The Rise and Fall of English Pitch
In trying to work out the mysteries of flute pitch and intonation in the 19th century, it's useful to have an idea how other instruments in the era were tuned. In this page, we'll look at those historical references that are available and add more as they come to notice. If you are aware of useful references we haven't included, don't hesitate to let us know.
We'll also try to draw inferences from this raw data. Now, you'll understand that this is a risky business, so again, if you can see an alternative interpretation, don't keep it to yourself.
The raw data
The historical information comes from these sources so far:
Information tends to be about the tuning of keyboard instruments (mostly piano) and pitch of orchestras. The pitch of tuning forks is a common source. Only data relating to England has been included.
Even with these few sources there are overlaps and confusions. Hopefully these will be clarified and the gaps filled with the addition of further sources.
Just providing the lists of reference points gives a rather skewed picture, as a lot of data about some points in time unfairly outweighs the small amount of data available from others. So a graphical approach was chosen to provide a linear timeframe. But even graphing the pitches against their period produced a rather meaningless jumble of data points, so an attempt to relegate them into series has been made. This is perhaps the riskiest part of the endeavour, and revision may be required by more data becoming available.
In any case, the raw data is also provided, enabling you to draw (and hopefully communicate!) your own conclusions.
Note that where a pitch was noted as being in use for a period of time, I've indicated that by two entries - one at the start and one at the end of the period.
Inspecting the data suggested these series:
Graphed against a linear timeframe, this picture emerges:
Low Pitch References
It seems likely that the century started with low pitch only, set around 420-425 Hz. This rose slowly to around 430Hz mid century and persevered into the 20th century as Philosophical pitch - the notion that it had a particular significance in relation to nature.
The perceived connection to nature is an amusing one. A=430Hz is the equivalent of C=256Hz. 256 is 2 raised to the power of 8 - i.e. C 256 is 8 octaves above C1 - an inaudible note whose frequency would be 1 cycle per second. So? Because the second is a whole number subdivision of the day (60 x 60 x 24 = 86400), music at that pitch is seen as being in tune with the rotation of the earth. Handy.
It is important to note that, from the evidence gathered, low pitch wasn't actually replaced by High Pitch, contrary to popular opinion. It appears to have remained as the domestic standard until presumably taken over by modern pitch. Interestingly a movement continues to the present to reinstate 430Hz, or more accurately C 256.
High Pitch References
High pitch seems to have been the preserve of the Philharmonic Orchestra movement and subsequently military bands. Our earliest clear reference seems to be a London Philharmonic concert in 1846. Despite a number of attempts to rein it in, it continued until 1895, when, according to conductor Sir Henry Wood, a throat specialist Dr George Cathcart financed the series of Promenade concerts on the condition they be conducted at Diapason Normal (435). It seems a compromise of 439Hz (the predecessor to modern pitch) was actually adopted.
The data point at 433Hz, 1820 has been included in the High Pitch series as a possible departure point for this pitch. Hopefully, further data might fill in the gaps between 1820 - 1846. Military bands battled on at 452 until 1927 when an amendment to the Kings Regulations adopted 439Hz.
Medium Pitch References
It seems from the wording of the references that as soon as High Pitch was in place, there was a perceived need for an intermediate pitch. The existence of this medium pitch is not well known, but is firmly attested by the references. The most useful information so far is the report of a meeting held by the Society of Arts to see what could be done about reducing high pitch to something more sensible.
Diapason Normal References
This is a perhaps contentious grouping. Diapason Normal was the reigning pitch in France at the time and thus had no legitimacy in Britain. Some of the references are specific however, and some simply fit in well with the pitch and have no other apparent allegiances.Some evidence to suggest that 435 was in use in England is given by a boxed set of three tuning forks by J. & J. GODDARD that recently came up on Ebay. The pitches of the three forks translate to A435, 439 and 454Hz. As the High Pitch (454Hz) fork is marked Old Philharmonic, we can assume they are from around the end of the century.
We see the start of where pitch was to end up, at 440Hz. The original intention seems to have been Diapason Normal, but confusion surrounding the temperature at which the measurements were to be made converted 435 into 439. Spurious-sounding arguments about technical difficulties in creating 439Hz accurately in the laboratory (based on 439 being a prime number) later notched it up to 440 Hz.
Implications for the flute
It would seem that we should expect turn-of-the-century flutes to respond well at around 420-425 Hz. Flutes around Nicholson's time might aim a little sharper, say 425 to 430. 430, perhaps starting to rise towards 445 should be a good pitch for the flutes of Rudall & Rose.
By the time we come to Pratten (1852), the so called medium pitch 445 should be well entrenched. This compromise tuning would seem to be attractive to an instrument such as the flute that is not capable of covering both ends of the pitch spectrum successfully. We might expect to see signs of this pitch in flutes in the immediate post Boehm period.
We might expect to see real High Pitch flutes in the period 1846 - 1895, or subsequently if intended for military use. By 1895, modern pitch should be the general aim.
To see if these expectations are born out, see the associated article: 19th century flute tuning
The references, taken from the sources mentioned above, appear below, sorted into the series presented in the graph above.
Low Pitch References (432Hz and below)
|1715||420||c. 1715 A= 419.9, England. Crude tenor fork, possibly made by John Shore, the inventor of the tuning fork.|
|1750||424||c. 1750 A= 424.3, London. "Common music shop fork."|
|1751||423||1751 A=422.5, London. Handel's tuning fork. The box which contains the fork bears the inscription: "This pitchfork was the property of the Immortal Handel and left by him at the Foundling Hospital, when the Messiah was performed in 1751."|
|1800||423||c. 1800 A= 422.7, London. From an old tuning fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.|
|1813||424||Original Philharmonic pitch (Ellis)|
|1826||427||c.1826 A=427.2, London. Old fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.|
|1826||428||c.1826 A=427.6, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.|
|1826||428||1826. A=428.4, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.|
|1835||427||1835 Woolhouse 427|
|1858||430||1858 De Morgan 402 organs, 430 other|
|1880||430||1880 Ballington 430 to >442|
|1893||430||1893 Becket & Co 430 (Philosophical pitch)|
|1893||430||1893 Peltier ditto|
|1893||431||1893 Smith 430.539|
|1907||431||1907 Spain 430.5 (Philosophical pitch)|
Diapason Normal Pitches (circa 435Hz)
|1878||436||1878 A= 436, London. Standard pitch of church organs taken from Metzler's tuning fork.|
|1887||435||1887 Norton 435|
|1892||435||1892 Fisher 435 (Diapason Normal)|
|1893||435||1893 Spillane 435|
|1905||435||1905 Audsley 435|
|1906||435||1906 Pyle 435 (French Diapason Normal)|
|1915||435||1915 White 435 (International pitch)|
Medium Pitch References (436-446 Hz)
|1849||446||1849-54 A=445.9, London. Broadwood piano company's original|
|1854||446||medium pitch tuning fork belonging to tuner Alexander Finlayson, who died in 1854.|
|1860||446||1860 A=445.5, London. Copy of Broadwood's medium pitch fork made for the society of the arts.|
|1860||445||1860 A=448.4, London. Society of the Arts tuning fork.|
|1876||444||1876 Bosanquet 444|
|1878||445||1878 A=445.1, London. Society of Arts pitch.|
|1879||446||1879 A=445.5, London. Her Majesty's opera orchestra during performance from a fork made by Hipkins.|
|1880||445||1880 A=444.9, London. Her majesty's opera. From a tuning fork of the theatre as measured by Hipkins.|
|1880||446||1880 A=446.2, London. Tuning fork used by John Broadwood and Co for in house tunings but not for public concerts.|
|1880||442||1880 Ballington 430 to >442|
High Pitch References (447Hz and above)
|1813||424||Original Philharmonic pitch (Ellis)|
|1820||433||c.1820 A=433, London. "Pitch approved by Sir George Smart, conductor of the Philharmonic. "|
|1846||453||London Philharmonic Performance of Elijah, 453|
|1852||453||1852-1874 A= 452.5, London. Average pitch of the Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Michael Costa (1846-54). Broadwood's tuner Mr. J. Black tuned to this pitch. Broadwood retained this pitch for concerts until 1874 when it was raised to A=454.7.|
|1857||456||Covent Garden, according to Ellis|
|1860||455||Mentioned as current Philharmonic pitch in report of meeting by Society of Arts aimed at reducing pitch to 444 Hz.|
|1874||453||As for 1852|
|1874||455||1874 A=454.7, London. Fork representing the highest pitch used in Philharmonic concerts. Used as the highest pitch used by the Broadwood Piano Co.|
|1876||447||1876 A= 446.7, London. Concert pitch.|
|1877||450||1877 A=449.9, London. Standard fork used by Collard piano Co.|
|1877||454||1877 A=454.1, London. From a tuning fork used by Hipkins to tune for the Crystal Palace concerts.|
|1878||448||1878 A=448.1, London. Tuning fork made by Walker.|
|1878||450||1878 A=449.9, London. Covent Garden opera orchestra during performance as measured by Hipkins.|
|1878||452||1878 A=451.9, London. British army regulations. Pitch for wind instruments.|
|1879||450||1879 A=449.7, London. Pitch of the opera orchestra at Covent Garden during performance.|
|1879||455||1879 A=454.7, London. Tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons to tune pianos in London.|
|1879||455||1879 A= 455.3, London. From a tuning fork representing the concert pitch used by the Erard Piano Company.|
|1909||452||452.4 confirmed for military bands|
|1927||439||Change to Kings Regs adopts 439Hz|
Modern Pitch References (circa 440Hz)
|1895||439||Philharmonic Soc adopts DN, but at 439@68F rather than 435@59F|
|1899||440||Covent Garden Opera (Hipkis)|
|1899||439||Queens' Hall Orchestra (Hipkis)|
|1927||439||King's Regulation adopts 439 for military bands|
|1939||440||Adopted at International conference|
Back to McGee Flutes home page...