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Performing: Different tunings required for these sonatas.

From Jonathan Stuchell
Posted January 8, 2006 at 10:36 PM

I want to work on the Biber sonatas which require scordatura tuning. I have the sheet music. I retuned to GDAD, which was notated for one sonata, but it didnt sound right when I played it. How do I go about this? Anyone?

From Judy Terwilliger
Posted on January 8, 2006 at 11:24 PM
It's my understanding that scordatura is more a notation than a tuning. You should be able to tune your instrument to the notes indicated and then play the music "normally" as if your violin is tuned to the normal g,d,a,e. There is some additional information on scordatura on the viola d'amore webites. (google violadamore)

Hope this helps.


From Kenny Choy
Posted on January 8, 2006 at 11:25 PM
Does your copy of the Sonatas have 2 lines, one for tuned-string playing and the other for ordinary GDAE tuned-string playing? If you have tuned the strings accordingly, you should be playing the "tuned" line.
From Eric Godfrey
Posted on January 9, 2006 at 02:42 AM
The sonata in question (GDAD tuning) is #10, "The Crucifixion" (last of the 5 sorrowful mysteries). This means that the only string that is retuned is the E string, tuned down one whole tone to D. The first note in the Praeludium in the scordatura version is a A (on the E-string), which you play as if an A with the 3rd finger (1st position). However, because the string is turned down one whole tone, it will sound as a G. Etc. - that's how it works. This is the easiest sonata to start with, as only one string has to be retuned.

Playing scordatura (well) is not easy, because your fingers are playing one thing, but ears hearing another, and the strings are tuned differently in each of the 15 sonatas. You need to simultaneously monitor finger position and what the sound should be. And then after you have the technique straight, you need to switch focus to style and interpretation. With practice it gradually starts to feel natural. Having perfect pitch doesn't hurt. I strongly recommend studying a recording so you can see how the music is supposed to sound, if you are doing this for the first time.

You don't say what edition of the music you have. I own one from Belwin Mills, which has 2 violin parts: one in scordatura, with the retuning indicated at the start. And one with the notes transposed to normal violin tuning (GDAE), so you can play through it "normally" and hear how the notes should sound. Very helpful.

These are beautiful sonatas (I've played through most of them and performed a number of them as an amateur). Biber achieves wonderful sonorities and chord effects with truly ingenious retuning, and there is lots of beautiful music contained therein, it isn't just gimmicks. They sound good with a harpsichord, but even better with a baroque-period organ as accompaniment.

One important caution: constant and radical retuning of your violin will be very hard on the instrument, especially those sonatas in which you tune up. For example, this is true in #11, which requires not only tuning the E-string down, but reversing the A and D strings; or in #12, in which the G string is tuned up by a 4th (I suggest substituting a D). If you are serious about learning these pieces, to the point of performance, I recommend using multiple instruments, and choose the combination of sonatas judiciously to minimize retuning strain. Plus you'll reduce the expense of broken strings and not have to worry about a shifting or bending bridge. A luthier would have to tell us if frequent changes in string tension might affect the instrument in other ways (e.g., sound post), but I can't imagine that this would be good for the violin. I wonder what they did in Biber's time.

Hope these comments are helpful - I think these are truly wonderful pieces. Also see a thread a few months ago about the solo Passacaglia appended to the set of 15 sonatas (hey, no retuning required for that one!).

From Jonathan Stuchell
Posted on January 9, 2006 at 04:48 PM
Thanks for your responses. Eric, I have the Kalmus edition which has a scordatura part and a
regular part. Yes, the Passacaglia is what got me interested in playing the others. I think I will get John Holloway's recording.

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