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Biber’s The Mystery Sonatas – Program Notes

March 9, 2017

Program Notes by Martin Pearlman

Our concert this evening is a rare complete performance of one of
the most extraordinary sets of music in the violin repertoire. Heinrich Biber’s Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas rank, along with Bach’s unaccompanied violin music, among the most challenging works in the Baroque violin repertoire, and his experimentation with the instrument is unique, even to this day. Heard as
a collection, they are astonishingly powerful and deeply emotional.

One of the greatest violinists of the Baroque, Biber wrote not only avant-garde music for his own instrument but also many large and small-scale choral works, which only recently have begun to receive the attention they deserve. His choral output includes masses, requiems, motets and other works, some of them among the grandest church music of his time. (One polychoral mass attributed to him is scored for 53 voice parts!)

Heinrich Biber was born in Bohemia and worked earlier in his career at the courts of Graz and Kroměříž (now in the Czech Republic), but from the 1670’s until the end of his life, he was employed at the archbishop’s court in Salzburg. There he rose to the rank of Kapellmeister and was eventually granted a title of nobility by the emperor.

The Mystery Sonatas survive in only a single manuscript copy dating from the 1670’s. It is a beautifully copied volume comprising fifteen sonatas plus a concluding Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. Each
of the sonatas depicts one of the mysteries of the rosary and is paired in the manuscript with an anonymous engraving illustrating the appropriate episode in the life of Jesus or Mary. The Passacaglia, generally considered the greatest unaccompanied violin piece before Bach, shows an engraving of a guardian angel leading a child.

As with the spoken prayers of the rosary, the fifteen sonatas have been traditionally grouped into three sets of five: five joyful mysteries, five sorrowful mysteries, and five glorious mysteries. The occasion for which these pieces were written is itself something of a mystery, although they may have been played during the month of October, which was dedicated to the celebration of the rosary. Devotion to the rosary was particularly widespread in Europe at this time, and Salzburg had a Confraternity of the Rosary, of which Biber’s employer, the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, was a member. Addressing the archbishop, Biber dedicated his collection “to the fifteen sacred mysteries, which you promote so fervently.”

The sonatas do not tell the story of the lives of Jesus and Mary in any obvious way. Although there is occasional tone painting depicting dramatic moments, such as the fluttering of the angels’ wings, the hammering of the nails, or the earthquake, some listeners have wondered and some writers have speculated about exactly how the sonatas relate to their mysteries. Why, for example, is there sometimes a dance or virtuosic passage in the middle of a sorrowful part of the story? Rather than explicit storytelling, the music seems to provide us with moments of reflection, leaving each listener to find his or her own meaning.

Interestingly, the anguished “Crucifixion” Sonata (No. 10) was reworked several years later into a secular version with titles related to a current event, the siege of Vienna, rather than the crucifixion.


It is perhaps not surprising that a virtuoso player like Biber would write technically challenging music. However, these sonatas go far beyond normal virtuosic writing. Biber instructs the violinist to tune the strings differently from the way they are conventionally tuned, so that no two sonatas have the strings tuned to the same set of notes.

The effect of this “untuning” or scordatura is not only that the violinist can play chords that are normally impossible on the violin but, more importantly, that the instrument resonates differently for each sonata. Tuning strings higher creates greater tension on the instrument, and tuning some of them lower makes it less bright. When the strings are tuned to the notes of a particular key, that key sounds more resonant, since the open strings vibrate sympathetically with the notes in that key.

For the player, having a different tuning for each sonata can be disorienting at first, not only because the fingers need to press down in slightly different places on the strings, but also because many of the notes that she is reading and fingering are not the ones that are actually sounding. For example, notes that are written as large leaps may actually sound close together in some sonatas; and, as shown below, some tunings result in bizarre key signatures which include both sharps and flats. This means that the usual conventions for reading music shift for each sonata.

The most extreme altering of the strings occurs in Sonata XI (The Resurrection). In that one sonata, the middle two strings are crossed over each other both in the peg box and behind the bridge, so that one can literally see a cross on the violin. That places the thinner “A” string below the heavier “D” string, putting the strings out of order not only in their pitches but also in their feel. Violinists who spend years learning the feel of heavier strings in the lower range and gradually thinner ones as they go higher, have to adjust their instincts as they balance chords with the strings out of order.

With all this retuning from one sonata to the next, the violin can become unstable and go quickly out of tune as strings are put under increased or reduced tension. For that reason, our performance makes use of multiple violins plus a backstage assistant to retune them, so that the strings can have some time to settle into their new tunings. One violin is reserved only for Sonata No. XI (The Resurrection), which, as mentioned above, has its strings crossed.

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