Wednesday, 6 February 2008

48. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber - Mystery Sonatas (c.1674)


Title: The Rosary Sonatas
Performers: Andrew Manze, Richard Egar, Alison McGillivray
Year: 2003
Length: Around 2 hours 12 minutes


This piece, which is alternatively called Rosary or Mystery sonatas by Biber, is probably one of the most impressive pieces of work up until now. This is not only beautiful music but extremely ahead of its time, this remind me a lot more of Vivaldi's works for violin or Bach's Cello Suites than anything previously.

Then the music is great, each of the sonatas represents a mystery of the rosary, hence the name. If you have ever seen a rosary you will have noticed that the beads are in little clusters, well each of these clusters is a mystery and each bead is a different happening in that mystery. Mysteries include the birth of Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection etc. every major supernatural happening in the new testament. Biber makes a sonata for each of the fifteen mysteries, the 5 joyful, sorrowful and glorious ones, well Biber is missing the 5 luminous ones but those were only added by John Paul II, which came a bit later.

Instead of going all traditional and doing a choral work or oratorio around these mysteries, Biber is considerably more abstract and conceptual, he makes some violin sonatas, accompanied by continuo and using scordatura, meaning weird tunings of the violin. Kind of like you will have prepared pianos much later, Biber was using prepared violins. In the resurrection sonata for example two of the strings are switched so they make a cross on the violin. That's cool. Which means of course that this is all incomprehensible music on paper, unless your violin is tuned as it is supposed to be according to that particular piece. This means either you are a fast tuner or you have 15 violins if you want to play this all in a row or in a concert.

Fortunately this recording adds a little bonus track with Manze explaining everything about scordatura with sound examples. The whole work is fascinating and Biber saves the best for last, the Passacaglia which closes the work is one of the best and most beautiful violin pieces of this or any other age.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

Biber was born in Wartenberg (now Stráž pod Ralskem, Czech Republic). He received his first position in 1668 as musician in the court of Archbishop Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn at Olmutz. But Biber failed to return from a visit to Innsbruck without permission. On this visit he met the at the time famous violin maker Jakob Stainer, who mentioned him in a later document as "the outstanding virtuos Herr Biber". He was first a violinist at the castle of Kroměříž and the Salzburg court. In 1684 he became Kapellmeister in Salzburg, where he died twenty years later.

His prolific works show a predilection for canonic use and harmonic diapason that pre-date the later Baroque works of Johann Pachelbel and Johann Sebastian Bach. He was known as a violin virtuoso and is best known for his violin works, many of which employ scordatura (unconventional tunings of the open strings).

An excerpt of the Passacaglia:

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