Now, I have to admit I don’t think I’ve used Scordatura more than a handful of times in my entire violin-playing life, but thought it worth writing about anyway as it could be an interesting compositional technique to experiment with in relation to a string arrangement. Scordatura comes from the word ‘Scordare’ which means to ‘mis tune’ and applies to any piece or passage where the normal tuning of the strings is altered. One famous example is the violin solo at the beginning of Saint Saens’ ‘Danse Macabre’ which de-tunes the perfect fifth of the A and E string to a diminished fifth (the E coming down to an E flat) – to represent the dissonant interval of the devil! Some violinists however prefer to simply play the passage with normal tuning so that they don’t have to fiddle around re-tuning the violin during the piece.
Apart from when you want your strings to represent the devil (!) there are other reasons for using Scordatura: one is to extend the range of the instrument down or upwards and the other is to change the tone colour of the instrument, either making it brighter by tuning upwards or mellower by tuning downwards (an example is Paganini’s violin concerto no. 1 in D major which the composer instructed should be played in the key of E flat major by tuning the entire violin up a semitone to create added brightness).
In terms of string playing, I am scratching my head to think of a single instance where I ever de-tuned my violin during a piece of orchestral music, but that’s not to say that an innovative or enterprising composer should be put off from trying it, to create an effect. With a whole section (e.g violas) having a string de-tuned, it could create some striking sonorities and would be well worth trying out if a suitable mood is required from the strings.