Pag 1 and tuning

Edited: March 17, 2021, 3:58 AM · It occurred to me that tuning a violin up a semitone wasn't the same 200 years ago: - a) they only had gut, but also b) concert pitch was lower, so maybe it wasn't a big deal at all. Worth discussing?

I'm not sure what extremes of tension violin strings can tolerate (I was contemplating Indian violin tuning which can be scary). What's the worst you've dared?

Menuhin says that, for the Moses vars all on the G string, he tunes his violin to Bb,Eb,bb,eb for maximum resonance! In that case, it's only the G string that we might want to worry about. All we can do is get one of our lesser violins, and when it's due for a restring, tune the G string up and see how far it will go before it snaps, but I wouldn't want to risk harm to the violin or the bridge.

I ditched my Chinese VSOs too soon.

Replies (15)

March 17, 2021, 4:23 AM · We seem to have adopted A=415Hz for HIP performance, because it's a whole semitone lower than A=440 and some of us can transpose at sight if we have no access to HIP woodwind.

Surviving 18th century tuning forks, and un-modified organs across Europe show that pitch was sometimes much higher than now. Looking up "kammerton vs chorton" takes us through a maze (minefield?) of contradictions.

I have wondered at Bach's Magnificat existing in both D major and E flat major, at a time when tonal symbolism was rife. I wonder if it was a matter of performing in a church with a lower/higher organ without a second set of flutes, oboes etc?

Also, re-tuning strings in other intervals was rife up to Bach's time, and nowadays we don't tighten our strings peg-wise, but rather pay through the nose for ever tighter strings..

March 17, 2021, 5:44 AM · Pitch could have even been higher than 440 for a typical Paganini performance in the 19th C. Old Philharmonic Pitch was A=453 (ouch)
Edited: March 17, 2021, 5:47 AM · Gut can stretch. Some people specialising in the very early Baroque era play at A=466, which was early Venetian pitch. Some recordings of the Monteverdi Vespers are at this very high A.
Edited: April 15, 2021, 6:19 PM · In this discussion I miss two important arguments:

1. In short: for the majority of musicians before 1896 the pitch for a' was at or below 435Hz. Therefore tuning up a semitone or even a whole tone was not too much trouble.
In more detail: aside from some single musical institutions which may have used a much higher pitch than the modern a'=440Hz for some limited time and for the interpretation of a special composition only, the vast majority of musicians between 1500 and 1859 used a pitch for a¹ up to or below 435Hz.
In the first half of the 19th century pitch standards existed only inside single musical establishments such as Dresden Semper Opera 1815 to 1821 a'=423Hz, Paris Opera 1810 also a'=423Hz.
Around 1850 pitch in italian operas went up: Florence 437Hz, Milan 446Hz, La Scala 451Hz. Of course singers at these opera houses started a considerable controversy about the strain they could put on their voices by these higher pitches.
Therefore the french government appointed a comission in 1858 "to investigate the means of establishing, in France, a uniform musical pitch." That comission adopted a'=435Hz as the >>diapason normal<<.
Because of several missunderstandings about that french standard (and presumably because of some inherent english snobbishness) the Royal Philharmonic Society defined "Philharmonic Pitch as "A 439Hz, Bb 465Hz, C 522Hz at 68° degrees Fahrenheit" in the year 1896.
In 1939, an international conference held in London "adopted a1=440 as a standard of concert pitch, and this, with slight deviations, mostly upward, is the pitch which radio broadcasting and recording now tend to maintain with a stability and universality that no such standard ever had before."

One can read more about that and in greater detail in "Introduction to the collection of Studies in the History of Musical Pitch, by Alexander J. Ellis and Arthur Mendel, Amsterdam 1968".

2. When a historic string player had to tune to a much higher pitch it was common practice to switch to strings with a thinner gauge to keep the string tension at the same level.
Up to the year 1939, the begin of the ww2, most string players used gut strings. Since gut was the only option for most stringed instruments up to that time (i.e. harps, guitars, etc.) plain gut and wound gut were and still are offered in a wide variety of values for the gauge and unlike today these strings haven't been customized for a special instrument. In that days string players were used to customize their strings for their own. For that reason changes in the pitch (upward or downward) haven't been a big problem. The experienced string player just switched to an appropriate gauge for his strings to keep the string tension at a constant value.

I dare to say that the situation for string players before 1939 was much better than it is today where you get "modern strings" mostly customized for a special instrument and in a single gauge only. IMHO exactly this is the reason for the discussion above. Meanwhile only a minority of string players still know about that (historic) possibility and can therefore imagine to switch to a smaller gauge when tuning to a higher pitch.

Take care and have a nice day!

Edited: April 15, 2021, 8:53 PM · Traditional fiddle music from Cape Breton sometimes calls for "high bass" tuning, most often raising the G and D strings a full tone (AEAE). I have frequently played these pieces with my violin #2, fitted up with some old Obligato strings (medium gauge), and the effect is really quite striking. Haven't noticed a problem with either the strings or the violin. Checked with my luthier, and he said it shouldn't hurt the instrument at all. Scordatura. The strings wear out sooner, of course, but they can take the strain for a time. Undoubtedly easier on gut than on sythetics.
April 15, 2021, 8:51 PM · Parker, I have heard that tuning used. Very nice. Around here it's called something different though because high bass is ADAE. Here it's called cross tuning. There are lots of nice tunings, as there are for old time banjo.
Edited: April 15, 2021, 9:05 PM · Gut strings can take a decent amount of abuse, so tuning up and down is not an issue. What's more is that on some violins I heard there is evidence of the bridge being moved back and forth to adjust pitch, which would leave the tension unchanged. Sounds kind of stupid to me, because then the distances between notes would be off, but I'm just repeating what I heard.

I play with my tuning often, going up or down to change the response or tonal characteristics of the instrument. Honestly I could happily push a gut string up as much as a fourth or a fifth before I start getting worried. Thicker strings can survive higher tension.
Steel strings respond very poorly to this treatment. I wouldn't go over a minor third above the intended pitch for fear of getting my fingers whipped.

Synthetics, I think, fall in between gut and steel in terms of hardiness.

April 15, 2021, 9:38 PM · Much respect to scordatura composers and players, but I really do not enjoy employing it, even using gut strings. I know modern recordings of the Moses variations are generally played as intended, but I dislike editions where two piano parts are not included (or rather, I may like the edition, but not the fact that two piano versions were not included-I do have an edition that came with both parts). I would play the Moses in C minor, and Paganini 1 in D, even if the great Menuhin disapproved, or if Paganini himself turned in his grave.

But again, I do not mind recordings or live performances at the intended scordatura pitches, even if it's something I would not personally enjoy doing. Biber is most certainly out as something I would learn, but I enjoy recordings of the work.

April 16, 2021, 5:10 AM · I have tuned up a whole tone for the solo in Mahler 4 using medium Evah Green strings. No problem for the instrument that I could note, but having absolute pitch it is very disturbing to play a transposing instrument "Violin in D". Scordatura where the intervals between the strings are different is even harder for me. I have had the opportunity to play a viola d'amore a few times. The ADAD tuning is possible to get used to, but there is a F# string thrown in there to maximize the confusion. And much of the music has a lot of double stops - I guess partly because it is difficult to play on only one string ;) - and with the intervals between the strings being different it is quite hard. I have never needed so many fingerings in my music. The next time I get access to a d'amore I think I will tune it as an arpeggione and play the Schubert sonata - that could be fun.
Edited: April 16, 2021, 5:29 AM · "having absolute pitch it is very disturbing to play a transposing instrument"
I think I may have jokingly wondered about this on the FM forum. I guessed such people would be less likely to play the trumpet.
Edited: April 16, 2021, 6:46 AM · @Adalberto - the scordatura in Biber's sonatas isn't difficult to figure out. You just have to put your fingers down where the stave suggests and accept that the notes you hear aren't what you expect. I do wonder how any violinist, either today or in Biber's time, could be expected to repeatedly retune in between sonatas, and how gut strings could stand being tuned up by as much as a major third or even a fourth as compared with their usual pitch.
Edited: April 16, 2021, 8:19 AM · I agree with Steve. The notation is very easy to follow and self-evident. The extraordinary resonances created by scordatura or cross-tuning are quite exhilarating to play. Performers such as traditional fiddlers generally had a second violin pre-tuned and at the ready. Probably the same goes for violinists playing Biber sonatas. If you have to tune up your instrument, say to AEAE, or ADAE, etc., during a solo performance, and then adjust it back again to normal tunings, the strings will take too long to stabilize.
April 16, 2021, 2:31 PM · Parker, Old time banjoists tend to have zillions of banjos, each in a different tuning so they won't be slowed down in a performance. Sorry, I have to stop and retune, as the audience gets bored!
April 16, 2021, 5:14 PM · I get how scordatura works. It just seems difficult for my brain to accept putting down the finger to play a note, hearing a different one and not try to correct it.
For instance I can play a baroque violin tuned to 415 as long as it is a piece I know by heart. But if I have to read the music it becomes difficult.
I actually prefer the sounding notation used for the viola d'amore pieces I have played over scordatura. For me it is easier to have the notes written as they sound even if the E string is replaced with a D.

April 16, 2021, 8:25 PM · Ann -- thanks for that, I'm loving your image of all those banjos in their different tunings. :)

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