in: Reviews

March 23, 2013

Biber’s Mysteries


Last night, as the final New Directions Series chamber concert of the season, Boston Baroque presented the second half of Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas in First Church in Cambridge. Christina Day Martinson completed the traversal of these violin sonatas she began last winter. The concert was an opportunity to revel in the fertile musical imagination of Biber, and to experience some wonderful music-making.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704) does not fit easily into any progress-based narrative of musical history. Born in Bohemia, Biber made his mark as both composer and violin virtuoso. Many works feature the violin, but he is also appreciated for polychordal sacred choral music and also wrote operas, of which one survives. Despite his fame as virtuoso performer and “composer of the first rank” (the judgment of Dann & Sehnal in Grove Music Online), Biber was overshadowed (perhaps unjustly) by his son—better known as Biber von Bibern—then later by J. S. Bach (especially in the domain of solo violin music). Today, Biber must also endure the ignominy or inJustince of being overshadowed by a similarly-surnamed teenage pop idol.

Best known of all Biber’s works, perhaps, are the Mystery, or Rosary, Sonatas (c. 1676). Each of the fifteen sonatas in this cycle takes its inspiration from the mysteries meditated upon during the praying of the Rosary. The connection between music and theology is loose: there is little musical painting here, and the effect is more one of capturing a mood related to the Mystery in the music than the narrative details. In addition to their iconic status as sacred instrumental music, these sonatas remain unsurpassed in the domain of scordatura literature for violin. Our earliest extant use of scordatura for violin is Marini’s Sonate, op. 8, no. 2 (dated to 1629), but French lutenists made use of re-tuning during the sixteenth century. Changing the instrument’s tuning changes the timbre, resonance, and also harmonic possibilities of the instrument; Biber’s Mystery Sonatas take this practice to new levels, as each sonata requires a different tuning. Sometimes it only involves raising or lowering a string a second; sometimes it involves raising a string as much as a fourth. Not only does that create greater tension (and lead more readily to broken strings), it also compounds the cognitive dissonance of reading one musical note on the page but sounding a very different one in performance. (That alone can drive mere mortals to tears.) There is, further, Biber’s crossing of strings below the bridge and in the pegbox for the eleventh of these, the “Resurrection Sonata,” to create a cross on the instrument. Martin Pearlman and Christina Day Martinson mentioned some of these challenges in remarks during the concert. Because the scordatura stretches and relaxes the strings, the tuning is less stable. While Martinson played this concert on a rotation of four violins, and had the assistance of a fellow violinist to tune them off-stage and bring out the properly set-up instrument for the next sonata, it does mean she performed on four different Baroque violins (not all of similar shape, with their own quirks of intonation or voice, and so on). Given the technical difficulties, it is easy to understand how Biber’s music could easily be relegated to the domain of études and technical studies. That is a pity, because there is some wonderfully expressive music among these sonatas. Biber had a deep, perhaps intuitive, understanding of resonance and harmony; it is a mental challenge to see the “key signatures” used in some of these sonatas—where a c in one octave might be natural, but in the next higher octave raised with a sharp. Yet these combinations of tuning and tonal center work in tandem beautifully.

Martinson was joined by Pearlman (on harpsichord and organ), Sarah Freiberg (Baroque cello), and Victor Coelho (theorbo) in this concert. Last February she performed the initial five joyful mysteries, and the first three of the sorrowful mysteries; that concert was reviewed here. Last night’s concert began with the ninth sonata, a contemplation on The Carrying of the Cross. This sonata includes a Corrente, which would seem to be at odds with that sorrowful mystery and ponderous task; the music captures the weight and the sorrow without being heavy. The tenth sonata, on The Crucifixion, has moments I could only characterize as Baroque fiddling. The eleventh, The Resurrection (with the scordatura and crossed strings) includes a lovely chorale on the hymn “Surrexit Christus hodie” (Christ is risen today). The twelfth, on The Ascension, includes the effects of percussion and tuba (without those instruments; the continuo provides much of the percussive aspect, while the violin does double-duty for tuba-affect) and cleaves closely to dance rhythms and forms. The thirteenth sonata, on The Descent of the Holy Ghost, strikes me as the greatest mystery of all: the violin strings are tuned to a bright A-major chord for a sonata in d minor, contravening an association of sound and tonality that goes back at least to Plato’s notion of the music of the spheres. Yet, again, there is truly gorgeous music here, which emphasizes the ability of music to transcend our intellectual understanding of the world. The fourteenth sonata, on The Assumption of the Virgin, ends without the violin, representing Mary, it would seem, having been assumed into heaven. The fifteenth sonata, on The Coronation of the Virgin Mary, is simultaneously happy and introspective, ever mindful of the meditations underpinning this cycle of music. Finally, the solo violin remains alone on stage for the concluding Passacaglia—a mighty precursor to the solo violin sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach.

Since this music is not ordinary concert fare, I have taken some pains to describe the set-up and the form of these too-infrequently-performed sonatas. For this performance, Pearlman, Freiberg, and Coelho provided sensitive, nuanced, and tasteful continuo to ground and support the solo violin line. Martinson performed almost non-stop for the hour and forty-five minutes of this concert, surveying the forms and structures of Baroque music while also mastering the intricacies of scordatura and the physical crossing of strings on the instrument. The many technical challenges of this music were no obstacle, as she effectively conveyed the affect and pathos of each piece, bringing out the melodic lines and subtle harmonies enabled by the scordatura. I was impressed by her ability to correct for the harmonies in these sonatas and to adjust to the inherently unfamiliar resonance and sound of the instrument. All the while the musical line remained clear: these were not études but music performed with insight and emotion. Martinson was visibly displeased with her rendering of the final Passacaglia, where the toll of switching between four different instruments coupled with the stamina of the evening’s feat led to a squeaking e-string which all her efforts could not abate; what she could not hear then was the beauty she made of this music despite those displeasing notes. I hope hindsight allows her to remember the good and not just the limited few shortcomings (unfortunately at program’s end).

While I may not be a devotee of the Rosary, I am eager to hear more of Biber’s music. In that respect this pair of concerts must be counted a total success. I am sure I was not the only convert to the cause who left the church last night. Borrowing from a more recent luminary and re-directing the light upon an earlier Bi(e)ber, I can say, or even sing, “Now I’m a beliber…”

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.



  1. The third sentence in the second paragraph refers to “polychordal sacred choral music”; presumably “polychoral” is what’s meant here (typo, auto-correct error, or editorial interference?).

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 24, 2013 at 12:19 am

  2. Not editorial interference…and I doubt whether anyone’s spell check vocabulary has either word.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 24, 2013 at 12:33 am

  3. What an illuminating and erudite review! The only problem is that it makes me doubly sad that I missed this concert. An amazing composer, and it’s clear that he was honored by a remarkable fiddler.

    Comment by tom delbanco — March 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm

  4. Mr Prince,
    What do you mean by ‘polychordal’? Biber famously wrote for multiple choruses, not dense vertical stacks of chords, right?

    Comment by David Moran — March 29, 2013 at 10:44 am

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