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Viola d’amore in Bach’s Vocal Works

Viola d'amore tuning

Neil Mason wrote (April 10, 2011):
Hoping someone can help me!:

Next Sunday I am conducting a performance of BWV 205.

I have, after much searching, secured a viola d'amore and someone who can play it!

However the player has asked me how it should be tuned.

I am not a string player at all, and there seem to be so many tunings I don't know how to answer.

The movement is in B minor. Can anyone suggest what the correct tuning would be?

Our first rehearsal is this coming Thursday, so a quick response would be appreciated.

Thanks

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 10, 2011):
Neil Mason wrote:
< The movement is in B minor. Can anyone suggest what the correct tuning would be? >
Is she referring to modern concert A=440 or the A=415 used by period bands (semi-tone lower)?

Neil Mason wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Doug Cowling ] Doug, I don't think so. It's a matter of whether scordatura is appropriate. According to www.violadamore.com, Bach used the viola d'amore in five different movements, in three different tunings. However only one of those tunings is specified, the one for the St John Passion. That tuning is using the notes of a D major triad. The question is whether that is best for a movement in B minor.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Neil Mason] Write to Dr. Myron Rosenblum at the same website, he's a great guy and very helpful.

He edited four of the Graupner symphonies for that huge Garland series on the 18th century with Barry S. Brook as the general editor.

Michael D. Costello wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] Myron played for us in January and was great! I add my voice to the recommendation to call him. He was wonderful.

Neil Mason wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Michael D. Costello] thanks, but I can't find any reference to Myron at that website.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Neil Mason] My bad,
http://www.violadamoresocietyofamerica.org/contactnew.php

Phone numbers, and E-mail contacts.

Neil Mason wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] Thanks Kim

Claudio Di Veroli wrote (April 10, 2011):
[To Neil Mason] Temperament is very relevant here. According to www.violadamore.com, and other websites the D major tuning A d a d' f#' a' d'' only became standard towards the end of the 18th century, in environments where Equal Temperament had become the norm. With Equal Temperament, a string instrument is played with "straight position" and the selection of a tuning of the open strings is only relevant for the music to be played.

As for Bach's music, the D major tuning would certainly fit very well a work in the "relative" B minor. However, also according to violadamore.com and other sources, many different tunings would be in use in the first half of the 18th c. (cannot find the list of the two others attributed to Bach).

Of the works you mention, I only have the John's Passion, and I find it remarkable that in both movements with violas d'amore Bach strictly wrote for a compass up from g. It is highly unlikely that Bach would carefully leave almost one low octave unused, and it strongly suggests a smallish six-string instrument (usual in early 18th c.) with a high-pitched tuning starting from g. Two typical tunings in Bach's time would be following a minor chord: g c' eb' g' c'' eb" , or a gamba-like by fourths with a major third: g c' f' a' d'' g''.

Another matter that is very relevant to tuning are the circular unequal temperaments that would be in use J.S. Bach's time: as shown in the Unequal Temperaments book (http://temper.braybaroque.ie), Ch.11, 15 and 16, there is evidence that string players would tune their open strings by strict unison to the keyboard. The fingering would mostly follow unisons with the keyboard (albeit with occasional divergences to try and improve impure intervals, especially major thirds and related). This "unequal fingering" does not follow "straight positions", and different open-string tunings may make things much easier, or else: tunings that proceed with identical intervals
(all fourths or all fifths) are best, those with fourths and a major third in the middle are good, and those following major or minor chords are worst.

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (April 13, 2011):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] The tunings of the Viola d'amore are the standard one and the sympathetic strings are tune to get into motion sympathetically when certain notes are played. This is usually notes than form a D major chord. Notes which are not sympathetic present a problem for this instrument. Modern writers for this instrument (yes music is still being written for it!) often have two sections of d'amores ---one tuned the standard way and another one whole step above. This way we avoid the usual sympathetic sounding disadvantages. Stable tunings was one of the problems that caused this instrument to drop by the wayside for awhile until new intrest was taken up about it.

Neil Mason wrote (April 13, 2011):
Thanks to all who responded to me both on and off list about this.

The consensus seems to be that the D major tuning is standard, and would work in BWV 205, so that's what we'll use.

That's Plan A, at any rate.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 13, 2011):
[To Neil Mason] The on-list responses made enjoyable and informative reading, as well.

Claudio Di Veroli wrote (April 13, 2011):
[To Neil Mason] as I wrote in my post of 10th April, some works of Bach work well with the D major tuning, but others (St.John”s Passion) surely require a completely different system. Also, all the sources I have found seem to agree that the D major tuning only came into use decades after Bach's death, and that in his life the vda tunings would be either viol-like (fourths and a third) or D MINOR tuning.

If you have found concrete evidence of D Major tuning to have been in use in Bach's time, I for one would like to know.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 14, 2011):
[To Claudio Di Veroli] A few interesting questions, more or less analogous to the well-tempered versus equal-tempered keyboard tuning posts.

(1) What is the most practical solution for 21st C. performance?

(2) What sounds best to us?

(3) What might have sounded best to Bach and his contemporaries, and therefore

(4) What is authentic Bach, throughout his career, reflecting advancing (?) tastes and techniques.

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (April 14, 2011):
[To Ed Myskowski] The D major tuning is the only tuning I have been able to find in Orchestration books going back beyond Berlioz---where such treatises become rather rare if they exist at all.

When I write for this instrument I instruct that the tuning be the standard one with one section tuned a whole step above --that way we get the unique flavors of the Vda on all notes it plays--or nearly so.

Neil Mason wrote (April 14, 2011):
[To Claudio Di Veroli and others:]
First, two disclaimers:
(1) I am not a string player at all, let alone a player of viola d'amore. I am in fact a singer and a fake conductor of considerable experience.
(2) I am not a scholar, and do not have good access to university libraries.

So, although concrete evidence is interesting to me, practical advice was my chief goal at the start of this thread.

As far as evidence is concerned, I am yet to find any direct evidence for any particular tuning for BWV 205.

In practice, this means that if a player finds a good tuning, by which I mean one that makes the piece easier to play and, all other things being equal, sounding better, then it follows that there is no concrete reason why they shouldn't use it.

This is indeed the practical advice I have received from viola d'amore players, and is what we will do.

We are going to use A=440 and equal temperament. It is hard enough to find players for this music here in Brisbane who are both goodenough and doing it for a purely nominal fee without worrying about compromising on such comparatively minor matters. We do have a viola d'amore, a viola da gamba and an oboe d'amore (there's only of each of the d'amore instruments within 1000 miles), so we will do what we can to have interesting colours.

Incidentally I am the only person to have conducted any of the three cantatas (BWV 204, BWV 42 and BWV 214) in the state of Queensland; it's just good to have these works performed.

Again, in purely practical terms, why would one use a D minor tuning for a piece in B minor?

It's not that I don't care about the documentary evidence, but I am the wrong person to ask for it.

Regards to all, and I really do appreciate the time and trouble everyone has taken to help me.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 14, 2011):
Neil Mason wrote:
< We do have a viola d'amore, a viola da gamba and an oboe d'amore (there's only of each of the d'amore instruments within 1000 miles), so we will do what we can to have interesting colours. >
1000 miles. Thats about 1600 km?

< Incidentally I am the only person to have conducted any of the three cantatas (205, 42 and 214) in the state of Queensland; it's just good to have these works performed. >
It is also good to hear about the performances. Carry on, Mate!

Neil Mason wrote (April 14, 2011):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< 1000 miles. Thats about 1600 km? >
Slight exaggeration. Sydney is about 800 miles away.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 14, 2011):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< It is also good to hear about the performances. >
I first wrote read about, did not like it, and changed. However, hear about is even less accurate.

I suppose what we do here on BCML is best described as writing and reading, so revert to:
<read about the performances>.

Anyway, performance reports from BCML correspondents continue to be personal favorites.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 14, 2011):
Neil Mason wrote:
< Slight exaggeration. Sydney is about 800 miles away. >
Long walk, either way. I am almost precisely on the opposite side of the planet from Neil. We are almost the last folks on Earth who would measure our separation in miles (rather than km). We share Bach, as well.

 

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Last update: żApril 26, 2011 ż21:42:45