Order of the Cynthian Palm

by Edward Gold

I have noted that, in internet musical circles, interest in absolute (perfect) pitch seems on the upswing. As a non-possessor of that faculty, I, too, have had a long interest in it and thought I'd write some brief remarks on the subject.

We have often been told stories about the "Great Composers" and how perfect their ears were. In fact, the ability to compose seems pretty unrelated to all of this. I was once in a class that was doing ear-training and there was a young woman with absolute pitch. But in an exercise in which the tonic of a group of octave displaced notes, for example, a high pitched A and a low-pitched D#, a tonic had to be sung (i.e. the E.), she invariably failed even if I always succeeded.

(Incidentally, it would seem that absolute pitch ability may be related to how early musical studies are commenced according to some surveys.)

Though it is well-known that Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt had absolute pitch, so, apparently, did Tchaikovsky despite opinions to the contrary. And because of their musical prowess, it is assumed so did Bach and Handel but we must remember that this ability could be a real drawback in an age where there was no standard pitch and musical instruments might have been tuned any which way and in any temperament. So I think we have to leave these two cases as unproven.

Franz Joseph Haydn, one of the towering giants of music apparently did not have this ability but he did indeed have a well-trained ear. (There are accounts of his rigorous solfege training which would be expected in any choirboy!) Someone mentioned to me that Schubert didn't have it but I'm not sure one way or the other. But Robert Schumann apparently tried to teach it to himself and developed a hallucinatory note A ringing in his ears towards the end of his life. But this may have been due to his physical condition at that time.

Others lacking absolute pitch were, apparently, Brahms (unproven one way or the other. But the anecdote concerning Brahms as a young pianist touring with the violinist Reményi might have made this feat much more difficult if not impossible if he did indeed have it!), Wagner, Debussy (?), Ravel, and Stravinsky.

For some reason, the name of Leonard Bernstein keeps cropping up in this respect. Allow me to set the subject at rest once and for all since I happened to have gotten the answer from Bernstein himself.

As a student at Yale I accompanied the violinist Tossy Spivakovsky assisting him in the preparation of the Roger Sessions Violin Concerto for the New York Philharmonic. Spivakovsky had absolute pitch and, in the course of rehearsing, the subject had come up.

Since Bernstein was the conductor, we went and played it for him, Sessions and his son John. Before we arrived at Bernstein's studio -- he lived diagonally across from Carnegie Hall in the Osbourne Apartments at that time -- Spivakovsky remarked to me that he thought Sessions didn't have it but Bernstein did. And, to my embarrassment, he asked them both when we finished. Sessions replied that he had it one way (presumably he could recognize pitches but couldn't give them.) But Bernstein was adamant and said he never had it and it wasn't necessary.

I must also confess to another folly at this time: Before we played the piece, Bernstein sang the opening four notes. I softly tried them on the piano and, yes, though he sang them accurately enough relatively speaking, they were certainly not at the right (absolute) pitches. Another story I heard more than once was that Bernstein, at one point, "locked" himself in a room for a month trying to memorized A-440 and he eventually gave up. But this is just a story.

There have been other statements, I am aware, which contradict the above but neither Mr. Bernstein, back then, nor I, now, have had any reason to lie about it. A Psychology Today article is a considerable source of misinformation on who did and who didn't have it and this includes others besides Bernstein. I did once hear that Vladimir Horowitz didn't have it but maybe I heard wrong.; and a book I read on Tchaikovsky stated at some length that he did have it. The book was probably: Poznansky, Alexander. "Tchaikovsky. The Quest for the Inner Man", (Schirmer Books, 1991).

One further anecdote, not mine, involved the violinist Adila Fachiri, the sister of Jelly d'Aranyi, and a niece of Joseph Joachim. Recently I had a book out of the library (Joseph MacLeod's "The Sisters d'Aranyi" from 1969). Jelly claimed to have discovered the Schumann Violin Concerto through a series of informal séances in which the composer supposedly came to her and insisted that she perform it.). Jelly had absolute pitch; Adila did not:

"But Adila had very selective hearing. Once in Geneva in the company of Bartók, Kodaly, Milhaud and Ravel she heard for the first time the Firebird, and remarked on the use of saxophones. The others laughed, but Stravinsky later was astonished that only she should have heard it."

I have become quite good at hearing wrong notes in MIDI files, even in most 20th century music, and perhaps more so than most others. But, no one's "perfect"...


I am adding this addendum on the topic as the interest in this remains high and I've recalled more on the subject over time.

It must be said that the additional anecdotes cannot be vouched for as definitely as my personal experience in the case of Bernstein. A case in point is Tchaikovsky where additional contradictory evidence apparently exists, But I'm reasonably certain that Tchaikovsky did indeed have it.

An even less certain case is that of Gustav Mahler. He seems to have had absolute pitch as a child but gradually lost it as an adult. The story I read somewhere is that Mahler was rehearsing an orchestral work and stopped the orchestra saying that something was wrong. Up popped Bruno Walter who was listening to the rehearsal and he proceeded to tell Mahler exactly what was wrong. (It was in one of the trumpets I think.)

Walter, by all accounts, definitely had absolute pitch so the story rings true.

Sir Georg Solti, on a DVD "Solti: Orchestra! (1991)" told Dudley Moore that he had absolute pitch (Dudley said he himself did not have it.). Though I don't doubt Sir Georg's word, there is a story about an unnamed conductor who boasted of his absolute pitch until his musicians decided to put this to the test by secretly rehearsing a few pages which they played for him, at first, in a different key. The maestro was none the wiser till the orchestra inevitably fell apart.

Find Edward Gold on
Classical Music Archives Recognized Contributor

SoundClick Now!
Edward Gold's Wikipedia Page

people have viewed this site
since March 7th, 2006

© Edward Gold