Recently, I recorded some string parts for a client, who had written pieces for a string quartet, but only sixteen notes of this fell below the range of the violas by only one semitone. Rather than booking in a cellist and the client paying one musician a minimum two hour session fee to play just 16 notes, with the agreement of the client I detuned my viola by a semitone and played them myself. Because they were covered by higher Bs written an octave above, it wasn’t noticeable that they were out of range at all, and the end result was very satisfactory. Scordatura used more for convenience than effect.
The word ‘Scordatura’ means ‘to mistune’ and it is the technique of changing the conventional tuning on a stringed instrument in order to change the tonal quality or harmonic possibilities of the instruments. Violins, violas and cellos are all tuned in perfect fifths and occasionally the pitch of the strings can be adjusted in order to create a special effect. A famous example of this is at the beginning of Camille Saint-Saens’s symphonic poem ‘Danse Macabre’ (Op. 40), where the solo violin has an E string detuned to an Eb. This creates an interval of a diminished fifth when played with the open A string and is used to describe death as a fiddler summoning all the skeletons from their graves.
One of the most celebrated innovators of scordatura was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber who wrote a collection of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, known as the ‘Rosary’ or ‘Mystery’ sonatas. Each sonata employs a different tuning for the instrument. Jeremy Eichler wrote: ‘The alternative tuning, known as scordatura, is not some minor technical detail. Each new configuration is a secret key to an invisible door, unlocking a different set of chordal possibilities on the instrument, opening up alternative worlds of resonance and vibration. The violin quite literally changes the essential qualities of its own voice’.
The great Italian violin virtuoso and innovator Niccolo Paganini also used scordatura in his first violin concerto, but this was for different reasons. Originally written in the key of D major, he instructed the player to tune the entire violin up a semitone and perform the work in Eb major instead, in order to give the solo part a more brilliant tonal quality.
When writing for string quartet or string orchestra, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bottom note of the cello and viola is a C. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the key of B major or B minor should be avoided, only that the tonic note of this key will fall a semitone below the range of both instruments. Having said that, Ludwig Van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest master of the string quartet, wrote more than one work for this format in the key of Bb major!