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Scordatura - The Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Biber

Scordatura – The Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Biber The famous Mystery Sonatas by Biber are naturally not a “mystery shrouded in legend,” but rather compositions very cleverly conceived with specific string tunings (scordaturas) to enable chordal playing on the violin. Read more about this here:

Someone who has familiarized oneself with the “pure har-monic tuning” of the violin can recognize that in the normal tuning of g d’ a’ e” the keys of G Major, D Major, and B-flat Major as well as G Minor and B Minor are particularly easy to play on the violin, and also sound particularly good because their main tones are anchored on the open strings (for more information see Jutta Stüber, “Die Intonationdes Geigers
[“The violinist’s intonation”]).

Around 1700, at the first high-water mark of violin playing in Germany, today’s normal tuning was merely one of many. The violinist re-tuned his instrument depending on the key, tuning the four strings in a manner that was particularly advanta-geous for the respective tonality. Joachim Quantz described the practice of the time: Many pieces were composed for which the violins had to be re-tuned. According to the com-poser’s indication, the strings were tuned in seconds, thirds, or fourths, rather than fifths, in order to make the chords easier to play.
Daniel Eberlin, Telemann’s father-in-law, proposed two thousand different scordaturas for the violin. During the second half of the seventeenth century the Salzburg Kapellmeister Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) enjoyed a reputation as one of the greatest violinists of the century, which he owed above all to the use of scorda-turas, to the exploitation of the technical simplifications and the tonal advantages that the scordatura offered.
For the famous Mystery Sonatas, of which there are sixteen, Biber used fifteen tunings:

Dorian, A Major, B Minor, Dorian, A Major, C Minor, F Major,
B-flat Major, A Minor, G Minor, D minor, G major, C major,
D Minor, D Major, C Major (Sonatas 1 and 16 are in today’s usual tuning in fifths: g d a e).

In Sonata 11, the A-string is tuned down to g’ and the E-string down to d”. This tuning has two octaves! This sonata contains passages in parallel octaves, which are now con-siderably easier to cope with than usual, using a “barré” fingering. Or in Sonata 13 in D Minor, with its minor third in the open strings, the chains of thirds are child’s play, since we only need the fingering for fifths, with the 1st and 2nd fingers in alternation with the open strings.

The violinists can play in-tune and flawless at sight. The sixths can be played similarly:





Legato is easy to produce and extraneous noises are avoided.

In Sonata 15 in C major, too, the fifths c–g–d are on open strings, which is especially advantageous since in this way the E-string, which is usually a bit too high, is avoided.
Martin Vogel has remarked: “The bothersome re-tuning is more than made up for by the resulting advantages: the fingerings become easier, some double and triple stops even become possible because of it: the intonation becomes better, the timbre richer, the sound bigger” (M. Vogel, “Die Lehre von den Ton-beziehungen” [“The doctrine of the relationship of tones”]. (The problem of string tension in scordaturas was known to Biber. He probably already employed gut strings of different gauges, as later perfected by Paganini.)

Paganini carried the playing in scordatura even farther in that he re-tuned his violin for certain keys. He played the Moses Variations, which are in E-flat Minor/E-flat major, with a b-flat–e-flat’–b-flat’–e-flat” tuning, thus with the tonic and fifth of the ground tone. Since the piece is played on the G-strng, the uppers strings and the most important overtones always vibrate along with it. The sound becomes enormous. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin always played the Moses Variations with the indicated scordatura in order to achieve maximum resonance.

To a certain extent it is eyewash, or rather earwash, to contend that these Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas by Biber are “highly virtuoso” and make “the greatest demands on the solist’s concentration and powers of imagination”. Even if this is contended “only” for advertising purposes, it presents a en-tirely false picture of this music and of the fundamental approach to scordatura as a means of making violin playing simpler and easier.

©  Troubadisc 

Recommended reading on this subject: Jutta Stüber, “Die Intonation des Geigers” (“The Violinist’s Intonation”) Bonn: Orpheus Verlag, 1989.  

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