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Double Stops

Double stops are yet another significant technique in the vast arsenal of string sounds.  They help produce variety in color, texture, harmony, and counterpoint.  Double stops on the violin, viola, cello, and double bass occur when two strings are played at the same time.  Triple and quadruple stops also exist, but these will be covered in a separate article.   Especially in solo works, double stops prevent music from sounding like one lonely sheperd's single-line song after another.  They can either be bowed or plucked as pizzicato.  They are a technical achievement which always demands the player's attention and preparation.

Typically, in orchestral string parts, all combinations of multiple stops are written because there are enough players to cover the various notes. This discussion will be oriented toward the writing of double stops in solo and chamber string music where one player must sound two notes simultaneously.

The first and foremost consideration in writing double stops must be that the combination of notes is playable.  Like orchestral reductions for piano, many double stops on bowed string instruments are very fisty and require individual left-hand settings for each combination.  This demands true virtuosity for rendering rapid combinations.  The most facile and wide-reaching double stops usually include an open string which frees the left hand to stop a pitch at any interval on an adjacent upper or lower string.  These are the easiest combinations to execute, but they tend to be rather limiting structurally.  Here is an example of double stops utilizing an open string from the beginning of Rusty Banks's Big Fiddle Ballet where the open D of the cello is used prominently to create an open, spacious expanse of sound.

Big Fiddle Ballet
; 1st movement, "Dance of the Orr Park Owls" for solo cello
by Rusty Banks

Double-stop combinations that demand left-hand stopped pitches on both strings are more cumbersome for the player to grab.  They are usually restricted to intervals of an octave or less in the first two-and-a-half octaves of a string instrument.  In their basic left-hand positions, violinists and violists reach an octave or some ninths with a strenuous stretch.  Cellists reach a major seventh or an octave using thumb position.  Finally, because of long string lengths and orchestral tunings in fourths, bassists can reach only a perfect fifth or some sixths with thumb position.  All of these double-stop reaches open up more to larger compound intervals in the high registers of the instruments.  Tenths are possible in the third octave of the violin, viola, and cello.  However, past the third octave of any string instrument, ongoing series of double stops become increasingly difficult to render with consistent accuracy of pitch.

Beyond the limitation of physical reach, the next important consideration in double stops is the difficult interval of the perfect fifth on the violin, viola, and cello and the corresponding interval on the string bass - the perfect fourth.  These are the intervals in which the instruments are tuned and may seem rather innocuous to someone who does not play them.  However, because these are normally stopped with the same finger across both strings, the left hand must assume a unique position out of its typical posture.  Further, the demanding nature of the intonation for these perfect quality intervals compounds the difficulties of their execution.  In all honesty, perfect fifths and fourths are written all the time for string instruments; however, they are like hair cream - a little bit goes a long way.  Their extended use, especially in high registers, can be unbelievably difficult to realize in performance.

The contrapuntal nature of writing bowed double stops on string instruments does not possess the same independence of articulation possible on keyboard instruments.  With only one bow arm, independent lines on two different strings will always have the same rhythm and articulation.  In instances where a pedal tone drones on one string against a moving line on another, the moving line either will be smoothly slurred legato or the pedal tone will be stroked in the rhythm of the other line's articulation.  The internal counterpoint on string instruments tends to operate in rather simple species.  This can be overcome somewhat by using a Baroque string technique where long durations in double-stop lines are not sustained full value.  During these unsustained durations, rhythms in the other line can then be articulated.  Note the incongruous articulations in the second measure of the example from Harold Beerman's Suite.  This is exactly how he wrote the passage, yet the different articulations in the two lines can be realized.  First, by releasing the dotted half note C on the second beat, the lower Ab can then be articulated as the first note of a new slurred stroke.  Second, by turning the last Eb into a single eighth note, it is then not articulated twice along with the last eighth note C.  Even though the two durations are not sustained full value, the ear retains the pitches in the perception of the different musical lines.  This is an interpretive device on the part of the player necessary to render incongruous articulations.

actual realization

Suite, Op. 19, No. 1; 3rd movement, "Romanza" for unaccompanied cello by Harold Beerman  

Ideally, the composer should arrange the articulations and rhythmic durations in double-stop counterpoint so that the performer does not invent something which injures the architecture of the lines.

Double-stop glissandos where two tones slide in the same direction and at the same interval are very idiomatic to string instruments.  Double stops requiring two fingers to stop notes and which include slides in contrary motion or slides on only one string are more restrictive.  These slides usually do not exceed a distance of a major second and tend to produce finger-twisting contortions.  Banks uses double stops with single glissandos well in his Big Fiddle Ballet.

Banks - Big Fiddle Ballet

These kinds of glissandos should be written with great caution if the difficult intervals of the perfect fifth on the violin, viola, or cello or the perfect fourth on the contrabass are involved.  Likewise, florid legato passages written as double stops against a stopped long tone should also avoid continually crossing these difficult intervals.  A passage like the following one for violin is all but impossible to render smoothly because the same finger has to hop over to the other string yet retain the illusion of seamlessly sustaining the long tone.  This passage would be more smoothly idiomatic if the long tone was a step lower on F# so that the index finger would not have to be reset onto or off of one of the strings.

more smoothly playable

To recoin the famous warning of the soothsayer in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "Beware of the perfect fifth on the fiddles."  But after that admonition and with a good dose of moderation in what can be reached by one left hand, let the double stops pour forth.  They are gloriously resonant and will be rendered with vibrato by excellent players.  They are another indication of sophisticated string writing that pursues a heightened aesthetic touch.




The Extended Techniques for Cello site was created with the support of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. Chapters require Quicktime Players downloadable at www.apple.com/quicktime