ALFRED A. Knopf, 2001 (hardcover, 272 pages)
Vintage, 2003 (paperback, 288 pages)
How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
A fascinating and hugely original book that explains how a vexing technical puzzle was solved, making possible some of the most exquisite music ever written.
From the days of the ancient Greeks, the creation of music was thought to be governed by divine and immutable mathematical certainties. But over time skeptics came to understand that those rules limited harmonic possibilities. In Temperament, we see the traditionalists and the innovators battling across the centuries, engaging great thinkers like Newton, Kepler, and Descartes as well as musicians, craftsmen, church leaders, and heads of state. At the heart of their dispute is the question of how the tones of a musical scale should be selected.
The breakthrough came in the eighteenth century, when the modern keyboard was given perfect musical symmetry through a tuning of equal temperament, each pitch reliably equidistant from the ones that precede and follow it. This tuning allows a musical pattern begun on one note to be duplicated when starting on any other; it creates a musical universe in which the relationships between tones are reliably, uniformly consistent—a universe of greatly expanded possibility, one that allowed Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and all those who followed to compose the piano music we listen to today.
Stuart Isacoff relates the story of the reinvention of the piano—a story that encompasses social history, religion, philosophy, and science as well as musicology—in a concise and sparkling narrative. Temperament is a jewel of a book.