Problems of perfect pitch

I have perfect pitch.  It isn’t as accurate as it was when I was younger, but it is still very important when listening to music.  The key of a piece is a vital part of its overall character – rather like the colours in a painting.   C major sounds totally different from B major, and A major from A flat major, and so on.   The slightly sharpened pitch used in Berlin recordings (A=444 rather than A=440) doesn’t disturb me – it’s close enough to be in the ‘right key’.   So all the major masterpieces I learned to love as a child are for ever associated with particular keys.   The Matthew Passion has to start in that plangent key of E minor and end in C minor, and the 5th Brandenburg has to be in that bright key of D major.   Perfect pitch does have some benefits.  It is very useful in singing at sight.  It is also useful in spotting music that has been transposed for a specific reason, such as lowering the pitch by a semitone at the end of Act 1 in Boheme or ‘Di Quella Pira’ in Trovatore, so that the tenor can reach his supposed top ‘C’ – when in fact it is a top ‘B’ !   That strikes me as cheating, but never mind…

So for the first 30-40 years of my life, I knew that D major was D major – end of story.   All was well until the ‘period performance’ movement came along and starting playing everything down a semitone.   So the Matthew Passion now starts in E flat minor and ends in B minor, and the 5th Brandenburg is in D flat major.   The Magic Flute overture is in D rather than E flat.  More recently, the Dunedin concert has recorded the Brandenburgs effectively a whole tone lower, so that the 6th Brandenburg is in A flat (to my ears) rather than B flat.    I know that there is a solid theoretical basis for this.  It may well be historically correct, and I don’t doubt the integrity or the motives of the musicians who believe in this approach.   But for my part, my ears and brain can’t ‘relearn’ the piece in the ‘wrong key’ – whatever the justification.   It sounds totally bizarre, is intensely irritating and ruins my listening experience.   So I now find that perfect pitch has become a real nuisance, and prevents me from enjoying most modern performances of Bach and other baroque composers, as well as period performances of Mozart etc.   This is easily solved by sticking to Bach recordings dating from the mid 1980’s and earlier.   It’s Easter this weekend, so I will be listening again to the Matthew Passion – in Karl Richter’s 1979 recording, rather than anything more recent.

So that’s my particular problem. It obviously doesn’t bother musicians working within the period instrument movement.  If I were younger, I suppose I would have grown up with much more flexibility to different pitches.  But I don’t think I can ‘unlearn’ it now.   Fortunately, as a pianist and organist, the instruments I play in are definitely at A=440, and this precludes any ‘strange’ pitches being introduced in our concerts.  And I don’t purchase or listen to CDs by any period performers – full stop.  But I can’t control the offerings on Radio 3 or Classic FM  !   I would be interested to know whether anyone else suffers problems.

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

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