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.
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.
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.
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.