Thomas Stevens

Intonation II (Sir Andre Previn)

  • General Quotes

"It seems to be a great deal of trouble just to sound out-of-tune."-Andre Previn

During a rehearsal one afternoon in 1987, following a brief discussion with a woodwind section that was attempting to apply diatonic intonation principles to some chords during the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto, the results of which would have put the winds in direct conflict with the intonation of the piano, Andre Previn quipped: “It seems to be a great deal of trouble to go through just to sound out-of-tune.” (He had previously made a similar public comment with reference to the use of "authentic" instruments for Early Music performances; so, this remark was not altogether that spontaneous.)

Previn is a great musician with an imposing intellect and quick wit whose comments, especially on musical issues, often take the form of those cryptic one-liners so typical and predictable among the jazz musicians of his generation, comments that frequently are neither appreciated nor understood by those whose “hip” cards are out of date (if they ever had them in the first place). The comment from Previn, as noted above, and which at first glance might appear flippant, is in fact as profound as it is succinct: Why would any musicians, at any time, voluntarily go to such lengths to ultimately sound bad?

Anyone who has “clicked-on” to the Christopher Leuba link on the previous page and perused the material will be aware of the inherent conflicts between diatonic tuning and the equal-tempered tuning of the piano* keyboard, a subject about which Mr. Leuba is extremely articulate. Professor Leuba notwithstanding, however, it would not seem entirely unreasonable to expect that when performing with the piano, by definition an instrument of fixed-pitch that cannot adjust its intonation, and especially in events like the one with Andre Previn in 1987 where the piano was the predominant instrument in the music being performed, all involved might at least consider tuning to the keyboard, even if this could result in the their ultimately being held accountable for such sinful behavior when they meet their maker.

Hope. Springs. Eternal.

*While collaborating with Tom Dambly of DigiDesign on the James Stamp keyboard accompaniments project, this writer was made aware of new element in the world of keyboard intonation, to wit: the differences in tuning among the various electronic and traditional acoustic keyboards (pianos). Conventional piano tuners often employ something called “stretch-tuning,” wherein they exaggerate (stretch) intervals for clarity. (i. e.-simplified for example-An octave is computed at the ratio of 2:1. In stretch tuning, this ratio might be stretched to 2.02:1) The net result of stretch tuning is that with each ascending octave, pianos get sharper in pitch, as most performers who perform on or with pianos are very well aware. Electronic keyboards, on the other hand, are tuned to the correct mathematical ratios (i. e. The intervallic ratio of an octave is exactly 2:1.). The net result is that the upper octaves on electronic keyboards often sound flat (low) in pitch to those accustomed to the tuning of acoustic pianos.