Published : 2023-04-27

Nineteenth-Century Temperaments and the Music of Chopin

Jonathan D. Bellman


Since the seventeenth century, writers about music have discussed what were considered to be the intrinsic differences in affect between the various keys. These were continuations of late-Renaissance discussions of the expressive properties of the different church modes, and those distantly reflected discussions of the Greek modes in Plato’s Republic. By the turn of the twentieth century, a large (and evolving) literature on the subject had accumulated, and despite more than a half-century of piano temperaments that were loosely referred to as ‘equal’ (or in Albert Lavignac’s phrase, ‘the uniformity inherent in the system of temperament’), the entire concept of key characteristics—that is, an accounting of the expressive differences between supposedly equally tempered keys—was well established. No two accounts of key associations were alike, but there were general patterns, especially for the more diatonic keys: C major was considered innocent, C minor for funereal and serious pieces, F major gently pastoral, D major warlike and triumphant, and so on.
For us, unfortunately, late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tuning instructions are incomplete. In treatise after treatise, these temperaments — generally described as ‘equal’ even when they clearly are not — are to be produced by tuning certain fifths ‘a little weak,’ other fifths ‘strong,’ and finally (at the end of the process) expecting the requisite correspondences between enharmonic equivalents to result from these vaguest of instructions. Despite the claims that such instructions were complete, self-standing, and intended for autodidacts, further preparation, such as working with an accomplished technician, would have been necessary. To proceed directly from these treatises, then, is impractical, so the problem of an unequal temperament appropriate to Chopin’s music requires a different approach.
The composer’s personal preferences regarding temperament and key associations had much in common with typical practice of the time. Even clearer is Chopin’s statement, from his unfinished piano method: ’Intonation being the tuner’s task, the pianist is free of one of the greatest difficulties involved in the study of an instrument’, which demonstrates that despite his exacting requirements, he was happy to turn the task over to professionals. The search for such a temperament today requires experimentation, which enables us to discover how narrower and wider thirds and fifths produce the mood and affect of each key. Such experimentation can produce a temperament generally compatible with the majority of instructions for contemporary temperaments — thus completely usable for the piano repertoire of the time — but frankly revelatory when Chopin’s music is played in it. And although vanishingly little that can be heard remains of such temperaments, Vladimir de Pachmann’s 1927 recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1 testifies to a temperament in which different triads have different qualities, timbres differ depending on the different relationships between overtones, Chopin seems to be intentionally milking these differences, and the subtleties of his music seem to multiply a thousandfold.


Chopin, key characteristics, temperament, tonality, unequal temperament




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Citation rules

Bellman, J. D. (2023). Nineteenth-Century Temperaments and the Music of Chopin. Chopin Review, (3), 42–86.

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