Thomas Stevens

Intonation III (Carlo Maria Giulini)

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A comment on intonation offered in 1980 by the preeminent maestro.

During a rehearsal in 1979, in an attempt to resolve some tuning problems in a wind/brass chorale episode of a work where the highest voice in the chorale was always the prevailing (lead) one, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, speaking in response to some points of argument offered by one of the musicians, an exponent of the diatonic/vertical tuning school, offered the following: “I know about this [vertical intonation]…..I do not like [it]. Please make [adjust] the pitch to the melody” (horizontal intonation).

“Expressive” intonation, a type of horizontal intonation, involves the use of pitch as an expressive component to help shape musical phrases. (Expressive tuning, sometimes referred to as “justesse,” represents the prevailing intonation philosophy among players of stringed instruments*.) A rudimentary example of this concept: An “F#” ascending one-half step higher to “G,” especially if the former were the leading tone in the key of “G,” would be played higher in pitch, suggesting the inevitable resolution to the tonic, than the enharmonically same “Gb” (on the equal-tempered scale) resolving one-half step downwards to “F,” which would be pitched lower to suggest a descending line. And expressive concepts notwithstanding, even within the strictures of textbook diatonic intonation, if the same “Gb” were the seventh in an “Ab7” chord functioning as a V7 chord resolving to a “Db” major triad, it would be played low in pitch, just as would the following “F” functioning as the major third in the “Db” chord, since major thirds, computed mathematically at a 5:4 ratio to their roots, are measurably (ca.14%) lower in pitch in the diatonic scale than they are in equal-tempered tuning. (As a practical matter, active performers don’t think of intonation in such mathematical terms as ratios, Hz, cents, or percentages, but many do use such data as reference points for their never-ending battles with the pitch demons. They also employ various "applied" techniques to resolve intonation issues, such as "beat" patterns, resultant tones, et al. )

As a pianist, Andre Previn showed a preference for equal-tempered intonation, whereas Mr. Giulini, a former violist, predictably favored expressive/horizontal tuning. These are but two examples of the typical intonation challenges serious musicians deal with on a regular basis; however, enough about issues that belong in the more somber and structured world of seminars, master-classes, and cocktail lounges.