Scordatura Tuning in Bach’s Fifth Suite by Meredith Kufchak

When I started learning Bach’s fifth suite, I decided to play it using scordatura, with the A-string tuned down to a G. This is how Bach originally intended the cello to be tuned to play this suite, although it is not uncommon for performers today to play it with standard tuning. The reason I initially chose to play with scordatura tuning was because that was how the suite was originally written, but I discovered several other reasons for and against the scordatura tuning as I was learning the piece.

First of all, I should address the difference in difficulty of fingerings between the two tunings. For the most part I would say that the scordatura tuning makes the piece easier to get under your fingers. It minimizes the amount of shifting you have to do, especially for chords and double stops, and it fits more comfortably into the hand. Another thing that’s great about the fingerings is that those nasty fifths on the upper two strings are now played with the hand shape of a sixth, which feels much better in the hand. On the down side, fourths, which are hard enough to play in tune as it is, are now played how you would normally play a fifth. Also, in some passages that go higher than the D one octave above middle C, you have to shift up to reach notes that you wouldn’t have to shift for in standard tuning, but I would say that on the whole, the scordatura tuning minimizes shifting and makes the fingerings simpler.

Another benefit that I really enjoy about the scordatura tuning is that I can play every note in all of the chords. Those extra notes are so important to creating full sounding chords, even though leaving out one note can seem insignificant. But I love that I can play chords that aren’t normally possible with standard tuning. For example, there are so many C-minor triads in the suite with the open high G string on top, and I can’t imagine having to choose which of those notes not to play. It’s not physically possible to play all the notes in standard tuning, unless you awkwardly break the chord to be able to sound all the pitches. There are so many chords that have to be simplified with standard tuning, and I feel that taking away those notes really detracts from the rich harmonies. 

Another reason I really love playing with scordatura tuning is because of what it does for the resonance of my viola. With two G strings, the higher one of which is an overtone of the C string, my viola resonates so much more! That added resonance is another reason why the chords sound so rich and full.

One difficulty that I initially encountered when learning the suite with scordatura tuning was simple coordination. I realized how much we take for granted that what we see on the page comes out sounding how we expect it to! It took me a while to get used to the fact that what it feels like I’m playing in my hand is not at all what is reaching my ears. I was a Suzuki kid, so playing by ear comes very naturally to me. When I am playing with scordatura tuning, I have to be very attentive to not slip into playing by ear, because then I start putting down the fingers that I would be using if I were playing with standard tuning.

This same thing is true regarding memorization. I prefer to memorize Bach suites for performances, because I feel that I can give a more natural and spontaneous performance if it is memorized. However, I have so far been unsuccessful in memorizing the fifth suite with scordatura tuning. When I memorize pieces, I usually don’t consciously try to remember specific fingerings. Rather, when I am familiar enough with a piece to the point where I have all the notes in my head, my fingers naturally find where they are supposed to be as I am playing. This does not work with scordatura tuning! Since we are so accustomed to our standard tuning, our fingers just try to go where they would go when we’re playing by ear, and what comes out is a bunch of wrong notes. You have to be constantly alert while you’re playing to override the automatic response of your fingers to go where they think they should go. When you’re playing with the music, the pitches on the high G-string are notated a whole step above how they sound, so you don’t have to think too hard about where you’re putting your fingers. But when you take the music away, it’s very difficult to keep playing those same notes!

I think that some violas are more conducive to the scordatura tuning than others, depending on each viola’s sound. Some violas will sound really good tuned down and will resonate more. Some violas have a tendency to sound very nasally with the A-string tuned to a G, and sometimes it is difficult for the nasally sound of the high G-string to blend well with the tone of the other strings. It tends to stick out of the texture if you’re not careful about it.

One more thing to consider, if deciding whether or not to use scordatura tuning, is the style in which you prefer to play Bach. Some people take a very romantic approach to Bach, and I feel that the scordatura tuning is not well suited to that approach because of the open, more nasally sound that the viola has with the high G-string. But if you play Bach in a Baroque style, I think that the scordatura tuning sounds more natural. For me, that means playing more simply and not overusing vibrato.

Scordatura tuning is definitely something to consider when playing Bach’s fifth suite. I have really enjoyed playing the suite with scordatura tuning, even though it felt strange at first. Re-tuning the instrument can give the viola a different, unique tone and open up so many new color possibilities. It’s also fun just to try something different and explore the possibilities of your viola!

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