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Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, Op. 8 bears many striking features, the most prominent of which is the use of scordatura tuning. The word scordatura comes from the Italian word scordare, which means “to mistune.”34 Kodály has altered the standard tuning of the cello’s open strings in perfect fifths (C-G-D-A) by lowering the C and G strings by a semitone to B and F♯. The open strings thus spell B-F♯-D-A, a B minor seventh chord. The mistuning not only changes the pitches of the open strings but it also changes the timbre of the instrument, alters the pitches that naturally resonate, changes the distribution of the tension over the cello, changes the configuration of the left hand, and the way the bow must deal with the lowered strings. The use of scordatura tuning presents a few other unique challenges not found in the vast majority of the cello repertoire, but as I will discuss in the next section, is not necessarily an avant-garde practice.
4.1 Historical Perspective Although the Sonata features characteristics of a 20th century work, Kodály employs many traditional compositional techniques, one of which is scordatura. In fact, scordatura may be the oldest technique in the entire work. According to Oxford Music Online, “scordatura was first introduced early in the 16th century and enjoyed a particular vogue between 1600 and 1750.”35 Furthermore, scordatura changes the timbre of the instrument and allows for the use of various “alternative harmonic possibilities and, in some cases, extension of an instrument’s 34 David D. Boyden, et al. "Scordatura." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41698 (accessed February 22, 2013).
open B string to B on the A string five octaves higher. Kodály also seeks to imitate traditional Hungarian instruments and the musical styles associated with those instruments with the use of a drone or pedal tone. The drones or pedals are not necessarily the result of scordatura, but the drones are often combinations of open strings and stopped pitches that would not otherwise be possible in standard tuning. Finally, the specific scordatura tuning that Kodály uses in this piece allows him to use the B pentatonic scale as the basis of many themes throughout the piece, and have available the sonorous open strings to provide harmonic support. By mistuning the open strings, Kodály is actually making the piece more playable for the cellist in the key area or mode that he desires. The open strings contain the majority of the pitches in the pentatonic scale he uses for his melodies. This allows for many chords that use open strings and harmonics, and the piece is more playable and resonant as a result.
At its height, the practice of scordatura was common in solo music for violin. German composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) was the most prolific composer to have used scordatura in his works for violin. Among his many compositions he wrote 14 sonatas for violin known as the “Mystery” or “Rosary” sonatas, all of which incorporated different combinations of scordatura tunings.37 Scordatura became more popular in Italy in the 18th century and Vivaldi and Tartini also wrote compositions for violin with alternate tunings. A few 19th century virtuosi-composers such as Paganini, Spohr, Vieuxtemps, and Beriot used scordatura, as did later 19th and early 20th century composers such as Schumann, Respighi, Saint-Saens, Mahler,
in chamber music and orchestral settings. Robert Schumann wrote scordatura for the cello in his Piano Quartet in E♭ major, Op. 47, and Italian composer Ottorino Respighi wrote for the entire cello section to tune the C string down to B in his tone poem The Pines of Rome. In these two pieces the scordatura is not indicated for the cello throughout the piece, but rather at the end of the third movement in the case of Schumann, and toward the end of the third movement of The Pines of Rome. Saint-Saens’ tone poem Danse Macabre features a solo violin written in scordatura with the E string tuned down a semitone to E♭. Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben requires that the second violins tune the G string down to G♭ at rehearsal 40, with a subsequent return to G♮ around rehearsal 45. The solo viola in Strauss’ Don Quixote features a scordatura tuning in which the C string is tuned down a semitone to B during the course of the piece.38 Stravinksy’s Firebird Suite indicates that the violins tune the E string down a whole tone to D to play the harmonics in the Introduction. Stravinsky also wrote scordatura passages for the cello section in his Rite of Spring.39 Finally, the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.
4 features a solo violin part written entirely in a scordatura tuning a whole tone above standard tuning. To make life slightly easier for the violinist, Mahler indicates that the concertmaster is to have two violins, one in standard tuning and the other in scordatura, to avoid tuning and retuning during the performance. Transcription scordatura is a variation of the practice in which the entire instrument was retuned either a whole tone or semitone higher in order to achieve greater
39 It should be noted that while many of these scordatura tunings are written in the score, it is not always practical to actually execute them in performance, particularly in orchestral settings or in situations in which it might be difficult to tune and retune accurately, and thus not all of these scordatura tunings are used in performance.
28 brilliance. This was typically done with the viola, most notably in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.40 The role of cello, especially early cello, as an accompanimental and supporting voice means that the use of scordatura tunings throughout its history is slightly different than the violin. The early cello had more than one standard tuning. One common configuration known as the “Italian” featured the A string tuned down to a G.41 Because there was more than one established tuning for the cello, any deviation from the standard C-G-D-A was not necessarily considered scordatura.42 For the cello as solo instrument, scordatura was not nearly as common as it was for violin. The fifth Suite for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach can be played with the A string lowered to a G, but other than the few examples mentioned above, scordatura was not a popular choice for composers in the 19th century.
Kodály’s Sonata was (along with Reger’s Three Suites for Solo Cello, Op. 131c) the first piece written for unaccompanied cello since J.S. Bach’s six suites. Following the emergence of Kodály’s Sonata the 20th century saw numerous pieces written for unaccompanied cello.
Although most are written in standard tuning, there are a handful of 20th century works for cello (solo and chamber) that are written in a scordatura tuning. Kodály himself wrote another piece in the same year as the sonata titled Capriccio for unaccompanied cello that again used a B string instead of a C string. It is difficult to say with any certainty that Kodály was responsible for the
42 Although this may have been true during the Baroque period, it is safe to say that modern cellists consider any tuning other than C-G-D-A to be scordatura.
technical virtuosity in so many new ways that it had to have played some part.
4.2 Scordatura in Kodály’s Sonata As mentioned above, Kodály’s Sonata requires the cellist to lower the C and G strings by a semitone to B and F♯. There are number of implications inherent in this new arrangement of open strings. First, the spaces between the intervals on the B and F♯ string will be different than what we are normally accustomed to on the C and G strings, and the left hand will have to readjust in order to play in tune. The cellist cannot take for granted that if he or she puts first finger down in first position on the B string that the sounding C♯ will be in tune, or that the distance between the pitches in first position will be the same as standard tuning. Secondly, the instrument will feel different and will react differently to the bow. The tension on one side of the bridge is now lower and it will affect the way the entire instrument feels, and the way that the bow interacts with the lower strings. Additionally, the types of harmonics that are now available have changed. Pitches that used to resonate with open strings no longer have the same sound quality, and pitches that never before had any natural resonance are now harmonics that can be used to tune open strings.
Third, the cello itself is going to have to constantly adjust and readjust to being tuned and retuned. Each cellist will discover how long it will take for his or her cello to adjust every time they have to get in and out of scordatura. What is perhaps more important is planning practice time in advance so that time is not wasted tuning and retuning. If, for example, you have orchestra rehearsal after your Kodály practice session, do not wait until five minutes before the rehearsal to tune. There is nothing more annoying than taking out your cello for orchestra
humidity, etc. will all have an effect on the way that each cello reacts to being manipulated so frequently. During the time in which I prepared for my recital, I discovered that the best way to deal with tuning was to lower the C and G strings with the pegs as close to B and F♯ as I could get and then let the cello sit for a few minutes. If I tried to go from standard tuning to scordatura all at once it would take much longer because the strings were constantly stretching.
4.2.1 Reading a Transposed Part Other issues inherent in playing in a scordatura tuning have to do with reading a transposed part and difficulties with intonation. In any music with a scordatura tuning, the part will be transposed such that it appears as though the instrument remains in standard tuning. The pitches in the part will be arranged for the left hand, and in the case of Kodály’s Sonata, will sound a semitone lower than written. There are a few problems that can arise in this situation.
First, it takes some time to get used to not hearing what is written on the page. This is a potentially bigger problem for individuals who have perfect pitch, but even for those who do not, the ear has certain expectations in terms of timbre and pitch when the eyes see certain pitches.
Second, the transposed pitches may have accidentals that have nothing to do with true key of the sounded pitches. For example, the opening of the second movement is written as if it were in a flat key, but if the part is written in C there are actually no accidentals through the majority of the melody. With passages that were transposed from beginning to end, I rewrote the part in C so that I understood the actual tonality of the melody. This is also true for printed four note chords.
The bottom half of the chord may be in a different key than the top half. There are many situations in which either writing out the sounded pitches or labeling notes or chords in the music
With regard to intonation, the discrepancy caused by the transposed part can also cause a few problems. A prime example occurs in the first movement at the beginning of the second theme group at m. 81. The second theme group begins in E♭ but the transposed part reads with E♮ and B♮, causing a sort of juxtaposition of two unrelated keys. The cellist cannot put fingers down where E♮ and B♮ are in standard tuning and hope for the pitches to be in tune in E♭. The cellist must remember not to let the transpositions determine how any passage is tuned. In this particular case, G♮ has to be the pitch around which this chord is tuned, rather than relying on the position of the left hand alone.
Scordatura in Kodály’s Sonata results in a unique sound not heard in any music previously written for the cello. The use of scordatura requires the cellist to make a number of adjustments to some specific aspects of cello technique, and it requires the cellist to change his or her approach to intonation. Reading a transposed part will require some readjustment both mentally and physically. The location of pitches on the fingerboard cannot be taken for granted, nor can the printed pitches if intonation is to be accurate. I found that writing out some portions of the piece in C made it easier for me to understand the composition of the passage and to play it in tune. Every cellist will find playing with a scordatura tuning challenging in some regard at first. These were the difficulties that I encountered and spent the most time overcoming. The ideas that I have presented in this chapter may not apply to every cellist or every variation of scordatura tuning, but these solutions worked with not only my approach to the cello but the cello itself.
Compared to the other two movements of the Sonata, the first movement is the shortest and the most straightforward in terms of musical material. Kodály uses much of the same material throughout the movement, with some elaboration, and therefore many of the same technical issues come up more than once. Because of this structure I will treat similar passages side-by-side, rather than go through the movement as it unfolds. For example, the return of the first theme at the start of the development in m. 80 presents similar technical issues seen in the exposition. Similarly, the second theme (which begins in m. 32) and its return in the recapitulation at m. 152 share the same intervals, and the technical issues of the two themes can be discussed simultaneously. Therefore, I have arranged the content of this chapter in the following manner: I will discuss issues found in the first theme group, followed by the second theme group, and finally the development which incorporates musical material from both the first and second theme groups.