Deciphering a new Viola dámore piece!

in hive-193816 •  4 days ago 

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So, I have an opportunity this summer to do some serious practice on the Viola d'amore as most of the festivals and concerts over this time have been cancelled (until mid August anyway...). That means it is time to start breaking out some new pieces! Normally, on Violin and Viola this would be the most enjoyable time for me... as I am pretty okay on my sight-reading (prima vista), and so it is just a chance to just read through some music with friends (or my wife... who is also a friend!).

However, on the Viola dámore it is a bit more of a chore due to the complete lack of standardisation in the instrumental repertoire across the centuries. Every composer has a specific preferred tuning for their compositions, and when you are talking about 6 or 7 stringed instruments, that can be quite the combination of different tunings that are possible! Then, each composer also has a very specific way of notating their scordatura (fingering charts)... if they do at all!

So, my first project for this week is to decipher the scordatura and tuning for this interesting little sonata, an Anonymous sonata from Saragossa... probably early Classical era if the music grammar and harmony is anything to go by. Someone has redone the sonata in a modern format with the pitch-sounding notation for the Viola dámore (and also an arrangement for guitar) which is the sheet music on the left. However, I tend not to trust myself with the pitch-sounding notation and prefer a scordatura due to the fact that I'm heavily ingrained into the viola/viola fifths tuning and the fact that the ever shifting tuning of the Viola dámore means that it is a potential disaster in a stressful situation like a concert!

So, on the right is the sheet music that is a facsimile of the manuscript that was originally published in the Anonymous collection. Scored for continuo and Viola dámore, it has NO hints to the tuning OR the scordatura code! I will have to try and nut it out by comparing it against the sounding pitch notation and the underlying harmony of the continuo... plus a sprinking of musical intuition! BASTARD!

Just as a quick aside... the bow that I'm using is an experiment in pairing the Viola dámore with an old Baroque Viola bow that I have but don't use so much anymore. It was my main Viola Baroque bow until about 10 years ago when I dropped it and it developed a hairline fracture that made it likely to break. However, after 10 years of non-use (I had quickly found a replacement bow)... I thought it would be nice to dust it off and try and pair it with an instrument... after all, it was (and still is...) a good sounding bow... just the danger of imminent breakage was what kept me from using it as my primary bow on the Viola.

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So... normally the tuning instructions would be placed here before the key signature.... just some blobs to indicate the chord to which the open strings of the Viola damore should be tuned to! However, it is missing... perhaps it is sitting hidden somewhere in the rest of the collection (after all this is the 5th sonata...) or hidden away in some ancient writing somewhere. Or more likely, as musicians tended to write for themselves... the composer found no need to remind himself of the obvious!

Still, the scordatura key signatures (a combination of odd sharps and flats that are different depending on the string and tessitura that they are written on) does give a small hint. The Bass is in the normal setting meaning that the piece is in D major, which is quite a common key for dámore (but by common I just mean that it is slightly more common... ), which means that I should probably try a D major tuning over the instrument as a beginning. So, from the treble to bass, d-a-f#-d-a-d?-a?.

The strings are hinted at when there is a chord with the open strings notated, which need to match (at least partly...) against the sounding chord. From there, it is just a matter of decoding the fingering patterns (scordatura) against the sounding pitch. The bass strings are a little unsure, as they are not directly notated... but given the piece is in D major, it is safe to assume that they should belong in the D chord at the relevant tensions for the string.

So, in the end, the piece does use a D major tuning for the instrument and the notation is a slightly confusing manner of notating using the violin fingering. Annoyingly, there are quite a few mistakes as well (well.. the thing was hand-written and type-set... so errors tend to be common). I am likely to go through with a pen a fix the mistakes and re-write some passages to make it more logical... and fix some really unnecessarily tricky string crossings.

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... and once the regular scordatura is figured out, then there are the additional markings. If you see the "clef" change at the end of the top line. I have to figure out exactly what is meant in that encoding. The violin only has four strings, so there will be by necessity an alternate notation for when you need to use more than the four strings that are encoded by a violin scordatura. Of course, like everything else... each composer has their own code. In this case, I haven't been able to nut out the code... either the composer uses the alto to represent the fingering on viol-A but has some wrong notes... or they are just notating the sounding pitch in bass clef. Most likely the latter, but not consistently!

Anyway, the piece is about 8 pages long (4 movements...) which would be a ten minute doddle on violin... but is currently taking up a significantly longer time on the Viola d'amore!

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Later in the year, I have to perform this Locatelli sonata (orginally for flute) that I plan to transcribe for Viola dámore. It's a really nice piece... but thankfully, I will be doing the writing myself... so my own secret tuning and scordatura coding!


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Have you done any recordings on youtube/3speak? :)

I'm not really a video sort of person... but I have a couple of Soundcloud recordings with this particular instrument!

Violin was my first dream when starting out, but alas there were no violins nor teachers at the time in my little town, but there WERE, however, a plethora of old pianos and several teachers.
So the rest as they say, is history. I still love the mellow sound of the cello.
Great post and good luck with this obscure Sonata @bengy

Thanks! I love the sound of the oboe... but I'm afraid that my lungs would collapse if I had to try and play that!... although, I'm quite partial to the harp as well... and perhaps one of these days, I will give it a shot as an amateur!

I've always loved the harp as well, and the oboe is so mellow.
The "Leader" of our little home church group (which I am barely involved with now days) is a "Titled English" something or other, the Third Baronet of something. Sir Anthony Buzzard (got his title because his great grand father was physician to King George III) is a classically trained oboist (is that correct?)
I made him a midi file of "Gabriel's Oboe" so he could play along with the instrumentation.
I think I did a bang up job on it, here it is with the oboe, this is all me, my computer, elec piano and my ears; no Oboe's were harmed in the creation of this video

I have never seen a viola dámore in person, but playing it must be very difficult, isn't it? I hope to see a video of you playing it soon :)

It is like many instruments... you get to know it and it is easier over time... and then you start learning new tricks and different things about it! At the start, the different fingering patterns is quite confusing, which is why I still tend to use scordatura... and of course tuning the 7+7 strings is really annoying, especially as the top playing strings are gut only and go out of tune quite easily. The strings are also much closer in curvature than a violin, which means that it can be quite easy to accidentally play the wrong string.... but despite all of that, it has such a beautiful transparent sound that isn't like a violin!

I'm not really a video sort of person, but you can hear an excerpt of a recording of the viola d'amore with me playing here:

Wow, such an interesting instrument. It sounds amazing, congratulations!

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