TEMPERAMENT: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle

Stuart M. Isacoff, Author . Knopf $23 (272p) ISBN 978-0-375-40355-2

Isacoff, editor-in-chief of Piano Today magazine, tells the worthy tale of how musical temperament—the familiar, seemingly fixed relationships between notes on an instrumental scale—came to be taken for granted. After centuries of an accepted belief in the mathematical and divine governance of music, the 17th century saw the growth of a fierce debate over experimental new tuning methods. In the 18th century, the modern keyboard allowed for a new kind of tuning, known as equal temperament, whereby each pitch is equally distanced. New musical possibilities opened up, changing composition forever. Isacoff traces music theory contributions by da Vinci, Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Rameau. Unfortunately, he sometimes clumsily attempts to keep his audience's attention with irrelevant, if salacious, gossip—e.g., philosopher Robert Hooke "recorded his orgasms in a diary," and King Louis XIV refused to eat with a fork. Meanwhile, he gives relatively short shrift to Kepler and Galileo. His ambitious historical canvas uses extensive secondary sources, but there are research gaps, such as his outdated portrait of Isaac Newton as a total "ascetic." Nevertheless, this harmonics drama will excite music geeks and music historians. (Nov. 24)

Forecast:Knopf's prestige guarantees sales to major music collections, and Isacoff's national media appearances (NPR, etc.) may mean good general sales.

Reviewed on: 10/22/2001
Release date: 11/01/2001
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