Technical Library

TEMPERAMENTS XX: Sixth-comma Meantone

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Silbermann temperament ©2007 CBH 4K gif Now that you are used to the sound of Vallotti’s sixth-comma fifths, you might want to try Sixth-comma Meantone. Richard Kolb, sometime lutenist at the Carmel Bach Festival, had been using this temperament successfully for some time, and persuaded me to tune it for one of the Intermezzo recital programs he devized in 2007 for his final year in Carmel. The same year, Ross Duffin’s book How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) appeared: It seems this is the only temperament for those which pass through Case Western University!

I also tuned Sixth-comma Meantone on all four keyboards (Grimaldi, Neapolitan, Continuo organ and Regal) for the sole Australian appearance of Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini at the 2017 Adelaide Festival, performing Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to a sold-out house.

From a keyboard point of view, this temperament was supposedly favored by Silbermann and so is sometimes found described under his name. With the exception of the wolf which is greatly reduced in size from that of Quarter-comma Meantone, a moment’s contemplation of the diagram will show you that all the identically-sized fifths are here a somewhat larger sixth-comma like Vallotti. Each of the usable thirds resulting are exactly the same in size, but wider here than the absolute purity of Quarter-comma Meantone and so we have no pure intervals to check.

Compared to Vallotti, though, all the “white” notes of the keyboard are in exactly the same place. All usable keys sound the same, so this temperament lacks Vallotti’s variation in key color. The “black” notes for the three sharp keys are closer to their tonics (progressively flatter than Vallotti), and the two flats are closer to their thirds (sharper than Vallotti).

To change your previously-tuned Vallotti to Sixth-comma Meantone, proceed as follows:

1. Raise your b so that instead of a perfect fifth bf', you have a narrow sixth-comma fifth sounding with the same roughness as the ae' a semitone lower.

2. Raise your e first of all to make a perfect fifth with the b you’ve just tuned, then raise it some more to make a sixth-comma fifth eb. Again this can be compared in roughness to eb which is the same size. The two flat notes have now been found.

3. The three remaining sharps must be progressively lowered from Vallotti. Work to lower your f' so the fifth bf' sounds similar to the already tuned bf'. Tune down an octave to determine the new f and then lower your c' so that again you have the same sized narrow fifth fc' as fc'. Tune down an octave to c and make your final narrow fifth cg. Verify your almost-usable wolf ge' and your tuning is complete.

4. Finally, though, you can check the accuracy of your work with a chain of ascending tempered fifths. If you’ve succeeded, each one should beat just a little more than the previous as you ascend the keyboard through cg, da, eb, eb, fc', fc', gd', ae', bf', bf' & c'g'. (Your ge' wolf is as expected from the diagram, so that interval doesn’t occur in this check series.) And you can even pull the same trick with your major third fa the same three beats per second as Vallotti, and each third beating slightly faster as you ascend gb', ac', bd', c'e', d'f', e'g' & e'g'. The harsh thirds which are really fourths, do not form part of this check. They are perhaps not as vulgar as in Quarter-comma Meantone, and you might find their enharmonics almost usable: fb, gc', b–e' & c'f'. If you try to play an A Major triad you’ll hear that it is almost as hideous as Quarter-comma because every note is still spelled wrong.

Further discussion
Anonymous [Kayano, Moxzan] Dodecagon — Chi-s akt temo Tokyo 2012, p41
Duffin, Ross W How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) W W Norton & Company Inc, 2007
Padgham, Charles The Well-Tempered Organ Positive Press, Oxford 1986, p59 (“Silbermann”)
Veroli, Claudio di Unequal Temperaments Artes Graficas Farro, Buenos Aires 1978, p65

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