Upon Listening to Biber’s Rosary Sonatas

Scordatura: Abnormal tuning of a stringed instrument in order to obtain unusual chords, facilitate difficult passages, or change the tone color.
—Harvard Dictionary of Music, second edition

ALTHOUGH I AM a piano tuner who used to play a violin, I would not dream of referring to the violin as a simple instrument, at the risk of calling down the ire of contemporary violin builders and their hefty spiritual ancestors, who might rant loudly to me in Italian in the middle of the night. Yet, from an instrument maker’s point of view, a piano is much more difficult to build than a violin, a cello, even a harpsichord. But what means “simple”?

I have worked as a professional piano tuner for almost three decades. Because of the many tuning pins, and how deeply they are embedded into the pinblock, the job is lengthy, complicated, and physically demanding. For this reason, pianists have not tuned their own instruments since—well, possibly since the very beginning, in 1700 in Florence, when the piano was conceived and presented to the world as an instrument totally different from a harpsichord by the Medici family’s chief musical instrument curator, Bartolomeo Cristofori. But what means “complicated”? Violins have only four strings that can be adjusted fairly quickly by the performers without the aid of tools. The pitches are easy to hear, and the traditional tuning places them a fifth apart. What could be simpler and more elegant? The music that comes out of these four strings is nonetheless phenomenal.

Most pianists have no idea that their pianos can be tuned in a variety of ways—hundreds, actually—because pianos have been tuned only one way for almost a hundred years. Similarly, many violinists have never heard of “scordatura” tuning for their instruments unless they play traditional fiddle music. As a pre-teen I played classical and popular pieces on the violin, and my teachers never told me that GDAE was only one of many possible tuning patterns. I first learned of the renegade Italian tuning term at roughly the same age I became fully aware of the concept of sin. Why would an instrument I considered to be almost holy, ever be tuned abnormally on purpose? Why would anyone want to do that? My head would not wrap itself around the concept, so I put it aside: as it turns out, for something like fifty years.


In the fifteen Rosary Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) for violin and unspecified accompanying instruments, the violin is tuned differently for each sonata, and fourteen of these tunings are scordatura. This is a good word to roll around in your mouth, in your bad imitation of an Italian accent, and recognize as mildly wicked. Or, more to the point, be reminded of something wicked. What? You can find the word in musical dictionaries alongside more familiar terms such as adagio, allegro, piano, and there you discover why the “scord” part gives you a little shiver: it began life as the Italian word discordare, which even today still means “out of tune.” In English we say “discord,” meaning anything from a family argument to “an inharmonious combination of musical tones sounded together.” But somewhere in the early seventeenth century the Italian word discordare labored and brought forth—perhaps we should say discarded—a fledgling that flourished for roughly a hundred years as a name for a particular kind of beauty, rather than just a general term for its opposite.

Furthermore, in the seventeenth century when this deliberate abnormal—meaning atypical, but not bad or ugly—tuning of non-keyboard stringed instruments (lutes, guitars, viols, and the members of the violin family) was in common use among composers and performers, the normal, or “accordare” way of tuning was not so widely agreed upon and rigidly followed as it is today. In fact, some stringed instruments (viola d’amore, for example) had no single “accordare” tuning standard to deviate from. Not only was the music improvised on these small instruments, but so was the very scale structure upon which the music found its rest. This means that for a hundred years or so, a large body of stringed instruments in Europe were regularly permitted, cajoled, and urged over an extra threshold in order to make their music. It was that kind of threshold that angels are especially loathe to cross.

Keyboard instruments, in order to make music, also must be tuned by some physically dictated guidelines. But harpsichords, clavichords, and pianos have many more strings than violins, lutes, viols, or guitars. As a result, a tuning pattern (also called a temperament) for keyboards is quite a difficult thing to settle upon. There is no orthodoxy here; any temperament will be based on a somewhat whimsical core idea, rather than one firmly sanctioned by the physical harmony of musical acoustics. Thus, all keyboard tunings are, in a sense, scordatura. But this, of course, is a total paradox—how can you diverge from “normal” if there is nothing normal to diverge from?

Scordatura has now revealed an odd symmetry. A violinist has the option of tuning her instrument either the normal way, or not. The orthodox tuning has the pattern GDAE, which is based on the natural harmonics of musical strings, and has been sanctioned over and over again by the demanding ears of musicians throughout many centuries. Hence, any deliberate deviations from this pattern would require moving away from an easy and traditional purity. On keyboard instruments (organs, harpsichords, clavichords, pianos), such easy purity is not physically possible; nonetheless, a series of twelve perfect fifths remains the mathematical and musical template that all keyboard temperaments aspire to, in theory.

So, the odd symmetry goes like this: the violins don’t stick with perfection even though they know they can have it any time; the keyboards keep trying to counterfeit such perfection even though they know they can’t ever have it. The (abnormal) tuning of a violin in scordatura and the (abnormal) tuning of a keyboard in one of many possible temperaments represent two distinct aesthetic impulses. Like two different reasons for misbehaving. Not only that, but two different beautiful reasons.


When Biber composed the Rosary Sonatas in honor of the sufferings and ecstasies of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he specified fourteen scordatura tunings and one usual one. A scordatura tuning involves tightening or loosening one or more of the strings to change the pitch from the normal pattern, in increments of a half or whole tone. This can be done to expand the range of the instrument, or to make certain passages easier (or even possible) when the performer is playing double stops, for example.

In this composition Biber was using scordatura also, or perhaps only, for a third reason: by deliberately and radically pushing the physical limits of the instrument so that it would seem to be speaking from a variety of highly emotion-charged responses, he would bring about a mystical union between the performer, the listener, and the larger, holy story being thus musically sanctified. Tightening strings makes the violin sound harder, closer to what we would call nasal or keening; loosening strings brings about a weaker, more husky or throaty sound. By varying these effects, Biber jerks the listener around through a turmoil of conflicting aesthetic responses based merely on the tuning, never mind what the music itself is doing. This adds an entire dimension to the music that we have lost the ability to understand or require, and which can set a first-time listener almost staggering.

For example, in the “Ascension” he set out the pattern CEGC, which means the bottom G is raised three whole tones and the top E is lowered two. These alterations mess with the violin’s physics in intriguing and disturbing and marvelous ways that go beyond beautiful or ugly. Biber is drawing the instrument, by a variety of paths, close to the brink of noise. The notes themselves are normal enough, but each alternation of string tension changes the violin’s voice. You hear the instrument speaking regular words in an irregular tone of voice—like a mother right on the edge of a breakdown. You begin to receive a very ancient message directly through your sinews as they engage harmonically with those of the stressed-out instrument. Your sense of music, and of suffering, is enlarged.

Because only two instruments are playing, and because both are mistuned according to their symmetrically opposite physical responses to the rules of musical physics, something pristine can take place. The listener is forced to hear that the violin by nature operates in a different space than the harpsichord does; they render different realities. As if the fact that they are musical instruments is not precisely the essential element of their ensuing actions. As if, unknown to us, music were actually born twice. Our attention is drawn to music as a raw material rather than as an art; and even though we can continue to rest on the assumption that this familiar and beloved phenomenon we have always taken for granted has to do with sound, we begin to acknowledge that more than one member of the Grendel family of music is out there stalking the world, and we have hitherto never run into its mother. Apparently at least two different gods had the music idea at the same time and released it through two different doors: the up and the down doors, perhaps? The division door and the multiplication door, magnitude and multitude? Like Homer’s two gates for dreams.


One recent night I dreamed that my son Timothy (now thirty-three), at age two, wandered away from the glassed-in spaceship we were occupying, out into the alien, tropical landscape of an earth-like planet. I was half asleep on a divan (not a sofa), and when he went out I lulled myself into complacency by noticing that he was accompanied by a young man employed inside our vehicle. Gradually, reason nudged me into full wakefulness by reminding me that this employee was not a babysitter, and very probably assumed I was watching out for my child. By this time it was dusk, no sign of my little son or the young man. I cried “Tim!” in increasing panic, and eventually he showed up whitely in the dim light.

I woke up stifling from guilt and nostalgia. The dream had called up a similar scene from years ago. I was looking out the window into the backyard where Tim and his older brother were just coming up through the trees towards the house. Patrick, my older son, was not yet visible, but for some reason Tim glowed just a little as he rustled over the grass in his paper diapers; his little fat knees caught at my heart like candles. I was overwhelmed with love and with the simple beauty of the scene; but also, I remember, by that irrational dark that afflicts all mothers, the fear of losing the child. More than that, I felt—as I did in the dream—guilt for not paying enough attention to the possibilities of wandering. But how silly! My sons are alive despite all the mistakes, the accidents, the near-misses that actually took place during the time their father and I were bringing them up. I never seriously neglected my children. Why should a simple dream, a simple glance out the window remind me of things that never actually happened? At some base level of human existence all possible actions and outcomes do become equally likely, no longer beautiful or ugly, good or bad, but deeply, whimsically, terrifyingly available. The dream reminded me of that, as did the Rosary Sonatas when I listened to them for the first time, also on a recent night.


How powerful is a rendition of scordatura tunings when presented in such a piece of music! The simple result in this case is two different versions of beauty, trading places in the listener’s ear throughout the performance like figure and ground. But here, in the violin part, the voice of the instrument is being permitted to insert a primal response to the fundamental circumstances in which it is designed to make music: like a dialect of wood and gut. Thus—in this unpublished piece of music, of which only one copy is known to exist—there is the intimation of much more: of at least two entire worlds; at least two opportunities for exquisite secrecy and nuanced pain, for reasons for things. This happens so casually by the mere tightening or loosening of four strings. Or rather, so gratuitously. Through our ears—which are a direct pathway to the self—we are helpless and even terrified before such a simple manifestation of infinity.

But then, with so much infinity expressly, if fleetingly, available, might this not suggest more than one essential way through the world? Perhaps if beauty arises out of the Is-ness of things, spontaneously, irrevocably, and if this Is-ness exists hugely, obliviously but all around at all times, we need only a tiny shift in the magnification of our seeing or hearing, a miniscule twitch of angle, and it will explode into us: a series of caverns inside the veins of each leaf, the lavish turquoise bleedings from the under-surface of the sea. If this is so, then how can suffering be merely what it seems?


The recording that inspired this essay features Andrew Manze on baroque violin and Richard Egarr on organ and harpsichord: Harmonia Mundi 907321 (2004).

This essay was selected for The Best Spiritual Writing 2009.

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