Getting a Handle on Handel: Why I chose A=440
As we close the first Baroque opera I have conducted, a few thoughts come to mind:
1.) I need to work on an opera at Baroque pitch and with period instruments.
2.) No matter how much I eat before a performance of Cesare, I'm always starving afterward.
Since only few others are interested in my culinary habits, I'll address a question which has arisen with number 1 above: "Why didn't you do this opera at Baroque pitch?" This is a topic which has entered my physical and mental space more than once, so I'll try to address it with maximum expedience.
There are many schools of thought on this in regard to why and how an alternate
tuning system should be implemented, but we also have to take a look at reality. In discussing this particular production of Cesare, it was originally offered to have period instruments at Baroque pitch (A=415 or thereabouts, depending on who you ask, and a number of other factors including the location of the composer at the time) as opposed to modern pitch (A=440). I actively decided against A=415 for this situation. Temperament, in my opinion, is more important than tuning levels, but I will only deal with the latter for this post.
Let's begin with the strings. Strings are probably the most versatile instruments in terms of tuning, however, it can be damaging to a modern instrument to continually tune up and down while also playing two other operas at A=440 in rep. In addition, the strings sound best when they are at optimal tension levels for the scaling of the string (and this is a similar case for the harpsichord, mentioned later in this post). Period strings would likely not tune up to A=440, nor would those softer strings create the sound needed for Puccini, not to mention that the singers would inevitably be unhappy at A=415 with Puccini. The majority of the string players available for this production are members of a Baroque ensemble and either own or have access to period instruments, but this would entail each traveling with at least two instruments--not practical. So, Strike 1.
The winds and brass were mostly all local players, so they only had access to modern instruments. There isn't a lot of flute in Cesare, so that wasn't a huge consideration. I could have easily transposed it down a step and adjusted tuning accordingly. There is a lot of oboe, which has rather specific tuning practices. Some of the horn parts are extremely high and exposed, and would ultimately require an instrument with various crooks to change the pitch levels easily (the parts have four different transpositions). Because there were not four horns available to us, I also arranged the bassoon part to substitute for one or more at various times, imposing additional duties upon our bassoonist, and I'm grateful he agreed to entertain the idea. The bassoon part which plays throughout the entire opera would have been a lot of work, and would require them playing in unusual keys--many would also include the dreaded low G-flat that tends to be problematic. Lack of period winds and brass: Strike 2.
The performance venue is a quite beautiful, large recital hall on the campus of a university. The harpsichord at the venue had been maintained at A=440. Most university students need the experience playing Baroque music for both practical reasons and future marketability, though period instruments are not plentiful because of expense and upkeep. This makes the lower tuning impractical for a university setting. A common question asked: "Why don't you just tune the harpsichord down?" The short answer: There is a possibility that this would require restringing a part of the instrument. Strings for a harpsichord meant to be tuned at A=415 often use different scalings of strings (this is more apparent over register breaks of some instruments) as the tension isn't as high as it would be at A=440, changing the timbre and also slightly the manner in which it interacts with the plectrum. This is inevitably dependent on the individual instrument, and complete information on this particular harpsichord was not available to me until arrival. Additionally, entirely reacclimating the pitch center of a harpsichord, like with any string instrument, is precarious, shouldn't be done quickly, and generally not good for the welfare of the instrument, especially if it's going to have to be again retuned to A=440 again afterward. It could also affect the ability of the instrument to stay in tune during the performances (I have had this happen before!), not to mention that it would have had to have been moved several times to accommodate rehearsals. Strike 3 was earned rather early on with this aspect.
One of the more apparent concerns to me from the beginning was the ability for the singers (who are all relatively young) to be able to rehearse this at the pitch they would perform it. On a purely theoretical level, it would have been good for them. From a practical standpoint, they would have had to transpose the whole opera, arias and recitatives, find a digital instrument with transposition capabilities, or someone who could transpose to learn their roles. Even then, playing a half-step down on a modern instrument isn't exactly equivalent to A=415. This was one of my major hesitations about the lower pitch level from the beginning. We should also not forget that 440 to 415 isn't exactly a half step, so transposition isn't entirely accurate.
In choosing to not fight circumstance in lieu of standing on principle, I still consider this a win (and hopefully the audiences did too!). Every performance situation is different, so flexibility and solid choices are required to allow the best possible result for everyone.