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Boston Baroque’s Biber Banchetto


On Sunday, February 12, Boston Baroque presented nine of Heinrich Biber’s (1644-1704) fifteen Rosary Sonatas (“Mystery”) at First Church, Cambridge, with Christina Day Martinson (violin) and Martin Pearlman (positive organ and harpsichord) joined by Sarah Freiberg (cello) and Victor Coelho (theorbo) in the main sanctuary

Martinson and Pearlman, having offered Biber’s works publicly (on WGBH radio) before, were more conversant with each other throughout. Seated near the front in the first half of the program, and in the balcony (where I sometimes like to go in the second half), I found their balance with the other players was a variable thing. Too often the keyboards dominated the lower strings’ offerings. The harpsichord sounded too bright and strong at times; the positive organ doubled the lower tones so completely that the other instruments were nullified. If so much was going on between the keyboard and the violin, maybe a single player on continuo was sufficient (and is indeed, sometimes, all that is used).

The blend seemed to have improved after the intermission. Perhaps the players had had time to settle into working with each other, or the sound subtended better at the balcony’s distance. But while seated quite close, in the first half, it was hard to distinguish the theorbo’s sound: I could see his fingers moving, but regrettably could hear only the softest swish of sound against the strings.

Biber’s writing anticipates Vivaldi here or echoes Monteverdi there, but, going beyond simple schoolboy quotations, employs a grammar of sound by which the soloist is invited to explore emotional expressivity. Pensive passages set off thrilling leaps and runs like chiaroscuro a burning candle. Dance tunes call forth a visceral response, here an allemande, or there a playful gigue. Then the rhythmic steadiness is broken apart, splintered, denied simple resolution by a flurry of notes, flocking like startled birds away from a field. By the 4th sonata, the ensemble found itself so well knit that the end of the piece bespoke an arrival at some transcendent conclusion together: a moment like a sigh as Martinson’s bow lifted, followed by a tiny “brava” from someone in the audience.

All this, backwards, and in heels. The composer’s notational work was only one level of the rhetoric at which these pieces function, although the subtleties of Biber’s other compositional valences may be less audible to the novice listener. In fact, after the opening sonata, all the following violin solos, until the last, were played on instruments that had been altered in rather specific ways. As Martinson explained in the opening to the program’s second half, the alterations affect not only the instrument but the player’s perception of what they hear as they play. The instrument has been retuned — sometimes radically, sometimes less so — but the entabulated notation is played as if nothing had changed at all. Welcome to the world of Biber.

Probably only John Cage, who added bolts and rubber bands to the harp of a grand piano in 1938 (listen here or here), has taken so many liberties with a well-known instrument’s structure. As Clements’s 2002 thesis “Penetrating the Mysteries,” shows, Biber created this group of pieces for a specific occasion in a particular space with a decidedly rhetorical approach to the music, and even to the symbolism associated with its tone production.

The sonatas heard on Sunday have been recorded several times since their rediscovery in a Munich archive. Minus a face page, but subdivided and dedicated so as to make their purpose clear, they are called the “Mystery” or “Rosary” sonatas because they are grouped into three groups of five, with a final Passacaglia, that are titled and given small, pasted-in emblems related to the mysteries of the Roman Catholic rosary, or prayer bead cycle. In fact, several pieces do not “match,” in energy or affect, the character of the event they are paired to, as the program notes acknowledge. One might even be excused for wondering if the titles and emblems were really original to the book, or added later. This might explain why the Annunciation (Sonata I/D min) and Nativity (Sonata III/B min.) are foreboding and intense, while my feet felt oddly called to a snappy rigaudon during the gigue in the Crown of Thorns scene (Sonata VIII/Bb).

The practice of retuning the violin, called scordata, while not previously unknown, had not before been taken to quite such extremes. Dropping or increasing tension on a string lowers or raises its pitch, of course; Biber required that the violin undergo such changes for each piece in a different way, sometimes making its whole coloration and range darker and lower, sometimes brightening them. (And sometimes it involved, as Martinson noted ruefully in her opening remarks, putting the strings under such tension as to break them.) In other hands this might have been a kind of “circus trick”: Can you play virtuoso passages well on an instrument that I’ve changed on you? But Biber takes the music so seriously that it seems not unreasonable to suggest that, in this work dedicated to his employer, the bishop of Salzburg, who had a professed interest in the Marian devotional practice of praying the Rosary, even the false tunings signify.

The concept of rhetorical address in other than verbal terms was taken seriously by the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Generally said to have begun with the convocation of the Council of Trent in 1537 and to have ended with the 1648 Wars of Religion, this internal response to Protestant charges of idolatry and sacerdotalism sought to regain adherents lost to the reformers. It inspired extravagant apologetic or didactic religious works in music, drama and art until the mid-17th century and afterwards. It fostered ingenious forms of preachment to represent doctrinal points of faith and practice to those for whom nuanced theological discourse might have had less impact than more directly theatrical works. This included trompe l’oeuil domes with beckoning angels and doves descending on wires. And as Rock showed in Terpsichore: Baroque Dance in the Collège of Louis-le-Grand (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) the concept extended to the use of the art of dance. Young seminarians learned ballet de cour as a form of rhetorical study; some were so well-schooled that their names also appear on early cast rosters at the Paris Opéra.

In Biber’s work, the re-tuned strings both physically and metaphysically alter the instrument to be played. In one sonata, they are actually re-strung so as to be crossed. The violin’s once-fit body, now made strange, must take on a different nature, to resonate to foreign tonalities. As an incarnational statement, this might speak either to the ways Mary’s assent to the annunciate angel’s charge changes her life, making her the “God-Bearer;” (theotoktos, in Greek, or to Jesus’ acceptance of torture and death at Calvary, or both. It is just these scenes that appear with each segment of the work: the embodied transformations Mary and Jesus undergo in the Gospel narratives are the signal events referred to in the Rosary cycles themselves. Like the violin, their bodies, their souls underwent alteration.

It seems at least plausible to read the works offered on Sunday past in this light. In fact, the writer of the liner notes for the Manze and Egarr CD (here) suggests something similar, citing George Herbert’s (1593-1633) “Easter” poem from his posthumous The Temple:

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:

Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

As for dating the work thought by most to have been written sometime in the 1670s, can it perhaps be tied to the centennial of the Holy League’s victory at Lepanto (October 7, 1571)? As significant to the Christian west as the defeat of the Spanish Armada was to the English 17 years later, the Roman church credited this defeat of Turkish contenders for control of the eastern Mediterranean to mass recitations of the Rosary by the faithful, initiating a month-long October observance in its honor.  The lost face page would help here; one can only speculate that such an occasion could have been consistent with the probable date of production and the thematic basis for the materials themselves.

Sunday’s program notes thoughtfully gave the movements for each sonata and explained the composer’s modus operandi. They also showed the emblems (illegibly tiny, but the effort was appreciated) for each sonata and gave the altered tunings with a summary of their effect on the instrument.

But in any well-crafted rhetorical work, the details are organic to the whole. Bowing, swaying, almost dancing to her own — well, Biber’s — tunes, Martinson showed, indeed let be played through her, the swooping arpeggios and intense scalar passages that make of Bach, Vivaldi, and here, Biber, a musical feast — a banchetto musicale, in fact—of sound.

It’s been 20 years, but the group’s original name, “Banchetto Musicale,” still comes to mind as a fitting moniker from time to time….

Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Boston Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.


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