Update, Aug. 2019

About Scordatura and the Viola D'Amore

Much of 18th century  music for viola d'amore is written in a form of notation called Scordatura, which means, literally, 'mistuning.'


(Short digression: It is really too bad we use this word "Scordatura." According to Marianne Ronez, the first use of Scordatura was in the early 19th century. Only to the post industrial revolution mind is this kind of alteration a mistuning. In the 18th century they termed it Accordatura.)


German composers, among them Biber and Schmelzer, were particularly fond of "mistuning" their violins to create new sonorities and make possible chords and passage work not playable on a conventionally tuned violin. Scordatura tunings are based on the tonic chord of the piece of music in question, and are usually specified at the beginning of the work. Scordatura also has the additional advantage of making the viola d'amore available to anyone experienced in playing the violin, so I suspect the invention of the instrument is connected with the invention of scordatura; the two partitas of Petzold on my solo CD come from a manuscript in scordatura kindly provided by the Saeschesische Landesbibliothek in Dresden. Please see the CD Contents page for facsimiles of these two works.

A manuscript in scordatura tells the violinist how to tune his d'amore and where to put his fingers, but not what note to expect, consequently many modern trained musicians find it an obstacle rather than an aid. However, for the composer of the turn of the 18th century it was very useful; any violinist could be given a viola d'amore and a scordatura part and read it right off. Moreover, scordatura enabled the composer to suit the key and the writing to the oratorio, opera or sacred work in question, consequently there are about 30 different tunings from the first half of the 18th century, 75% of which are scordatura tunings. The violist d'amore of the scordatura school had to be principally a violinist, for whom the viola d'amore was an accessory, a way of extending his range, color, and instrumental possibilities.

This is an interesting manuscript example, with some of the typical violin based scordatura features. The use of treble clef is unusual, more common in the 18th century is the use of alto clef, but to be read with violin lines and spaces, see below! The composer, Grob, is known by this single work a Partita for viola d'amore, viola da gamba and basso continuo.

The original is held in a library in Sweden.  The tuning is first thing given, and as only five strings are specified, and only four used, the piece is likely a very early work and was probably first played on a viola d'amore with wire playing strings and no sympathetic strings. Please look at the first two notes. Although they appear to be a dissonance, of a major second, try to imagine that you have retuned your violin so the e string is a c and the a string is a g. Finger a fourth above the g, i.e., the place where the d would be on the a string, and play it with the open top string, and out comes a unison c. This is a lovely work. Update: There are solos that I feel must be by this same composer in the Gottweig edition. Vol. 2, Suite XIV, not the first and last movements, but the Allemand, Courante, and Gavotte.


Here is an Anonymous partita for viola d'amore solo with basso. Note the use of alto clef, but violin fingerings:

The tuning of the instrument is the first thing given, and is in bass clef, but with the strings notated an octave lower than they sound. This way of using the bass clef is often seen in 18th century manuscripts. Because this viola d'amore has 6 strings, and the violin 4, something has to be done to notate passages on the lowest two strings. In this example, as well as many others, bass clef, but in real notation is used, see the 3rd line, second bar.


Update Aug. 2016. There are a number of Suites in Gottweig that seem to me quite similar to the Anon composer above. Please see Suite XVI, vol. 3, page 50.

Here is another solution to the problem of using 4 stringed instrument skills as a notation basis for a 6 stringed instruments. There are only five works that I know of that use this 9 line stave, three of them in the Göttweig manuscript. These five works also use viola fingerings as the basis for their scordatura, the only such examples in the repertoire of the viola d'amore. 


This is a portion of the first movement of Partita VII from Biber's collection of scordatura trios, Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa diversimode accordata, a work in 7 movements for two violas d'amore and basso continuo, originally published in 1696; this is a facsimile from the 1712 reprint. The tuning given is for 6 strings. The 9 line stave is Biber's way of extending the fingerings of the ordinary 4 string viola to the viola d'amore. I find I read this particular notation either from the bottom up, as the bottom four strings of the viola, and so the first chord is the lowest four open strings and sounds cgc'eb'. Here is the first page of this movement with fingerings written in.

Here is a video of this movement. Please note that we are playing in d minor, so a whole tone higher than the music is notated. This is because with commercially avaiable viola d'amore strings d minor is a whole lot easier.

Note the time signature and the bar lines are not quite as we would use them now.

By the time I get to what would usually be the 6th full bar I am reading from the top down, as the top four open strings of the ordinary viola, and with the tuning taken into account the chord comes out c'eb'g'c''. In the middle I try not to think too hard. On the second stave where the music goes into fourth position on the top string Biber uses treble clef. There is one other example of this 9 line stave notation surviving.

Update 2016. There are now known to be several more very interesting solos written in this notation, available in Gottweig. Please see vol. 4, page 10, for a musical work that is by a composer who really felt harmony strongly. These, too, could be by Biber. The editor makes a distinction between 9 and 10 line systems in the Gottweig edition. Since I find I read them  the same way, my take is that that the copiest didn't have a 9 line rastrum. Here is what it looks like:



Now please have another look now at the manuscripts on the CD contents page. Or open these links in another tab: Pezold's Suite in A
Pezold's Suite in F.
While Pezold, (or Pisendel) used a violin scordatura, (i.e., they were hording a viola d'amore but pretending to play a violin,) they placed an alto clef at the beginning of the staff. I don't know why this was done, but it is typical of the 18th century, as I said before. In these manuscripts where the lowest two strings are needed, either bass clef (sounding an octave higher than written) is inserted,  or a vertical  arpeggio wavy line drawn, meaning to sound all the open strings.

There was another approach to tuning the viola d'amore that held promise of being useful for all keys, unlike the scordatura school, which was tied pretty much to the key the instrument was tuned in. The Darmstadt circle of composers, including Graupner, Locatelli, Suess, Telemann and others, preferred tuning their d'amores in fourths in a lower, alto, tessitura. When they wanted to play in sharp keys they retuned their d'amore up a step and down a half step, and provided transposing parts. It was within this group that I believe the viola d'amore was used more frequently than any other place or time. This repertoire has hardly been played. Amoung my youtube favorites are a few examples from this corner of the viola d'amore world, including Graupner and Telemann.

This is a solo by Suess, held in University Music Library in Uppsala, Sweden. This one I couldn't find in the online catalog. The clef is French violin clef, but is meant to sound an octave lower than written. The tuning is, from the top down, bb' f'c'gdBb (F). In the Darmstadt school, there is no trick to playing the viola d'amore, no pretending to play the violin. You have to learn to play the same way you learned the violin or viola way back when. I wrote in the fingerings over every note to begin with. The lines and spaces are therefore the same as bass clef, although sounding an octave higher, and that's how I think about it. Note that the trio is in the parallel minor, Bb minor, quite unusual in the 1730's, and I wonder if it was Suess's way of showing off a capability he had that would be difficult indeed in the scordatura school.


One work from this Darmstadt tuning in 4ths school, that is played fairly often, is the Telemann Concerto for Flute, Oboe d'Amore, and Viola d'amore, with strings. You can download the original from Dresden by clicking on this: Telemann Concerto in E.

This is not just an excellent work, but also an wonderful example, in my opinion, of how well Telemann could write to the specific instrument in hand. The solo viola d'amore part for this work, is the most practical one I know, in terms of making life easy for the player. If you tune your Darmstadt tuning down a half step, to a' e' b f# (and this is all you need for this piece,) the music falls into your hand easily. Try for yourself.

If you leave your top d'' string in place, you can play up the octave all the passages in the tuttis where the original player, Kress, dropped down an octave so he didn't have to shift. No one ever noticed when I tried out various options for this, in the dozen or so times I have performed it.

If you look into the history of recording of this Telemann Triple concerto, you will find a few players have played their part an octave high all the way though! Well, they took the french violin clef literally, and had too little exposure to the rest of the viola d'amore repertoire of Darmstadt to suspect that there was any option.

The scordatura school flagged its manuscript parts with the alto clef (used as a convention, you still read the parts fingered as a violin in treble clef, and play in a violin tessitura.) The Darmstadt School flagged its parts with the french violin clef (to be played an octave lower than written.)