It’s not often that audiences want to hear verstimmt or “out of tune” music, but the intentional mis-tuning of string instruments (a practice also known as scordatura) was very popular in 17th Germany, and its surrounding regions.
A very satisfying program of all scordatura music comes together in a 2014 Ars Produktion release from the baroque ensemble, Der Musikalische Garten.
Johann Erasmus Kindermann and David Pohle
The use of scordatura seems to have gained popularity in the 16th century with Italian lute music, extending from there to viol repertory before violins eventually adopted the practice. One of the earliest documented German scordatura pieces for violin was by the Nuremberg based composer Johann Erasmus Kindermann in his 1653 Canzon settima. A violin is normally tuned in fifths, G, D, A, E, but for this piece, Kindermann indicates that the violins should instead be tuned to an A major chord: A-E-A-with a third on top—C#. Changing the ordinary tension of the strings significantly affects the sound and timbre of the instrument. By adjusting the intervals between the open strings, the scordatura also facilities tricky string crossings, as well as difficult (or sometimes impossible!) chordal passages.
The Rost Codex and Klagenfurt Manuscript
Another German composer, David Pohle—who was a student of Heinrich Schutz—uses the same A major tuning in his scordatura sonata for two violins creating a rich, open and sonorous sound in sustained passages of chords from the violins. This David Pohle piece is one of three on this recording that come from an important manuscript, the Rost Codex. One other piece is by Jan Ignaz Frantisk Vojta, but a great many in the manuscript are anonymous works.
The recording draws from other manuscripts as well. Several pieces come from the Klagenfurt manuscript of 1680, still others from the Kromeriz collection.
The city of Kromeriz, after being decimated by plundering during the Thirty Years War, and a subsequent visit from the Black Death, was brought back from the brink in the 17th century by Bishop Carl von Liechtenstein-castelcorn. A lover and patron of all things music, Kromeriz blossomed at under the bishop who regularly sent for new music from Vienna in order to build up the Liechtenstein music library. The resulting archive of over 1100 compositions is now one of central Europe’s most treasured sources for 17th c music.
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Sonata a 2 violini verstimbt is held in the Kromeriz collection. It’s scordatura set-up is unusual in that each violin is tuned to different pitches. The tuning sequence for the first violin is very high, sounding almost like a violin piccolo, while the second violin is tuned lower than normal. The scordatura results in a considerably extended range and expanded sonority between the two instruments.
Georg Philipp Telemann
Scordatura never really went extinct—think Mozart’s Sinfoina Concertante for violin and viola, in which the solo viola is written in a different key than the violin, but then tuned a semitone sharper in order to achieve a more brilliant tone. Or how about Saint-Saëns much later Dance Macabre, in which the top two strings of the solo violin are mis-tuned to the devilish tritone of A and an E-flat. But, scordatura’s heyday began to fade by the 18th c., and in Germany it’s last hurrah really comes with Telemann. On this recording, two works by Telemann frame the program starting with an opening d minor sonata, and ending with the sparkling A Major concerto.
Der Musikalische Garten
The ensemble, Der Musikalische Garten formed only in 2011, is a young ensemble whose members met while studying in Basel. They have in recent years been named prizewinners at five international competitions. This is their first CD. About half of the selections on this disc are world premier recordings.