This composer messes with my tuning

Liza Ferschtman complains that busy old Heinrich Biber, a predecessor of Bach, requires four different tunings in the same piece, forcing her to switch between two violins.

In the baroque era, composers had nothing better to do with their time so they made it tough for musicians.

Watch.

The music’s not bad.

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  • Very interesting. Music history is not as straightforward as one would think. But one asks oneself: if a composer, in the baroque era, needs a different tuning to express various emotional states of a religious nature, is he not seeking his means on the wrong level? If particular tonal colourings are needed, there are other means available, which don’t need such drastic tuning measures, as JS Bach has amply demonstrated.

    • I think we can class that as a piece of “experimental” music.

      He wanted to try something new and he wanted to give it a fair shot in a fully fleshed out piece of music.

      Unlike most experimental music, it has survived the initial audition.

      That altered tuning she demonstrated (with the overlapping intervals) sounded like it was more about enabling certain note combinations and fingerings that might have been impractical with regular tuning in fifths.

    • Bach also experimented with scordatura tunings: in the 5th cello suite, the A string is detuned to G. In the 1st Brandenburg Concerto (F major), he employs the violino piccolo, which is tuned a third higher. No one could accuse Bach of living in formaldehyde; after all, this is the man who understood the characteristics of different temperaments.

      • A scordatura of one string is something very different from retuning 2 or more. Changing the tuning of one string downwards (which is not uncommon) is done to reach a lower note than otherwise would be possible, so: an ’emergency” measure. Upwards: a later type of measure, to get a particular, ‘strained’ sound (like in Mahler IV / 2nd mvt solo viola).

          • Yes, you’re right, it’s a violin. All strings are there tuned-up a whole secund, and indeed the score says that the player has to provide himself with 2 instruments.

    • Dear Mr. Borstlap, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was a highly renowned and very brilliant violin virtuoso himself. He was certainly not searching for “means at the wrong level” but used to musical ends what he had technically developed for himself. JS Bach stood on Biber’s shoulders as far as his writing for solo violin goes.

      • Nothing against Biber, but the music in the video sounds quite unremarkable and conventional, nothwithstanding the retuning which does not contribute anything to the musical idea.

      • Bravo. Biber wrote stunning works. And his scordatura is still a whole world better than much art music written post 1950.

  • Dear Mr. Borstlap: You should listen to Biber’s piece “Battalia.” At various points of that piece, he uses col legno (very rarely used until at least Berlioz), what was known 250 or more years later as the “Bartok pizzicato,” eight melodies in seven different keys, very odd metric patterns, and requiring the bassist to simulate a drum by placing a piece of paper under the A string and over the E and D strings! The first time I heard the piece I thought that it was a Baroque parody by a recent composer, say Alfred Schnittke! I could not believe it when I found out that it was actually written in 1673.

    • Don’t even bother trying to discuss with this person…
      He thinks his comments on slippeddisc are not to be debatted but worshipped because he thinks he is the Great Master of Musical Taste.
      Besides, he will never engage in any discussion because he is convinced that he is head and shoulders above us, the musical morons. Have you ever seen one thread where he gave the impression of being genuinely interested in what others had to say? I haven’t.

      You have three possibilities when dealing with him : go down on your knees and thanks Mr. Bortstlap for the infinite wisdon he consents to share with us, ignore him, or make fun of him and his pretentions.

      • As PS to Mr B I can testify that he always carefully reads other comments on SD and often agrees with them. But we have noticed that when he wants to express his changed opinions due to their influence, mrs B intervenes and sends him to the library and locks the door. Opinions deviating from mr B’s published books and articles she then seems to write-down in a hughe diary which is kept locked in the red salon, we have tried to break into the cupboard but did not succeed. From the library we hear today sounds of baroque music and according to the new cook it’s Biber (the French one has fled back to Senlis after the brexit result). So, he tries, but life is not perfect!
        Sally

        • PS: sorry for the typo, it’s PA of course. (My thumb is bandaged since wrongly placing a couple of mouse traps yesterday)

        • Recently in another part of this blog I had occasion to voice my dismay at Mr Borstlap’s dismal and futile attempts at wit. I rest my case.

  • Biber was a great composer. The Mystery Sonatas are masterpieces. By asking the performer to retune the violin into a different tunings each sonata possesses its own particular other-worldly ambiance. Even better, scordatura allows the violin to produce chords outside the ken of a fiddle tuned in fifths. In short, these pieces are revelations.

    His requiems are surpassingly beautiful as well. And don’t get me started on the celebrated “St. Polycarp Sonata” for 8 Trumpets. I have not enough words of praise.

    I guess I’m a Biber fan.

    While the video was certainly informative, I do wish that these fine musicians had demonstrated a sonata other than No. !0. It is a worthy piece, but has the least exotic re-tuning in the set. The bottom strings are in “normal tuning…it is only the E string that is changed…down a whole step to a ‘D’. Other sonatas have much more radical scordaturas and are perhaps more captivating for a listener approaching Biber for the first time.

    Please give Biber more time and attention Mr. Borstlap, you won’t be disappointed!

          • Greetings Mr. Borstlap…I’m happy that you enjoyed the “Laetatus” and are beginning to appreciate Biber’s genius. I hope I played a role in this. When it comes to Biber I am a bit of a proselytizer.

            As for the “new age-y” rendition of the First Mystery Sonata,that I shared in a previous post, I would like to briefly delve into why I chose that particular performance. My library has five recorded versions of the Mystery Sonatas … ranging from E. Melkus’s and Susanne Lautenbacher’s pioneering work from the late ”60s (which started me off on my life-long Biber binge) to the magisterial playing of John Holloway nearer to the present time. Andrew Manz’s reading is also a favorite; indeed I almost chose the very example that you chose in your recent contribution to this discussion.

            The question is…why did I chose the “quasi- psychedelic ” version to share? Perhaps it was an attempt to articulate the idea that the flamboyant (if not visionary) quality of Biber’s art is really strong stuff; so powerful that it is capable of seducing musicians of our own time to apply their own eccentric sonic ideas to his art.

            Quite frankly, it appears that the performer’s on this clip “toked-up” before they recorded. Or perhaps the music itself was the source of their altered state. No matter. Whatever the source of their happiness, I think it impressive that Biber’s music could inspire such a scenario. It speaks to the long reach of his music.

            When I have performed Biber, my hands have held a viola da gamba to help realize the continuo part. Certainly that is a sensible choice …and it works well. But when it comes to a towering figure such as Biber, lots of things work.

            Even jaw-harps.

            Especially jaw Harps.

  • Like the ancient Greeks before Christ, Biber had the disadvantage of living before Bach; thus he had no way of knowing what was good, true, and just. Sad, but (like Socrates) impressive that he managed to do as well as he did. 😛

    • That seems to be a bit silly comparison: the Greeks? Which Greeks? Only the philosophers – who were not religious redeemers, by the way? The Greek cultural achievers, upon which 2000 years of creative endeavor rests, being reborn time and again? The least you can say about ‘the Greeks’ (of whatever type) is that they really existed, while there is no shread of evidence that Chist existed. (To reassure Christian readers of SD: that does not mean that Christianity is not a great religion.)

  • The problems I see with this kind of composition are two. First, if you wish to use two violins of five, because there are five sonatas each one with different tuning, is that every violin has its own color, so I am not sure if this was the goal of the composer. Second, if you wish to use the same violin, you need to waste time tuning, disturbing the audience.

    In this case, better than “shot the violinist” perhaps worth “shot the composer”… (for those who do not know my joke is based on the original phrase…”Don’t shot the pianist”)

    • Certainly no need to shoot anybody 😉 I doubt that Biber himself would not have used several instruments for this cycle, and well chosen sound characteristics of different violins are to me more a welcome addition than a problem. In any case there will be quite a lot of tuning necessary which shouldn’t disturb the audience. Just take it as a retuning of the ears of the listeners as well.

    • Works such as the Mystery/Rosary Sonatas were probably not meant to be performed “in a bunch”. Given their ties to the stations of the Rosaries, it might be that they were written to be performed one at a time. I’ve collected about a dozen recordings of this cycle, and some of the performers have noted that when adjusting the scordaturas from one Sonata to another, they allow the instrument time to “rest”, in order to adjust to the different stresses the retunings impose on them.

      And when I’ve attended performances of Baroque music played by groups on period instruments, it’s not uncommon that tuning adjustments occur more often than concerts using modern instruments, due (I would guess) to the more variable response of the gut strings being used. So in Biber’s time, such periodic pauses to recheck tuning might have been a natural thing.

      • Agreed. And in those times making music was anyway a much more relaxed and calm activity than the current classical music practice.

  • “Liza Ferschtman complains that busy old Heinrich Biber, a predecessor of Bach, requires four different tunings in the same piece.” No, she doesn’t.

  • I already posted this but I’m posting a (slightly revised) version again because it was so buried in previous posts with all sorts of red lines demarking it that I was concerned that Mr Borstlap missed it. Plus there were a few grammatical errors that I couldn’t let stand. So…once again:

    Greetings Mr. Borstlap…I’m happy that you enjoyed the “Laetatus” and are beginning to appreciate Biber’s genius. Perhaps I played a role in this outcome . I hope so! When it comes to Biber the suppressed proselytizer in my character overcomes my usual timidity.

    As for the “new age-y” rendition of the First Mystery Sonata shared in a previous post:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysSLfwEk5l4

    Why did I select this particular eccentric performance to share? My fortunate shelf has five recorded versions of the Mystery Sonatas ranging from E. Melkus’s and Susanne Lautenbacher’s pioneering work from the late ”60s (which started me off on my life-long Biber binge) to the magisterial playing of John Holloway nearer to the present time. Andrew Manze’s Biber playing is also a favorite. Indeed, I almost chose the very same example that you did in your contribution to the discussion.

    Why then the “quasi- psychedelic” (your picturesque term) performance?

    Perhaps it was my attempt to articulate the idea that the flamboyant (if not visionary) quality of Biber’s art is really strong stuff; such a powerful musical narcotic that it is capable of seducing musicians of our own time to apply their own eccentric sonic ideas to his art.

    Is it possible that the performer’s on this clip “toked-up” before they recorded? Or perhaps the music itself was the source of their altered state? No matter. Whatever the source of their revery, I think it impressive that Biber’s music could inspire such a scenario. It speaks to the long reach of his music. Try as I might, I heard no “antics” from these splendid musicians.

    When I have performed Biber, my hands have held a viola da gamba to help realize the continuo part. Certainly that is a sensible choice …and it works well. But when it comes to a towering figure such as Biber, lots of things work.

    Even jaw-harps.

    Especially jaw harps.

  • She does not complain about the scordatura, at least not on the video. And even if she did, is that really the most interesting aspect to talk about?

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