Stenhammar’s piano concertos; more on just intonation and meantone tuning

Lake Superior, MN, 2019-10

I wanted to wrap up some coverage of Swedish composer Stemhammar and move on to the interest these days in tuning.

Stenhammar wrote two large piano concertos. 

First consider Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor (1893), Op. 1, performed by Mats Widlund, piano and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, posted by  Bartje Bartmans.  Whereas the symphonies suggest a heritage of Bruckner, and piano concerti remind one of Brahms.

Stemhammar Piano Concerto 1

The first concerto runs about 47 minutes and spans four movements, following the general pattern of Brahms’s second piano concerto. The 17-minute first movement has plenty of storminess (one could recall Tchaikovsky in the same key, though there is no introduction, or even Scharwenka).  The second movement is a light scherzo, the third an andante slow movement, but it is the finale that is curious.  It starts out in B-flat minor with a laid-back rhythmic theme and soon introduces an andante second subject in ¾.   The second subject does not blossom into the usual big tune but takes one into retreat.  The concerto ends with one sunrise blaze and then a single soft chord.  It is uncommon for large romantic piano concerti to end quietly. (Furtwangler’s does.)   There is one passage of repeated chords that sounds like it quotes the first movement of the Brahms First Piano Concerto.  The Brahms Second Concerto has a laid back finale, but does end loudly.  (The Brahms Third Symphony ends with a quiet retreat, however, maybe an influence on this composition.)

The Piano Concerto #2 in D Minor (1917), runs about 31 minutes, performed here by Greta Eriksson, piano and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov, posted by Bartmans.

Stenhammar Piano Concerto 2

The concerto comprises four continuous sections.  It starts with a gentle choral theme in ¾ on solo piano. The orchestra intervenes with a stormy passage ½ step lower, in C# Minor.  The first section turns out to be a play of the two tonalities a half-step apart.  An elfin scherzo in 3/8 follows with a slower middle section that will anticipate the slow movement, in C# Minor and very chordal.  There is one orchestral passage that has been very widely quote in movie scores (especially westerns).   The music climbs the half step for the concluding rondo, in 9/8 (sometimes ¾ or 3/2) time, highly syncopated, and builds up to a rousing, showy coda in D.

I want to share three videos that discuss “just intonation” compared to “meantone” as well as modern equal temperament.

In 2011, Ebem Goresko explains “How Eighteenth Century Piano Tuners Heard Major 3rds | 18th Century Aesthetics” as he repeatedly tunes pianos to reproduce meantone effects.  He gives some history as to how equal temperament came into general use, which took until the 19th century.  So for composers earlier, transposition of tunes into other keys was dicey.

Gorseko 18th century piano tuning

In 2014, John Moraitis demonstrates the comparison between Meantone and Rameau temperaments as he tries sections from a Bach G Major air from the Goldberg Variations on each of two keyboards, separately tuned, on a clavichord. 

Moraitis meantone temperament v Rameau temperament

 Jn Dec. 2016, Birdrockdulcimers demonstrates “Equal Temperamant v Just Intonation v Meantone on McSpadden dulcimers” on three dulcimers.

dulcimer tuning

(Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2022 at 12 noon by John W. Boushka)