Quadrant Music

Resurrecting the Mysteries of Heinrich Biber

Why is it that there are pieces of music that, although rich in invention, remain essentially isolated from the mainstream? Perhaps the manuscript was lost, or the piece was so radical that it was shunned at the time of its genesis, only to find acceptance later. Sometimes, the work of a particular composer captures the imagination of the public, critics and fellow composers, eclipsing the style and innovations of another, whose work falls into obscurity.

They are the outliers that—if they are lucky—re-enter the conversation centuries later, to be studied, performed, recorded and discussed.

One such work is a collection of fifteen short sonatas for violin and continuo with a final passacaglia for solo violin by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Born in northern Bohemia, Biber worked in Salzburg from 1670 until his death in 1704. Now known as the Mystery, or Rosary, Sonatas, they follow the Roman Catholic Rosary of the Virgin Mary, and in these works Biber brings together his formidable compositional skills and inventiveness to produce some truly extraordinary music. It was rediscovered in the 1890s.

It is not known exactly when the Mystery Sonatas were written, though it was sometime between Biber’s arrival in Salzburg and the death of his benefactor, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg, Archbishop of Salzburg, in 1687. Notably, the collection was not published in his lifetime, and it is therefore unlikely that the music was publicly performed. The manuscript was dedicated to von Khuenberg, and having been described at the time as a “lavishly presented manuscript” that was “beautifully laid out”, it is likely that it was a gift or an offering.

As a composer, Heinrich Biber was no novice at invention, and although his highly programmatic Battalia à 10, or Battalia, of 1673 would have entertained those who heard it in the seventeenth century, as it does today, many of his innovative ways of producing new sounds on bowed string instruments did not reappear until the twentieth century. For example, in the movement titled “Der Mars” (“The God of War”) the sound of a drum is imitated on the violone, a Baroque bass instrument, as the player holds a piece of paper on the open string with one hand while the other bows military rhythms on the string.

In Battalia, Biber also develops the technique of pizzicato. Instead of plucking the string with the right hand in the usual way, the player plucks specific open strings with the left hand, allowing the alternating bowed and plucked notes to occur at a lively speed. Locatelli developed this technique in his L’Arte del Violino in 1733, and Paganini in the nineteenth century uses left-hand pizzicato as part of his technical wizardry.

In Battalia’s “Die Schlacht” (“The Battle”) the two violone players are directed thus: “The string is not to be stroked with the bow but plucked with force.” This, in practice, causes the string’s release to produce an explosive sound. Snapping back onto the fingerboard, it imitates the sound of musket fire. This type of pizzicato was an antecedent to the Bartok pizzicato of the twentieth century.

In musical notation, signs placed above notes are used to specify their articulation. A small vertical line written over a note indicates that the note is to be lifted from the string with the bow. In German, this sign is called a Keil, meaning wedge. Today, musicians often refer to the dots and wedges, colloquially, as peas and carrots. In Battalia, Biber assigns a new meaning to the Keil with the explanation: “Knock on the violin with the bow.” Enthusiastically, he ends his instruction with, “You have to try this.”

Another technique Biber was to use in three separate collections of music for violin, a technique which reached its apotheosis in the Mystery Sonatas, was scordatura, the deliberate mistuning of a stringed instrument’s strings. The normal tuning of a violin is, from its lowest to highest string, G3—D4—A4—E5. When you loosen or increase the tension of a string, you are altering its pitch. This also creates a different tonal character and allows for new technical possibilities. The extent to which the alteration occurs is constrained only by the number of strings—in the violin’s case, four—and the ability of any string to maintain the pitch to which it is adjusted.

In the history of string music, scordatura is not an uncommon technique. Seventeenth-century Germanic composers were familiar with it, as were a few Italian and English composers of the same period. In the eighteenth century, Mozart directs the viola soloist in his Sinfonia Concertante to “mistune” their instrument by raising the pitch (so, increasing the tension) of all four strings by a semitone. Thus, while the violist plays in the open key of D, he sounds, along with the violin soloist and orchestra, as if he is playing in the softer key of E♭. This is a clever way to balance the two solo instruments; the increased tension of the viola’s strings adds clarity to the viola’s sound against the naturally more-brilliant sounding violin, as well as the orchestra’s powerful volume. In the nineteenth century, Paganini altered the tuning of his violin the same way, adding extra brilliance to his sound against the orchestra playing in a more muted key. Scordatura was also used by composers in the twentieth century. But no composer used it as radically as Biber in his Mystery Sonatas.

As per the Roman Catholic Rosary, Biber’s collection begins with the five Joyful Mysteries. Sonata I is the Annunciation, for which the violin is tuned regularly. Sonatas II through to XV use scordatura, creating a unique tonality and range of technical possibilities that subtly colours the tone of each sonata. The final passacaglia for solo violin is tuned regularly; as such, convention bookends the otherwise radically-tuned Mystery Sonatas

As well as employing an extensive use of scordatura, Biber draws on the compositional traditions of his time. The pathos of Sonata VI’s opening lamento, representing the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane which begins the Sorrowful Mysteries, is a masterclass in the use of baroque musical rhetoric.

Biber expertly applies symbolism and programmatic elements throughout the Mystery Sonatas, and his use of stylistic forms is unexpected. Dances, not normally associated with sacred music, dominate the collection, while tempo markings such as adagio and allegro are scarcely employed. Stylus phantasticus—that is, florid passagework in the solo instrument over an extended or sustained bass—is also used to great effect. The complexity of these devices and techniques is artfully integrated; what the listener hears is, simply, beautiful music.

However, the most remarkable offering within the Mystery Sonatas is Sonata XI, based upon that which begins the Glorious Mysteries: Christ’s resurrection. As well as its own scordatura, Biber asks the violinist to cross the tunings of the two middle strings, so that the instrument is tuned G3—G4—D4—D5. This is an utterly radical adjustment to the instrument, unique not only to its time but to any time.

To give some further explanation, the strings on a violin can be divided into three sections. The longest section is the part of the strings that vibrates as the bow is drawn across. This is called the sounding, or vibrating, length. The other two sections are where the strings attach to the instrument. At the top of the violin, each string is wound around a tuning peg and is set into position in grooves in a small, raised strip of wood, which is called the nut. At the other end, the strings are attached to a tailpiece and are tensioned over a bridge that also has four grooves to hold the strings in position. These two areas, which are not bowed, are the two sections of the instrument where Biber asks the middle strings to cross. Consequently, the crossed strings, both at the nut and the tailpiece, form an X shape. This X is symbolically significant. In German, kreuze means cross; its meaning extends to both the symbol and the crucifix.

Playing a violin in scordatura is not so difficult. Playing a violin in scordatura with crossed strings, however, is truly weird—a bit like driving on the wrong side of the road in reverse gear. Yet the music that is produced is as beautiful as any music from the seventeenth century, or perhaps any century.

In practice, the violin’s two straight outer strings and the two crossed inner strings look fascinating. As well as the sacred symbolism it represents, it is also a symbol of Biber’s music—the idea of radical, innovative techniques contained within the framework of musical tradition, both physically and aurally.

This idea can also be applied more generally. We talk a lot these days about the fracturing of the West: the breakdown of our institutions, traditions and values; the widening gap between the political left and right; and the divide between progressives and conservatives. The arrangement of the strings in the Resurrection Sonata symbolises an ideal way of balancing opposites, where new ideas are framed within the boundaries of tradition. They then can move forward together, striving for the higher good that Aristotle described as “beautiful”. All tradition needs progress, or it stagnates. All progressive ideas and actions need boundaries, or they create chaos. The two must co-exist and balance their natural tensions, as each is a protection against the extreme of the other; namely, authoritarianism and anarchy.

Because of their complexity, each of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas constitutes a (musical) mystery within a (sacred) Mystery. Apart from a short dedication to von Khuenberg on the manuscript’s cover page, Biber left no further clues to help the performer unravel this complex connection. We will never fully know the details of the musical imagery and how the music connects to the stories it meditates upon, and I imagine that there are as many different answers to these questions as there are musicians who study them.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II included five Mysteries of Light in the Roman Catholic Rosary. As far as I am aware, these are without musical representation, and I am hoping that there are composers who would, as Biber did centuries ago, be inspired to write music for these five new Mysteries. Since music is a part of the great corpus of art that defines a culture—that gives voice to its joys, sorrows and glories—perhaps some light will help us find a way forward.

Lucinda Moon is a baroque violinist and former concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.


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