In a tattered and faded copy of Vol. VIII (1790) of “The European Magazine and London Literary Review” which I recently purchased at an antiquarian in Florence, I was entertained evening on evening by news of the French Revolution hot off the press, debates in Parliament which led to the rupture between Burke and Fox, and a long-running review of Burney’s “General History of Music”. The most pleasant surprise was a little article on harpsichord tuning, illustrated with a scheme (see below), by a Rev. Mr. Davy, taken from his “Letters on Subjects of Literature”, which I have not found previously mentioned in the literature.
Reverend Charles Davy would be bewildered by his book now being offered in Kindle and print-on-demand editions, as well as scanned on Google Books, where I read it with considerable pleasure. It is a collection of earlier essays compiled when he was 65, Davy tells us, eighteen months after a stoke which confined him to his chair, and “brought on spasms so exquisitely painful, and frequently so unremitted, as scarcely to allow a single hour’s repose to him for many days and nights together.” With this experience I can sympathize to some degree from firsthand knowledge.
His biography on the British Museum website reads in its entirety as follows: “Church of England vicar and writer on music, of Onehouse, Suffolk”. He never rose in the hierarchy beyond a succession of two curacies and two rectorates in villages in eastern England. Judging from his book he was a paradigm of that sterling character from 18th-century British literature – the pious, even-tempered, learnèd village clergyman. Davy got his higher learning at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. His most famous contribution to posterity was a gripping eyewitness account of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. He had already been through a smaller temblor on Madeira some years previously. I have not been able to account for Davy’s years on Portuguese territory, but he was probably pastor to the British trading community there. He speaks of the destruction by a tsunami of the Tagus River quay where he was accustomed to take his evening stroll with members of “the factory”, i.e. the offices of the merchants.
Rev. Davy’s collected essays revolve mostly around Greek conjugations and declensions, Greek and Latin prosody, and musical subjects both speculative and practical. He sees music in a state of decline, as every over-65-year-old must (including this one), but hasn’t given up hope:
“The fashion of composing music principally with a view to the difficulty of its execution, I should hope is upon the decline; I say that I should hope so, for after fashion has had its run, men must surely feel that those extravagant pieces which surprize, rather than please us, or which please us chiefly by exciting our astonishment, are as far removed from the merit of good composition, as playing feats upon the wire, from the graceful movements of fine dancing.”
This passage partly echoes François Couperin so exactly that it seems he must have read L’art de toucher le clavecin. In another letter he laments a trend that has only accelerated since his book was published in 1787:
“The great misfortune is, that music is looked upon at present by most people, even of sense and learning, as too insignificant an affair to engage a wise man’s attention; at best merely as an accomplishment; and a late noble pedantic trifler [Chesterfield], in one of his epistles, recommends to his son, if he had a taste for music, to send for a fiddler to play to him, rather than condescend to practice, even as an amusement, what could not possibly overbalance, it seems, the hazard of introducing him to an unpolite set of acquaintance.”
At the very end of Vol. I (Letter XLII), the tuning scheme appears which the editor of “The European Magazine” found interesting enough to publish in 1790. It is maddeningly vague. Davy’s correspondent has tried to tune pure fifths all around, but has found the instrument “discordant” because of the resulting Pythagorean thirds. He tells her to tune “the fifths rather flat”, enough that the thirds are “good”, not “too sharp or too flat” – which could theorically mean either pure or tempered to some degree. He takes us up through the fifths from C to G-sharp, and then down the flats to E-flat. This of course leaves the old meantone gap at G-sharp/E-flat.
Taken at face value, Davy’s scheme could result in anything from quarter-comma meantone to 1/12-comma meantone, a.k.a. equal temperament. But his verbal commentary gives a better idea of what he had in mind, and if that is not exactly the latter of these two options, it is certainly closer to it, since “the same string...is made to stand for the sharp of a note immediately below, and the flat of the note immediately above it”. He contrasts the practicality of this compromise with efforts to construct instruments “with a greater number of strings, so as to render it possible to be tuned with the most precise exactness...The experiment hath been tried, and I can only say, that Harpsichords still retain their old construction in respect of sharps and flats, with the ablest musicians, and those too who could well afford any expence, and would spare none, to render the instrument absolutely perfect. It seems odd to say, that it is more perfect upon account of this imperfection, but such was the expression of an unmathematical musician, whose abilities as a performer, and the judgement of whose ear, were never called in question.”
Such is the opinion of our eminently reasonable country parson. Dissatisfaction with the incompatibility of the laws of acoustics and the diatonic scale have driven instrument builders to lengths which burst the bounds of reason. On the other hand, it cannot be mentioned often enough that Andreas Werckmeister, after struggling most of his life with compromises, in his final work recommend equal temperament – which is surely what J. S. Bach had in mind when he chose the term wohltemperiert when he assembled a collection of preludes and fugues through all the keys, and transposed pieces from C to C-sharp and from F to A-flat in the process.
My old friend, the organologist, restorer and harpsichord builder John Koster, pointed out to me how similar Davy’s scheme is to that published by Peter Prelleur in his Modern Musick-Master (1730), also appended below. Prelleur is no more exact than Davy: “Observe that all sharp Thirds [i.e., f-sharp, c-sharp and g-sharp] must be as sharp as ye Ear will permit, and all Fifths as flat as the ear will permit.” If followed literally, this advice would tend to produce pure thirds c - e and g - b, and a wolf fifth on b - f-sharp’. Going down on the flat side would raise f, b-flat and e-flat to a considerable degree. What the g-sharp - e-flat gap would look like would depend on just how much tempering the tuner’s “Ear” could bear.
My Japanese wife and colleague Naoko Akutagawa tells me that the second temperament proposed by another Englishman, Thomas Young, in his 1799 letter to the Royal Society is the favorite in her native land. It varies from the popular Valotti temperament only by favoring the sharp side by one of the six perfect fifths; Young tunes F - C perfect, Valotti B -F-sharp. Both the English physicist and the Paduan violinist offer “discordant” Pythagorean thirds on three major keys only: in the case of “Young 2”, F-sharp, C-sharp, and A-flat. He probably wanted to give B-major some relief in the amount of one if his 1/6-comma thirds because of its function as the dominant of the common key of e-minor.* The corresponding increase of width in flat-key thirds vis-à-vis Valotti parallels many other early temperaments and reflects contemporary descriptions of the “brilliance” of those keys.
(*That leading tone would certainly be high, but then Young reports that violinists like to raise their leading tones, despite the fact that pure thirds ought to be low. In 1971, my first year at the Amsterdamsch Conservatorium as it then was, my teacher Gustav Leonhardt gave students in a group lesson a trick question on that subject. He insisted, in typically oracular fashion, on acoustical rectitude. We ignoramuses were all mystified, and no further explanation was forthcoming.)