Article by Roger Neill

An important issue for all early disc recordings is to determine the correct speeds for playing them. Although they are known generically as 78s, supposedly playing at 78 revolutions per minute, in fact recording speeds typically varied between 70 and 82 rpm (with extremes of 60 and 95 rpm). So making recommendations now is a tricky business, further complicated by the fact that in Melba’s day there was no effective standard pitch for the tuning of instruments.

What is now clear is that Melba was committed to “French pitch” (at the time often referred to as “normal pitch”). This was first adopted by the French government in 1859, and gave legal force to a standard pitch of a=435hz. Outside France there continued to be a wide range of pitch employed. In search of improved brilliance, orchestras and keyboard instruments played at pitches well above 435. In London in 1877, Wagner was enraged at the strain that his singers were forced to endure, and two years later, Adelina Patti refused to sing at Covent Garden, the orchestra being tuned to 455hz.

French pitch was accepted as standard by an international convention in Vienna, but Britain was not represented and so the situation continued for Britain and her then Empire – remaining rather confused but in general well above the agreed French standard. In 1895, Robert Newman, the manager of London’s leading concert hall, Queen’s Hall, together with the young conductor, Henry Wood, had the pitch of the hall’s organ lowered to 439hz, very close to the current international standard of 440hz eventually agreed in 1939.

Melba must have had to battle constantly against being made to sing at too high a pitch and this seems to have come to a head for her during her return tours of Australia in 1902 and 1907. In her home town, Melbourne, the higher “English sharp” pitch (around 455hz) was commonly used, so that when an overseas opera company toured in 1900, bringing with it instruments tuned to French pitch, this was clearly an event of note, The Age commenting: “ We can now listen to Trovatore without serious fears as to the ability of the singers to produce these exalted notes-fortissimo without bursting.” The two major public organs in the city (in the Town Hall and in the Exhibition Building) were tuned at a=453 and a=455 respectively.

According to the first biography of Melba, written by the diva’s secretary, Agnes Murphy, and published in 1909: “Among the local matters with which Melba early concerned herself was a movement to secure the Australian adoption of the normal musical pitch.” She was sufficiently exercised about the situation
that she donated in March 1909 a set of French-pitch woodwind and brass instruments to Melbourne’s Marshall-Hall Orchestra.

These are now in the collection of the Faculty of Music of the University of Melbourne. Of course, the instruments arrived just in time to be used during her 1909 concerts and doubtless she also had pianos re-tuned to a=435. Organs remained a problem. As late as 1921, Melba joined a deputation to the Lord Mayor of Melbourne seeking to have the pitch of the Town Hall organ lowered to French pitch, a costly business.*

It appears that most, if not all, transfers (to LP and CD) over the past half century or so have been based on transfers made at modern concert pitch (a=440). The difference between this and French pitch is not great, somewhere between an eighth and a quarter tone, perhaps undetectable to many. Nevertheless a feature of this edition is that recommended speeds (and the CD transfers) have taken this into account.

* I am indebted to Simon Purtell of the Faculty of Music, the University of Melbourne, for much detailed information on this subject.

Copyright | Roger Neill 2008 | Used with Permission by Historic Masters

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