How but in custom and ceremony

Are Innocence and Beauty Born?

—William Butler Yeats


Circular Temperament

Thursday, November 15, 2012

There was a time, before the eighteenth century, when most composers wrote their music to be played on only a few keys. In those days, one scale of the keyboard was precisely tuned, while the others remained in various stages of dissonance. Musical composition was limited to those keys that were tolerable.

Then came Johannes Sebastian Bach, that composer of sublime music. He popularized a method of tuning that would allow him to compose in all keys. A single key was tuned, and the other keys were adjusted with small compromises. “These compromises,” writes Ellen Sandbeck, “meant that all the scales were equally imperfect and minutely out of tune; none were perfect, but all were useable.”

To celebrate the potential of this tuning technique, called “circular temperament,” Bach wrote a beautiful series of preludes and fugues he called Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, or The Well-Tempered Clavier. It was not the first example of pantonal music, but it was the most influential. Tuning has never been the same since, nor has musical composition.

“I can’t give all of myself to each thing” is a confession I have often had to make to myself and to my family. Living a well-tempered life is like playing a well-tempered instrument; neither is possible without compromise. One aspect of life may perhaps be tuned to perfection of a sort (for perfection means completeness, and is not a thing of isolation), but the others will jar an unpleasant note. Tune the scales against each other, and none will be exact, but all will contribute to a greater scope of harmony and beauty.

In her book The Pace of a Hen, Josephine Moffett Benton writes about the struggles of a housewife to reconcile the many demands upon her time, energy, and interest. “Instead of worrying about her diverse interests, she can learn to give thanks for the richness of her existence, for the wholeness she may attain as she weave together the varying selves of her feminine nature.”

This requires discipline—an organization of energies, an art of balance. It is a delicate art that I am slowly, sometimes painfully, learning. My personality, unchecked, will take one aspect of life and practice it to perfection, to the neglect of everything else; but instead of looking at the various areas of my life and interest as isolated things, I must learn to look at them holistically.

When I try to practice one area to perfection, it becomes not good and beautiful, but distorted and ugly, like a cancerous growth. In surpassing its natural bounds it becomes like the sunflower of Wendell Berry’s essay—overgrown, rank, and broken. The beauty of an individual’s potential, Berry believes, has as much to do with his place in the community as with himself. Likewise, the beauty of one aspect of life is partly defined by how well it fits with the others.

There is a certain amount of tension that is necessary, just as the strings of a piano must be taut in order to produce beautiful music. If the strings remain lax, they will be dumb; if they are wound too tightly, they will snap; if they are carefully adjusted, they will sing. May my life be a living hymn to the glory of God.

Perfectionists like me are always confronting the despairing thought that we haven’t enough time to do everything we need to do as thoroughly and perfectly as we want to do it. Fundamental to the wise organization of our time and energy is the recognition that we can’t “do it all” to have it all. Rather, we must in order to achieve the wholeness of life and purpose for which we were created.

(Dear perfectionist prone to burn-out, don’t forget to include play in the circle of your day. In his poem “The Word,” Tony Hoagland reminds us that: “Among your duties, pleasure/ is a thing,/ that also needs accomplishing.”)

Mrs. Benton concludes the first chapter of her book: “A woman at last discovers that love is the gold thread running through the pattern, binding all her seemingly disparate activities together. If she willingly accepts the slow pace and the seeming scatteredness of her years, her life will be blessed and give blessing.” ❖


“The Well-Tempered House.” Green Housekeeping. Ellen Sandbeck.

The Pace of a Hen. Josephine Moffett Benton.

“Men and Women in Search of Common Ground.” The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry.

“The Word.” Tony Hoagland.


December 3, 2010     Originally published as “The Well-Tempered Life” on the blog Cabbages and Kings.

November 2, 2012 Revised and expanded as “Circular Temperament” for publication in the e-magazine Maidens of the Master, Vol. 2, Issue 6, Autumn 2012.

November 15, 2012  Revised and published as “Circular Temperament” on the blog Linnet on the Leaf.

© Copyright

Samantha Little holds the copyright for the article “Circular Temperament” and other content of this site. Readers are welcome to print this page for personal reference only, or to share the URL with others. Please do not reprint or modify this article without written permission from the author. Thank you for your integrity.

The image “Vose and Sons Piano Soundboard” is republished on this site in accordance with the GNU Free Documentation License under which it was released. Unless otherwise noted, Samantha Little holds the copyright for images published on this site.