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Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization Paperback – Feb 4 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (Feb. 4 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375703306
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375703300
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.1 x 1.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 9 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #151,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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3.2 out of 5 stars
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By P. Vogel on Feb. 13 2004
Format: Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, for the first time in my life, feel that I actually understand the issues around temperament. I would recommend this book to a lot of people but not everyone, as the number of negative reviews illustrates. The negative reviews for this book seem to fall into four categories-if you are in one of those groups then you may want to buy a different book:
1) The lunatic fringe: Examples here are: The review that castigates the book for abusing non-Western music (It's hard to see the point of this complaint since the intent of the book is to discuss the role of temperament in Western music--no real mention is made of any other kind of music); The review by the person who read only a 2 or 3 page excerpt of the book (apparently ignorance is no impediment to opinion); The person who hadn't read the book yet but would post a review when they had (see previous); The reviewer who felt that the book was all about sex (I missed that). And so on.
2) People who were unhappy about the lack of technical detail. While I am obviously disparaging the previous group, these reviewers have a valid complaint. These readers were looking for (as examples): actual scores; more math with more explicit discussion of the exact size of the differentials between similarly named tones; more technical terms (e.g. "hertz"). I have a good grounding in math, read a lot of technical material, but would probably best be described as a "music lover". I'm just not in these reviewers league. Since I don't read music, for instance, a score would be useless to me. For the audience that I represent, the level of technical detail worked very well and is appropriate for a "general interest" book. The author's description of the music met my needs and the prescence of a score wouldn't have helped.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Bradley P. Lehman on June 24 2004
Format: Paperback
This book is basically a rehash of Isacoff's major source, on which he relies too heavily: J Murray Barbour's 1951/72 "Tuning and Temperament". Barbour's own bias in his otherwise very well-researched book was the assumption that history is a mostly inexorable metamorphosis toward the current scientific triumph (really only a post-Industrial-Revolution conceit): equal temperament, against which all other systems must be measured and found deviant. Musicians didn't always have those same goals, as to quality of the sound they wanted.
Barbour and Isacoff don't say that they did, and they dance carefully around it while offering a facade of musical objectivity. But, the historical SWEEP they present still gives that incorrect impression, overall, because of the way they measure value by their own expectations (the modern triumph over supposedly more ignorant methods) instead of the positive expectations of the people who composed tonal music. I found it remarkable that as early as page 6 Isacoff cites equal temperament as "the final solution"...a chillingly accurate assessment, as to the way it eliminates diversity from tonal music, the way somebody else's "final solution" eliminated human beings.
Isacoff, to his credit, tries to present various sides of the historical issues; but the effort fails as he consistently errs on the side of embracing scientific triumph (as if equal temperament is the only scientifically plausible solution). He seems bewildered whenever presenting a scientist who never succumbed to the lure of the modern "final solution". More problematic, he tries too hard to sculpt personality profiles around all the major players in the historical record, and his observations degenerate into "ad hominem" dismissals of people he'd rather not have us believe.
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By A Customer on March 16 2004
Format: Paperback
The book is too anecdotal, an amateurish cultural history. Many of the materials are not quite relevant. If the author stuck to the subject the pages could be two-third less. Hope someone will come up with a better one.
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Format: Paperback
Isacoff has tried to write a book on musical temperament for the general public, and parts of it are fun to read. It does have two major flaws: 1) he greatly overstates his case and deliberately omits a whole lot of information that contradicts his central thesis, and 2), he bends over so far backward trying to keep things non-technical that he not only falls down but ties himself up in knots in the process.
As a harpsichordist, I'm perhaps a little more flexible on the subject of an ideal temperament that is all things to all people, because my experience says there's no such thing. Of the various solutions that have been tried along the way, most of them served the needs of those who used them at the time. In fact, I was disappointed that his website sound samples included Chopin in just intonation and equal temperament, but no Byrd or Frescobaldi in meantone or Faenza Codex in Pythagorean, just to show us what all of those systems CAN do--especially on instruments other than the Steinway grand piano. Believe me, it's a revelation!
On the other hand, when he writes about phenomena such as Cipriano da Rore's _Quidnam non ebrietas_, it would be much more helpful to include a score and a brief explanation of the rules of _musica ficta_ (which were what caused all the trouble in the first place). I happen to own other books which include these, but I shouldn't need to consult my personal music library to read a book that is "for general audiences!"
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