Isacoff, Stuart (Michael) 1949-

views updated

ISACOFF, Stuart (Michael) 1949-

PERSONAL: Born May 20, 1949, in Brooklyn, NY; son of David and Hannah (Zwirn) Isacoff; married Adrienne Lisa Kalfus, January 23, 1972; children: Nora Miriam, Rachel Beth. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A., 1971, M.A., 1973.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—Piano Today, 223 Katonah Ave., Katonah, NY 10536.

CAREER: Pianist, composer, writer, and lecturer. William Paterson College, Wayne, NJ, instructor, 1977-80; Oxford University Press, New York, NY, consultant, 1978-80; Institute for the New Age, director of arts program, 1980-82; Keyboard Classics (became Piano Today, 1995), Katonah, NY, founding editor, 1981—. Ekay Music, Inc., Katonah, director of product development; Sheet Music (magazine), executive editor.

MEMBER: Music Critics Association, American Liszt Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: Martha Baird Rockefeller grant, 1975-76; Deems Taylor Award, Association of Song-writers, Composers, and Publishers, 1987.


Dr. Johnson's Piano Method, Amsco Music Publishing Co. (New York, NY), 1976.

Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

"music for millions" series

From Rags to Riches, Volume 66, Consolidated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1976.

Easy American Piano Classics, Volume 76, Consolidated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1978.

Miles Davis, Volumes 79, 89, Consolidated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1978, 1979.

Charlie Parker, Volume 81, Consolidated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1978.

"jazz time: in the styles of the jazz greats" series

Flute and Keyboard (score), Boosey and Hawkes (New York, NY), 1991.

Saxophone and Keyboard (score), Boosey and Hawkes (New York, NY), 1991.

Tenor Sax and Keyboard (score), Boosey and Hawkes (New York, NY), 1991.


Gregorian Chant for Recorder (arrangements), Amsco Music Publishing Co. (New York, NY), 1975.

Thelonious Monk (arrangements; "Personal Instructor" series), Consolidated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1978.

Skill Builders: For Flute (score), G. Schirmer (New York, NY), 1979.

The Giant Book of Children's Songs (arrangements), edited by Milton Okun, Cherry Lane Music Co. (Port Chester, NY), 1993.

Also author of Twelve Jazz Preludes, 1980; Jazz Solos for Trumpet, 1984; Jazz Solos for Tenor Sax, 1984; Jazz Solos for Alto Sax, 1984. Contributor to books, including the The New Grove Dictionary of Music in America, and to periodicals, including the New York Times, Keyboard, Stagebill, Symphony, Connoisseur, Musical America, and Chamber Music.

SIDELIGHTS: Stuart Isacoff, editor of Piano Today, is the author of Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization, a study of the challenges and changes to Pythagoras's findings in the sixth century that the harmonious intervals of the musical scale are mathematically fixed and are key to explaining the universe.

Ruth Franklin wrote in the New Republic that "for thousands of years, from the ancient Greeks to the Church fathers to the Enlightenment, the existence of such a key was not a fantasy but a premise of intellectual life, and the key was situated at the intersection of music, science, and religion. The proportions that govern musical harmony, causing certain tones that vibrate together to produce a beautiful sound, were believed to regulate also the positions and the motions of the celestial bodies. These proportions—simple ratios built on the integers, 1, 2, 3, and 4—were proof of the divine organization of the cosmos."

A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that when an instrument was tuned in accordance with early dictates, "it could be played only in certain keys and was limited to intervals of the octave, fifth, and fourth. This was not a problem until keyboard instruments came into prominence and composers made increasing use of the third and sixth intervals."

Harmonies and melodies became more complex, beginning with the plainchant music of the Catholic Church, the most well known being Gregorian chant. "By the thirteenth century," noted Franklin, "these pieces had evolved into motets, which introduced the greater variety of polyphony, or counterpoint: the use of two, three, four, or more melodic lines simultaneously, as in Bach's fugues. But this music had not yet achieved anything like the Baroque era's sophisticated counterpoint: the fundamental harmonies continued to be based on the octave, the fifth, and the fourth—the 'perfect' intervals, which were believed to emulate the choirs of heaven."

Franklin said that eventually, "a problem with the entire musical system became more and more apparent. Theoretically speaking, if you were to take any stringed instrument and play a series of perfect fifths, each building on the last—C to G, G to D, D to A, and so on—after cycling through twelve fifths, you would end up on C again, eight octaves above where you started. But if the fifths are 'pure,'—that is, tuned exactly according to the Pythagorian ratio—the C on which you end up is slightly out of tune with the C on which you began."

Musicians and composers experimented with matching up the Cs for centuries. Since string players could adjust their pitch as they played, they weren't tied to tuning or temperament. But as the harpsichord and other keyboard instruments became mainstream, it was found that the easiest way to make the adjustment was to temper one in a chain of fifths. But this rendered some notes unusable. By the eighteenth century, equal temperament became the norm. Contributors to its evolution included de Vinci, Newton, Kepler, and Descartes. Rameau was responsible for the equally tempered scale, in which the ratios between the twelve tones in an octave are exactly the same. J. S. Bach incorporated the new tuning into his forty-eight preludes and fugues in each of the twelve major and minor scales. A Music Educators Journal contributor noted that these breakthroughs "made possible the music of Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and those who came after them."

Franklin wrote that "by essentially ending his book with Rameau, Isacoff ignores some of the more controversial temperament research of the past few decades. A strong camp of contemporary music theorists continue to argue against what they see as the 'homogeneity' of equal temperament. It is required for the performance of modern atonal music, which exists outside traditional harmonic systems. But these scholars argue that perfect equal temperament was itself merely a theoretical ideal until the introduction of scientific tuning methods in the early twentieth century. . . . These scholars also contend that the complete dominance of equal temperament in modern times has resulted in contemporary musicians' loss of the ability to distinguish between pure intervals and their tempered forms."

Franklin said that it is not enough that intervals sound "right," "they are supposed to sound sublime. It is worth recalling that 'temper' comes from the Latin temperare, which has among its meanings 'to restrain oneself.' It is the beauty of pure intervals that equal temperament restrains. Galileo described the pure perfect fifth as 'a tickling of the eardrum such that its softness is modified with sprightliness, giving at the same moment the impression of a gentle kiss and a bite.' You can strike C and G together on the piano, but that is not what you will hear."

Jamie James wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Isacoff "untangles the complexities of this issue with the aplomb of a virtuoso pianist playing scales. He makes an erudite and amiable companion, particularly when he describes some of the more fanciful musical systems that attempted to solve the problem."

"Temperament is chock-full of historical anecdotes and quirky details about the lofty personages who figure in this story," wrote National Review's Sara Maserati. "This is a whirlwind tour through the history of Western culture, told with flair and grace."



Booklist, November 1, 2001, Alan Hirsch, review of Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Greatest Minds of Western Civilization, p. 454.

Choice, July, 2002, B. J. Murray, review of Temperament, pp. 1970-1971.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2001, review of Temperament, p. 1402.

Library Journal, November 15, 2002, Barry Zaslow, review of Temperament, p. 69.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 2001, Ted Libbey, review of Temperament, p. E11.

Music Educators Journal, January, 2002, review of Temperament, p. 70.

National Review, June 17, 2002, Sarah Maserati, review of Temperament, p. 60.

New Republic, December 10, 2001, Ruth Franklin, review of Temperament, p. 40.

New York Times Book Review, December 16, 2001, Jamie James, review of Temperament, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, October 22, 2001, review of Temperament, p. 62.

Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 2002, Peter Williams, review of Temperament, p. 18.

Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2001, Robert P. Crease, review of Temperament, p. A10.

Wilson Quarterly, Christopher Lydon, review of Temperament, p. 116.

online, (January 6, 2003), Robert Finn, review of Temperament., (January 6, 2003), review of Temperament.*

About this article

Isacoff, Stuart (Michael) 1949-

Updated About content Print Article