International Pitch

Whenever my homiletic wick begins to sputter and smoke, I visit Vandeever. I do not rush at him, shouting, ‘Oil! My lamp is going out!’ Such tactless impetuosity would ensure me the same disappointment suffered by the improvident virgins of the parable. I saunter into his presence with a leisurely air of self-containment and a smile denoting inner peace. I have just dropped in to wish him well — happened to be passing — noticed an article in which he might be interested — crisp mornings we are having — and how are things going in the Conservatory? This may or may not deceive Vandeever. I have often suspected him of suspicions.

Vandeever is a philosopher by profession, who teaches violin lessons as a side line. His studio is located at the end of a long bare hall on the third floor of a rambling building dedicated to the worship of the Heavenly Maid; though of an open-windowed autumn morning, when the whole plant is in full cry, so to speak, the racket is enough to frighten her away forever, were she half so temperamental as most of her votaries.

Because he is unkempt, cross-eyed and myopic, shaves only on Sundays, needs about eighty-five dollars’ worth of dental attention, and is inclined to be irascible, I dare say the demands upon Vandeever for philosophical utterances are infrequent. Previous to my accidental discovery of him as a sage, I had known him only through his technical critiques of our stellar musical events, published in the Daily Tribune — bewildering monographs which read like a problem in physics pied with a receipt for plum jelly.

A vacancy having been created in the War Department of Zion by the sudden resignation of our contralto, I had strolled over to the Conservatory, hoping to interview an applicant; and, losing my way in the noisy old pile, I had turned the nearest knob to make inquiries. Vandeever was striding, jerkily, up and down the room over a threadbare path, which registered about two thousand rug-miles, gesticulating with his fiddle and muttering something about thumbs — flat thumbs — obviously to be disapproved.

He broke off long enough to tell me, snappishly, where the contralto held forth, his tone failing to recommend her. Perhaps she, too, had a flat thumb. I turned reluctantly to go, but Vandeever was not through with me. He caught me by the lapel, dragged me to a dusty chair, and thrust me into it with the tip of his bow.

‘You see,’ he explained, ‘they all do it! They will put their stupid thumbs flat along the neck of the violin — so! It is much easier — see — look!’ I looked. He was demonstrating. ‘But the correct position — to bend the thumb — to bend it — so — around the neck— ’ He was dislocating his thumb, each savage twitch of it being accompanied by facial contortions, fascinatingly hideous. ‘It is awkward, at first, unnatural — tiring — but correct!’

‘And interesting!’ I added, with enthusiasm.

‘Well; the flat-thumbed easily outdistance all the others, at the beginning. They learn to play tunes for their mothers’ guests. They grow chesty. Meanwhile, the bent-thumbed make slow progress. They become discouraged. Only the few persevere. A year of flat-thumbing and the education is finished. Graduation may then be had into mediocrity. A year of correct posing and the bent-thumbed is just beginning to find himself. He may go on, on — no limit to his going on — on!’

Having torn his passion to tatters, Vandeever subsided into a clairvoyant state which seemed to invite remarks; so I ventured the conjecture that we are menaced by opportunism, these days, in every department of human endeavor. Vandeever rallied, at this, and nodded vigorously. Opportunism was the word. It stirred him to a savage diatribe which for length cost me my lunch and for intensity left me limp. The generation was a shiftless, spineless, ease-loving race of rotters!

I forgot to call on the contralto in my eagerness to get home and begin a sermon on ‘The Flat-Thumbed School of Opportunism,’ which was the first of many sermons for which I am heavily in Vandeever’s debt.

All this is prefatory to saying that I have just now returned from the Conservatory, loaded to the gunwales with pitch, reeking with pitch — pitched within and without with pitch, like the Ark. Vandeever was standing in the far corner of his studio, when I entered, twirling a small padded mallet in his bony fingers and gazing vacuously at a huge chunk of brightly polished metal suspended from the ceiling by a silk cord. I had noticed the thing on previous visits and had always meant to ask about it.

‘Well,’ I saluted, cheerily, ‘what’s the good news to-day?’

Vandeever tapped the cannon-shaped object with his mallet, and a soft, mellow tone drifted lazily out of it, swelling until it filled the room like the smoke of incense.

‘That is the good news, to-day, my friend,’ said Vandeever, solemnly. ’That is A! It was A all day yesterday. It will be A all day to-morrow — next week — a hundred years — A!' Once more he tapped it, very softly, and it was as if the censer had swung again. Indicating his general environment with an all-inclusive sweep of the mallet, he continued, ‘The soprano, across the hall, she wabbles and flats abominably: the piano, next door, it is out of tune: noise and confusion all about me here — but this —’ he caressed his fetish — ‘this is A!

Anyone required to dig up ninetyfour sermons per annum would know just what to do with that. It might be well to try out the sermonic significance of it on Vandeever.

‘It is a joy to find something constant in this unstable old world,’ I murmured, piously; for I felt that I was going to be talking about God, presently. ‘Our houses burn up, our ships go down, our bubbles of ambition burst; but He is ever the same — without accidents, impulses, moods or caprice. We always know just where to find Him — don’t we? ’

Vandeever had been too busy with his own thoughts to follow me, for his reply was irrelevant.

‘International pitch!’ he growded. ‘Bah — what a word! International! How we do love to slosh about with big words — universal, cosmic, interracial, international — it will be a thousand years before we have need of them! ’

‘Tell me about “ international pitch,” ’ I demanded. ‘Does that mean that there is a standard note which all musicians recognize as the norm of tonic values?’ I have picked up something of Vandeever’s lingo, lately.

‘No!’ he snapped. ‘That’s precisely what it does not mean! You see, in 1859, the French Academy of Music decided to establish a standard pitch. They hoped to make it international. It was to be regulated by a tone vibrating at 435 per second in a temperature of 59° Fahrenheit. It must have been a cold day. The conference probably sat in cheap quarters. You know, the temperature of most music-halls is some ten to fifteen degrees higher.’

I recalled an occasion when I had heard Paderewski in an atmosphere which grew somewhat rich and nutritious as the evening advanced. Vandeever chuckled and remarked, apologetically, ‘Very sensitive to draughts!’

With chastened spirit, I rushed him back to the main issue. ’You were saying that the temperature of the music hall is likely to affect instruments pitched for stability at 59°.’

Heedless of my remark, Vandeever went on, ‘Each of the great musical centres of Europe had its old organ — no two pitched alike. It meant great expense to undertake such alterations as would unify them. The orchestra was more or less dependent, at that time, upon the organ. That’s what ails Europe, to-day!’ he shouted. ‘Too many old organs, each arbitrarily pitched ! Nobody willing to rebuild his organ to conform to a standard! Each demanding, “If we must have an international pitch, take it from me!” ’

The homiletic value of this was clear. One school of thought, meeting in the frigid zone of a high moral altitude, proposes a norm of conduct that promptly puts half the orchestra out of tune, down in the overheated atmosphere where most people have to live. And, of course, anybody could see that all Europe had stuffed its pockets with cartridges because each state had its own ancient and unremodelable organ. But where did we Americans come in? I asked Vandeever.

‘Oh, as to that,’ he responded, hopelessly, ‘we have no such thing as “national”— not to speak of “international” pitch. Not because of ancient organs, however. We hate anything that does n’t smell of fresh varnish,

‘But our pitch has been going up — up — up! It’s the speed has done it! You know — this ungodly gait we travel! Seventy miles an hour by steam on the rail; forty miles by gasoline on the open road! Walk fast — talk fast — eat fast — hurry, hurry, hurry! Be strenuous! Be stimulated! Be spicy!

‘You remember that execrable tune brayed forth from every other open door and window, a little while ago — “Too Much Mustard”? That is the trouble! It began with mustard, when no normal person really needed mustard. Then, it was more mustard! Then quite enough mustard! At length, even the hardened and calloused were howling that the limit had been over-reached. “Too Much Mustard” — that is our problem!’

At this juncture, a thin-necked lad appeared, with a little black coffin under his arm, and Vandeever followed me to the door, still warning me against the Ides of all the months in the ghosts’ calendar.

‘The fiddles are screwed up to the very point of caving in! The woodwinds have to transpose to another key!’

The door slammed, just as the kettle-drums were having their little tails twisted to satisfy the demands of a wicked and perverse generation. I wish he had said something about the oboe, which, they say, cannot be tuned, no matter what happens. Ah; I have it! The oboe is my senior deacon. Nor rising heat, nor accelerated gait, nor surfeit of mustard, nor any other creature can increase the number of his vibrations.