Return to Homepage

On-line Book Review


Dimension: 24.2 x 16.4 x 1.1 cm
TITLE A Passable and Good Temperament. A New Methodology for Studying Tuning and Temperament in Organ Music by Johan Norrback
PUBL. DETAILS Göteborg University (Göteborg, 2002); x, 156p; SEK220
ISBN 91-85974-66-8
TO ORDER GOArt Publications, Box 200, SE-405 30 Göteborg, Sweden.
Tel: +46-31-773 52 11; Fax +46-31-773 52 00. Email:
DESCRIPTION A published dissertation on tunings methods and temperaments covering from the 16th to 18th centuries. With a CD-ROM containing music examples.
WORKS COVERED BWV 540, 542, 544, 552, 588, 656 (examples)
READERSHIP Scholars and organists studying the historical context of Bach's organ works, esp. tuning.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Critical review of both literature and instruments on the issue of tuning systems in Bach's time; opening up an important discussion on the relationship between the intonation of instruments and Bach's organ music.

W e do not know exactly how Bach tuned his harpsichords. The documentary evidence is scarce, and although some scholars such as John Barnes and Herbert Anton Kellner attempted several decades ago to recreate their versions of Bach’s tuning system (through the examination of the so-called ‘internal evidence’ in Bach’s works), the majority of scholars still consider that the issue is yet to be settled.
When we talk of the organs and their temperaments, however, we need to consider a different set of issues. To start with, Bach did not tune the organ by himself. Moreover, he played many different organs in various places, and although there survive a few episodes in which Bach commented on the tuning of particular instruments, it is difficult to identify what temperament Bach was criticizing and what was Bach’s ideal temperament for the particular instrument.  Still, knowing (even approximately) what temperament Bach used for particular pieces is very important for many performers.
Contents in brief
1. Introduction

Problem and aim; previous research; methodological considerations

2. Written Sources

Description of tunings and temperaments; related writings; discussion

3. Instrument Sources

The "Bach organ"; discussion

4. A New Methodology

Description of the methodology; critical discussion

5. The Music

Consonance and dissonance; music examples; discussion

6. Conclusions



refreshing discussion on this enigmatic subject
In this book Norrback discusses several important issues relating to the temperament and Bach’s organ works, namely identifying (1) the written sources that are relevant in the study of Bach’s organ music, (2) the organs from which we can learn about Bach’s tuning in the context of this study, and (3) how the tuning and temperament affect Bach’s organ music.

Norrback’s discussion on the written sources (Chapter 2) is both well-structured and informative, which can be used as a quick reference book on the subject. His approach is thoughtful, unbiased, and sufficiently critical, highlighting interesting facts and possibilities as to how Bach may have been influenced by his contemporaries. It certainly has refreshing feel to this oft-considered heavy and enigmatic substance to debate. The use of cleanly reproduced facsimiles and diagrams further supplements its usefulness.

Likewise, his discussion of old instruments (Chapter 3) is cautious but illuminating; his conclusion that Bach’s temperaments ranged from mean-tone to different well-tempered tunings, and not restricted to a single system, seems convincing to me.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the remaining portion of the book reads like an ongoing project; the discussion on how specific pieces by Bach fit the instrument and the temperament really needs stronger evidence and justification. Yet the ideas that Norrback presented in this book have effectively opened a new chapter in our better understanding of Bach’s organ music.

Published online on 23 June 2003

Return to the previous page