Written by Laurie Niles
Published: October 9, 2015 at 7:47 PM [UTC]
Rachel Barton Pine's efforts on the viola d'amore got me to thinking about how foreign it would feel, to have strings tuned so differently. I have a hard enough time, trying to play anything on the guitar. But a seven-string instrument, that is tuned to D-A-F#-D-A-D-A? It's not something I've ever tired, and I'm guessing that at least initially, I'd be lost!
Which brings me to the fact that there are a number of pieces written for scordatura violin:
One that always comes to mind for me -- just because I like it so much -- is Mahler's Fourth Symphony, where the concertmaster plays a scordatura solo in the second-movement scherzo that requires the violin to be tuned up a whole-step. In the performances I've seen (and played in, never the solo part though!), the concertmaster simply has a spare violin at the ready, for this special part.
Scordatura is nothing new; Heinrich Biber required scordatura violin in his Rosary Sonatas, written in 1676. Mozart did it, too. A number of years ago, Lara St. John talked to me about playing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with her brother, Scott St. John, who played his viola part as Mozart wrote it: scordatura. That meant that the viola was tuned a half-step high, to Db-Ab-Eb-Bb. Very often, this piece is played without the violist opting for the scordatura tuning.
"Danse macabre" by Saint-Saëns requires the solo violin to tune the E string to an Eb -- not a huge change for the instrument, but certainly still something that requires some bending of mind and ear.
Most recently, I looked at a copy of Roman Kim's new arrangement of Bach's Air, thinking I'd make an attempt to read it -- until I saw that I would have to tune my E-string to a C#! It occurred to me at this point that, if you wish to practice something scordatura, you have to tune your violin that way to do so. An obvious observation, but still a bit of a barrier when you hit the reality of it. And to be honest, I didn't want to mess with my fiddle. It would make sense to tune a spare fiddle, if you have one, if you really want to learn and practice a scordatura piece.
So who has made the effort to do so? Have you ever played a piece that requires scordatura tuning?
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Besides the classical works mentioned, this practice is extremely common in many traditional settings, for example as discussed at length at http://fiddlingaround.co.uk/cross%20tuning.html, though they do provide the following amusing quote from James Scott Skinner: "All this sort of thing is pitiful, and makes the judicious grieve…The violin was never intended for such mutilation. An old idea was to tune the G and D strings to A and E and play reels etc. No artist would descend to such devices for the sake of mere applause. The province of art is to elevate and enliven, but surely never to tend to degeneracy."
As you suggest, Laurie, if one is doing this a lot then it is convenient to have a spare instrument cross-tuned and just leave that way for practice and performances, though one would still have to change for other non-standard tunings.
Off-topic, playing A=442, 432, 415, etc. tunings also create different sounds from the instrument, compared with A=440 (e.g. ref http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=11273).
The Bach requires the A to be tuned down to G, and this enables easy-to-play chords which would otherwise sometimes require thumb position antics in the first position.
The Kodaly is written in B minor and requires the C and G to be tuned down to B and F# respectively, thus enabling very sonorous chordal writing.
Most DDAD tune tend to use the low D (G) as a drone, of course, though you can manage to play notes on it.
Another good tuning is to raise the G one step and the E down one step, giving you ADAD. Fine Times at Our House uses this one, as do many other old Appalachian tunes.
At one time these tunings were used in classical technique, as well, of course- Paganini's Concerto No 1, when played with Orchestra, had the orchestra playing in E flat major, and the solo violin playing tuned a half step up. This basically shackles the resonance of the strings in the orchestra (who had no open string resonances) as compared the the solo instrument (which is playing in a very violinistic key with all open strings resonating and the tonic on an open string). Of course, this technique is useless with piano since its resonance is the same in E flat as D Major.
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