Scordatura notation

Heinrich Ignaz Biber

Scordatura notation was first used in the late seventeenth century as a way to quickly read music for string instruments where the tuning is not in the usual fifths.  Biber, his student Vilsmayr and Vivaldi among others all wrote works for violin in which retuning of the instrument is indicated. These were written using scordatura notation to make them easy to read. The tuning is usually given at the beginning of the music but the notation does not always indicate the note that will sound.  Instead, it tells you where to place your fingers as if you are playing in standard fifths tuning. In the eighteenth century the viola d’amore was usually played by violinists as a ‘novelty’ where a special sound was required.  As many different tunings were used, scordatura notation was a natural choice for many composers who were familiar with scordatura for the violin.  A variety of clefs are used.  Often a special clef similar to an alto clef is used but the music should still be read as if in treble clef. Strange key signatures are also often necessary.  These may include both sharps and flats and are needed because the fingering may require the placing of a finger to be, for instance, f natural on the third string, but f sharp on the first according to the particular accordatura (tuning of the strings). As with violin scordatura, one imagines that one is playing a violin (or in some cases a viola) tuned in fifths. Scordatura notation does not necessarily tell you what note will sound, but rather, where to place the fingers.  This is why it is sometimes referred to as a ‘finger’ notation.  It is generally used for the top four strings on the viola d’amore which are used the most.

Harmonia Artificiosa VII scordatura notatation
Biber - Harmonia Artificiosa VII scordatura notatati

As the viola d’amore has more than four strings (between five and seven, depending on the type and location), the commonest way of notating the lower strings is to use bass clef. This is usually notated at sounding pitch however.  In a few cases such as Biber’s Harmonia Artificiosa no. VII, a different method is used to notate the lower strings.  Biber uses a nine line staff.  The clefs used are based on alto clef (imagining that you are playing a viola).  The piece is written for a six stringed instrument. The upper part of the staff supposes that you are playing on the upper four strings and the lower part that you are playing on the lower four strings. This means that there are two ways of notating notes on the middle two strings.  However, with a little practice and preparation, this can be quickly mastered. When first learning this piece, I found that I needed to refer to a ‘sounding pitch’ version of the score in a few places and recordings were also helpful, but ultimately I find using scordatura parts much easier and it is often possible to sight read a piece that is notated in this way quite easily.

There are cases when composers make errors when writing in scordatura.  A notable example occurs in the obbligato part to “Tu dormi in tante pene…”  from Vivaldi’s opera Tito Manlio (1719).  The score in Vivaldi’s hand contains a passage which is unplayable as written and it is not clear exactly what is intended.  When editing this piece I tried many different possibilities but in the end I had to conclude that there was no obvious solution.  Vivaldi himself would have played the part in this opera and it has a number of alterations and crossings out suggesting that he possibly had some problems with it as a performer.  A later copy has a different obbligato part for violin instead.  It has been suggested that this copy was for use at a different location, possibly Prague.  Either Vivaldi was unhappy with the original version, or there was no-one available in that location who owned or could play the viola d’amore.  This is an indication that it was, even in the eighteenth century, a special instrument played by a few performers only.

A notable example which illustrates the need for scordatura notation is Ariosti’s repertoire for the viola d’amore which includes a large number of different tunings.  For more information on this see Thomas Georgi’s website at (opens in new window)  and his ground breaking recordings of the complete works of Ariosti for viola d’amore on BIS.  His research is described in detail in the sleeve notes and is well worth reading.  He has also edited a new edition of these works.  Two of the sonatas are published by primalamusica.  Details can be found at (opens in new window).  Further sonatas will be published by us and will become available as they are completed.