narrow-minded,” and reported that they “caused pain to the inner ear.” By contrast, over 90 percent of listeners found the 432 Hz tones “correct,” “complete,” “peaceful and clear,” “pleasing,” and “Sunlike.” Unsurprisingly, Renold provides precious few details regarding the rigor and methods of her experiments. Further, she offers nothing by way of a theory explaining these results, other than the words of Steiner himself.

Renold’s book might have had less of an impact if not for a second theory offered by Schiller associate Laurent Rosenfeld, editor of the nuclear science magazine Fusion, and who, in the run-up to the Italian parliament vote, published an article that would forever color the discussion of intonation. His research relied mainly on an article from the magazine Mercure de France, in which French musician Robert Dussaut complained about the 1939 London conference. According to Dussaut, the conference was organized at the behest of the Acoustic Committee of Radio Berlin, and “no French composer was invited. The decision to raise the pitch was thus taken without consulting French musicians and against their will.” Writing in 1950, when war wounds were still fresh, Dussaut seemed chiefly concerned with the centuries-old rivalry between French and German culture, and saw 440 Hz as a Germanic tone that had obliterated the French diapason normal. Additionally, Dussaut was worried that the rise of jazz and other popular forms of music was altering the purity of classical music. “It is shocking to me,” he wrote, “that our orchestra members and singers should thus be dependent upon jazz players.”

Rosenfeld took Dussaut’s comments and spun them in an entirely different direction, as evidenced by his article’s title: “How the Nazis Ruined Musical Tuning.” Less interested in jazz than in a massive conspiracy by German warmongers, Rosenfeld asserted that “it was Radio Berlin, in 1938–39, which organized a conspiracy to raise the pitch. Radio Berlin was Dr. Goebbels’s main propaganda instrument, and was under top-down control of the Nazis. No one was appointed to a leading position at Radio Berlin without the approval of the Nazi propaganda minister.”

Renold’s supposedly scientific findings that 440 caused people to be aggressive and antisocial, coupled with Rosenfeld’s assertion that Goebbels was the mastermind behind this violent and oppressive pitch, together formed an irresistible narrative. The controversy surrounding 432 Hz and 440 Hz became not just a matter of preference but a fundamental battle for the human soul, in which the entire history of musical intonation was a vast conspiracy of the Third Reich.

*

In many ways, the history of intonation is ripe for these kinds of conspiracy theories. The historical record is filled with inexplicable errors with wide-reaching consequences, such as the mistranslation of diapason normal as “philharmonic pitch.” Additionally, the record of that crucial May 1939 conference, at which so much was supposedly decided, is frustratingly incomplete. (The ISO itself has lost the minutes and list of participants, according to Leif Nielsen, the current secretary for the ISO Technical Committee for Acoustics, who believes they were lost when they were transferred from the British Standards Institution to its Danish counterpart in 1972.)

The strange subgenre of spiritual self-help that is the “432 Hz Movement” includes people like Brian T. Collins, a jazz pianist whose credits include a stint aboard the cruise ship the Island Princess, and who now runs a site called omega432.com. Collins has consistently argued that “A=440Hz tuned music can cause anti-social conditions in human beings, partly we believe, from the dissonance created as standing waves in the inner chambers of the ear which affects the water in the inner ear.” His site, and the dozens like it that offer instructional videos and consulting work, represent a benign, utopian form of the conspiracy: if we just re-tune our music, we will unleash a divine potential that will lead to universal harmony and understanding. Because music is ubiquitous, re-­tuning can be offered as a simple, instantaneous cure-all, a panacea for world conflict and personal unhappiness.

The Italian Parliament vote of 1989 was one of many proposed legislations in various countries as part of a global reawakening and a universal enforcement of 432 Hz, but though the Schiller Institute made more progress in Italy than in any other country, and despite backing by international superstars, the institute’s petition before the Italian government failed.

The institute responded by holding a series of seminars and performances later that year, in Munich, New York, and Houston, but it was clear that the moment had passed. LaRouche served five years of his fifteen-year sentence, during which time he ran for president again and for a time shared a cell with ex-televangelist Jim Bakker (who later wrote, “To say LaRouche was a little paranoid would be like saying that the Titanic had a little leak”).

Meanwhile, more and more journalists began asking questions about how LaRouche’s politics might relate to this seemingly benign pitch discussion. Much of this was due to the work of Stefan Zucker, who holds the Guinness World Record for highest tenor, and who began a one-man crusade to uncover the connection between LaRouche and the Schiller petition. Writing in Opera News, and his own magazine, Opera Fanatic, Zucker lambasted the Schiller Institute’s scientific claims and pressed the petition’s endorsers on their connections to ­LaRouche. The Washington Post picked up Zucker’s accusations (referring to the 432 Hz figure as being based in “a sort of number mystique”), and, following the increased scrutiny, several signatories backtracked: a spokesperson for Plácido ­Domingo acknowledged that the tenor had signed the pledge but added, “He didn’t know where the questionnaire came from. Plácido certainly wouldn’t agree with LaRouche’s politics.”

A few years after LaRouche was paroled, in January 1994, Plácido Domingo was once again holding up Schiller Institute pamphlets at press conferences, arguing for 432, but in the last twenty years the group has shifted its focus away from tuning. With conference titles like “Rescuing Civilization from the Brink” and “The Greatest Crisis Facing Mankind: Reconstruct the World Now!,” the organization has once again turned primarily to economic and political concerns: on its website, most of the articles, conferences, and performances dedicated to music are at least ten years old.

Most of these vocalists were, like Domingo, never interested in the institute’s politics; for that matter, few cared about the dubious numerology behind 432 Hz. Pavarotti, for one, signed the petition, but made it clear he wasn’t interested in LaRouche’s magical frequency. “We must be careful to guard pitch at around 440—maybe even 438,” he told the New York Times. “That is where the juicy sound is.” What concerned them was the more general problem of inflation, the perpetual tendency of orchestras and symphonies to gradually top one another at the expense of the human voice.

But even with different aims, the strange marriage of convenience between a collection of truly renowned artists and a paranoid fringe group worked, for a time, because each needed something from the other. Name-brand opera singers like Pavarotti and Domingo offered the Schiller Institute the patina of legitimacy that it needed, a way to whitewash its brand under the auspices of the universally lauded.

And what did the Schiller Institute have to offer these celebrities? For years, tenors and sopranos have been fighting a legitimate battle, one in which “the compass of the human voice” is ignored in favor of brighter sounds, and they have consistently lost this battle. The frustration of these performers was—and continues to be—real, because the problem results from a long, complicated history of confusion and ignorance, apathy and inertia. It’s hard to galvanize people around a story so messy and directionless. What the Schiller Institute offered was a story with seductive simplicity: there is a pure and natural tone, one that corresponds to the fundamental nature of the human voice, and we need to return to it. Couched in the language of a looming crisis and a nostalgic longing, the Schiller Institute’s schtick reduced the messy detritus of history into a convenient narrative that could be pitched to politicians and journalists.

The beauty of that story came at a price, a misreading of history by conspiracy theorists and paranoid fringe elements, and, in the end, alignment with the Schiller Institute did far more harm than good. The Italian government has yet to consider similar legislation again, and certainly the International Organization for Standardization has not expressed any ­interest in lowering international tuning from 440 to 432 Hz.

In the years since, pitch has kept rising—imperceptibly but irrevocably. The Vienna Philharmonic tunes at around 444 Hz, while the Berlin Philharmonic has gone as high as 448 Hz. Trombone and tuba players in Europe report having to surgically trim the pipes of their instruments so they can play at these higher notes, though the problem is even worse for instruments that don’t regularly accompany vocalists—bagpipes, for example, are regularly tuned between 470 and 485 Hz. The song remains the same, but the pitch is always a little higher.

 

1. For the record, this is nonsense—a metal tuning fork tuned to 435 will maintain that pitch no matter what the temperature of the room is.
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