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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Have you tried playing 'scordatura' on your instrument?

October 23, 2010 at 11:40 PM

Have you ever heard this word, "scordatura"?

It means that you tune your violin, viola or other stringed instruments, to other pitches than those your would normally tune to. Lara St. John talked about scordatura this week in our interview: Mozart asks that the viola be tuned a half-pitch higher on all strings for his Sinfonia Concertante. Few actually play it this way, though maybe the St. Johns will start a new trend, with Scott St. John trying it for their new Mozart recording -- and liking it!

We find another example of scordatura in Mahler's Symphony No. 4, where in the second movement Mahler asks that the concertmaster play a solo on a fiddle tuned a tone higher. Mahler seemed to be going for an eerie, off-kilter effect, here, judge for yourself by watching the video below the vote.

My question to you is, have you ever tried playing your instrument scordatura (and I don't mean just playing it when it's really out of tune!) If so, what did you play?

Here is the second movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony:



From Vivian Hsu
Posted on October 23, 2010 at 11:55 PM

Some old fiddle tunes I play are traditionally played with altered tuning. The only one I've tried is AEAE, which is especially effective for tunes in seems to make the violin resonate more, maybe projecting better for the dancers to hear. I would like to try more tunings, but my pegs are so sticky and tempermental, I'm a little bit of a baby about using them more than I have to. Plus, the fluctuating string tension makes me nervous. Maybe I should just get over it. :) Other tunings I've been meaning to try are FDAE (key of F) and EDAE (key of E, usually minor)... eventually, I will get to them.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 2:23 AM

I don't remember what I played, although I've tried tuning G down a step to F.  But I wince at the thought of tuning higher -- and the possible string breakage.

Then, too, part of my hang-up is so-called perfect pitch.  I can tolerate tunings up to 442, no higher, and I don't like to go below 440.

Check out here what singer Renata Tebaldi, 1922-2004, an artist I very much admire, said on the subject as it relates to singers.  Search for "440" on the page.  If some string players, like me, wince at the idea of tuning to 445 or 450 or -- perish the thought -- anything higher, just think of the singers who have to stretch their own vocal instruments to match these high tunings.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 3:29 PM

 It seems that around the LA area 442 is pretty much the norm. I want to know who tunes to 450, that seems like, well, another note entirely!

From Colin Wrubleski
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 4:02 PM

J.S. Bach, Suite #5 in c-, BWV 1011 (transcribed for viola)

---> played it in recital complete with (as the part suggested) the top A string tuned down to G, thus C-G-D-G. The lowered top string really alters the sound of the instrument and generates some unusual sonorities. It's awfully difficult though to remember the correct fingerings on that top string (and to a lesser extent, as one goes from the D to the top string). And sight-reading the part at first drove me nuts~^^


From Matt Pelikan
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 3:58 PM

The edtion I have of the Bach BWV 1038 trio sonata came with a "violin discordato" part -- E and A strings tuned down a full interval. Took me a while to muster up the nerve to try it, but it sounds great for this piece.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 5:50 PM

Laurie, I looked up Piano Key Frequencies just how.  450 comes in roughly halfway between A-440 and adjacent Bb.

I suspect that some BPO recordings from Karajan's era were set at 445-450, because they definitely sound, to me, too high for A and too low for Bb.  Not sure which tuning BPO uses now -- anyone else know?  This clip of them with Ozawa in the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique sounds like, possibly, 442 -- I compared it with the tone on my 440 tuner.  442 is fine with me for listening; my pitch sense still says, "This sounds like A."

From Jefferson Dixon
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 6:47 PM

Solo part for Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens. Really fun part

From Bruce Berg
Posted on October 24, 2010 at 6:46 PM

I've performed a Vivaldi concerto in which the G string is tuned to B natural and the E is tuned to D natural. Also, Bartok Contrasts in which at the beginning the E is tuned to D and G to G sharp. This necessitates the use of 2 violins.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on October 25, 2010 at 2:38 AM

The Biber Rosary Sonatas use some pretty extreme scordatura, at one point even changing the position of the D and A strings, as shown in the liner notes of Andrew Manze's recording a few years back- the two strings are crossed behind the bridge!

From Peter Kim
Posted on October 26, 2010 at 2:44 AM

Danse Macabre and Paganini Concerto No. 1.

I also enjoy fooling around with viola and cello pieces (the latter played an octave higher) on my violin by tuning the strings down a fifth. I have to play mostly by ear though, as I have a hard time reading alto and bass clef.

From Russell Fallstad
Posted on October 26, 2010 at 9:32 PM

I use scordatura in TDF's Back in Black and Stairway to Heaven covers to get a lower base note.  I tune the "C" string of my 5 string Realist violin down to an "A".

It took a little getting used to, but gives a nice effect: you can see it here on our youtube channel:

Sometimes Adam plays "Kiss Me Quick, My Papa's a'comin" in our TDF shows, where he's tuned the "G" to an "A" and the "D" to an "E".  Gives a nice open ringing sound to the instrument.  Here's a video:

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 27, 2010 at 7:20 AM

Like Vivian, I've played some old fiddle tunes with AEAE.  It really sounds great in the key of A.  If you have a group of fiddlers playing with this tuning, the reverberations and sympathetic vibrations sound really great.  The sound is very "open" and strong.  This tuning is often used to great effect in Shetland and Norwegian music.  The effect is a little like the Hardanger fiddle, which has two sets of string, one which you play and one which you don't, i.e. there is a whole set of drone strings which vibrate in sympathy with the notes you actually play.  Different overtones can change the sound of the instrument  in a very big way.  Vivian, if you play scordatura frequently and have more than one violin, you can leave one violin in normal tuning and the other in AEAE.

I've also played some fiddle tunes with the fiddle tuned to GDGD.  It gives a very different sound from normal tuning,  It is warm, reverberant, and rich.  I've had less experience with this tuning than with AEAE.

This thread is very interesting for me because I did not know that some composers of classical music used scordatura tunings for the violin.

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