TEMPERAMENT by Stuart M. Isacoff


The Idea That Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle
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Pianist and composer Isacoff delves into “equal temperament,” the18th-century tuning system that carved the octave into 12 equal intervals.

When a Renaissance musician tuned a musical instrument according to the dictates of the Church-approved ancient Greeks, it could be played only in certain keys and was limited to intervals of the octave, fifth, and fourth. This was not a problem until keyboard instruments came into prominence and composers made increasing use of the third and sixth intervals. Unpleasant sonorities resulted from the old tuning, and compositions were rendered unplayable. Kepler, Newton, and Rousseau were among the period’s leading thinkers who took part in the search for a better tuning system. Many elaborate and convoluted solutions were proposed, but equal temperament was the least elegant and most pragmatic, dividing the 12 tones within the octave into 12 equal intervals. Flying as it did in the face of tradition, this solution unsurprisingly drew fierce opposition, but it ultimately prevailed. Painting a vast backdrop for his arcane subject, Isacoff often strays too far afield. He devotes page after page to other admittedly fascinating intellectual issues, from perspective to planetary motion, and although he writes well and lovingly about almost all of them, it’s jarring when he realizes he must return to the matter at hand and thus wrenches the narrative back to the more mundane topic of temperament. And he betrays an anachronistically secular view when he describes early harmonic compositions as the result of “bored monks in search of amusement” without providing any evidence of this alleged boredom. Most difficult to fathom is Isacoff's mere passing reference to Bach's “Well-Tempered Clavier,” surely the most eloquent and staggeringly ingenious endorsement of equal temperament and surely worthy of a few more lines of commentary.

Well-meaning but disappointing: a history in search of a subject. (45 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-40355-8
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2001