In this extract from June 2003, Pauline Nobes delves into the history and purpose of scordatura from the 17th-century onwards

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The opening of Bach’s Prelude for Solo Cello no.5, stipulating the tuning of the open strings

This is an extract from the article ’Peg-turning masterpieces: Heinrich Biber Baroque Scordatura’ from June 2003. To read the full article, click here

Scordatura has often been considered a fleeting fancy, an experimental technique of limited consequence used by a few little-known Baroque composers, even something which went out of fashion for good reasons.

With the rise of interest in historical performance, however, and an increasing amount of time devoted to such specialised techniques, scordatura is under the spotlight again - in particular on several widely acclaimed recordings of Biber’s Mystery or Rosary Sonatas. But for many, the consequence of this limited exposure, focusing on the top end of technical demand and specialisation, has been to place scordatura on a pedestal of unattainability.

The term ‘scordatura’ indicates the retuning (or literally translated, mis-tuning) of stringed instruments; its purpose includes enlarging the range of sonorities available, introducing and exploiting diverse tonal, harmonic and display effects, or simply facilitating the performance of certain chords, figurations and additional bass notes. While it is used with both plucked and bowed stringed instruments in solo and ensemble music, the focus here is on the solo violin.

The sound of the instrument is transformed by the retuning, with the extent and type of change dependent upon the tuning required. Even passages which are playable with standard tuning may be transcribed into various scordaturas purely for the effect on timbre. The most prolific period of composition involving scordatura was the second half of the 17th-century, particularly among the Bohemian and Austro-German violinist-composers, and even though at this time it was recommended only for the ‘masters’, the diversity of music embraced by scordatura is, in fact, remarkably wide. So before the wonders and wealth of opportunities afforded by scordatura become excluslively associated with Biber it is intriguing to consider the different ways in which this technical device was used and to examine the range of compositions besides the works of Biber.

The practical difficulty of constant retuning, especially to the more remote scordaturas, with the inherent problems of tuning stability as well as the complexities and confusion of visual-versus sounding-pitch intonation, may well have been in fact contributing to scordatura’s gradual decline: criticisms of faltering tuning were as pointed then as  they are today. A remarkable number of works in the solo violin repertory of this period retain the normal tuning of the second string to a’, and while this may be coincidental, it does present itself as a useful constant.

By definition, scordatura implies moving away from the normal tuning, thus involving more than the change of pitch seen in pieces such as Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, where the solo viola’s strings are all tuned up a semi-tone. By altering the interval between the strings, the scordatura violin becomes a mixture of several transposing instruments. With the exception of a minority of sounding-pitch notation where the fingering, and sometimes the tuning itself have to be calculated, scordatura pieces are written as they are played, in so-called hand-grip notation. In order for the notation to work, some basic rules of performance must be observed - keep to first-position fingerings and use open strings unless otherwise instructed or implied. The continual use of stopped strings and more sophisticated, higher-position fingerings are generally considered later additions to violin technique and not as relevant to this style of writing.

The most famous example of sounding-pitch notation is probably Bach’s Cello Suite no.5, where the A string is tuned down a tone. For violin, the earliest example of scordatura with sounding-pitch notation is Biagio Marini’s op.8 Sonate (Venice, 1626-9); the new tuning is specified during the course of the piece (g d’ a’ c”) and, having lowered the top string during a seven bar rest, a passage of sounding minor third is played more easily as predominantly perfect fifths.

Read: Peg-turning masterpieces: Heinrich Biber Baroque Scordatura

Read: Historically informed performance: Baroque revolution

Read: Ask the Experts: what to look for in a Baroque bow