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Virtuosities of Scordatura


Christina Day Martinson carried off an extraordinary feat at Jordan Hall on Friday: the performance of all 16 of Heinrich Biber’s Mystery or Rosary Sonatas in a single evening. A formidable violin virtuoso, Biber (1644-1704) may have performed sonatas from the collection as postludes to meditation services at Salzburg Cathedral during the month of October, which was specially devoted to the Rosary Mysteries. An avid promoter of these devotions was Salzburg’s Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph; Biber entered his service in 1670.

Fifteen of the sonatas, for violin and continuo, commemorate events in the life of the Virgin Mary. They are traditionally divided into three groups: five joyful, five sorrowful, and five glorious. The 16th “sonata” takes the form of a monumental passacaglia for violin alone. By far the most remarkable feature of the Mystery Sonatas, however, is their use of scordatura, or retuning, in 14 of the 16. Departing from the conventional tuning of the four violin strings in ascending fifths on g-d’-a’-e”, the alternate version produce resonant sonorities on open strings outlining the tonic or dominant chords of specific keys. Strings tuned higher than their normal pitch sound tense and strained; lowered strings take on a darker coloration. All this manipulation is hard on the instruments, which need time to settle-in tuning, not to mention how the practice courts the danger of broken strings. Martinson neatly solved this dilemma by enlisting the help of Julia McKenzie, a backstage violin assistant who managed the stable of six appropriately tuned examples that Martinson played.

Quite apart from the mental and physical gymnastics required of the player, who must read notes that sound different from the way they appear on the page, there is ample room for virtuoso display in the performance of the sonatas. Grounded in a single key as determined by the specified tuning, short passages in contrasting meter and rhythm succeed one another without a break; division into separate movements came later in the Baroque era. Segments in these sonatas may include free-ranging preludes, more symmetrical binary sections with each half repeated, arias with variations, and Baroque dances—allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gavottes, and gigues—with highly ornamented “doubles” replacing straight repetitions. Although the sonatas are not program music, they do hint at emotional states and occasionally employ tone painting. In fact, in the only surviving manuscript, now in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, which appears to be a fair copy in preparation for publication, each sonata is accompanied by an engraving that quite clearly illustrates an event in the life of Mary or Jesus. These engravings were reproduced in Friday’s program book, along with the tunings for each sonata.

Employing the conventional tuning without scordatura, the “Annunciation” sonata opened and closed with free fantasia-like sections; in the middle was an aria with two variations. Raising the two lower strings by a whole step each produced a bright A major tuning for the “Visitation;” further raising of the three lower strings and lowering of the top string resulted in a B minor chord on open strings for the “Nativity.” Progressively slower sections, moving from Presto to Adagio, along with the unusual key, convey the mystery of the occasion. The “Presentation in the Temple” consisted of a ciacona, or ground bass pattern, with 12 variations of increasing complexity. Here the guitar accompaniment added a percussive element with fast, virtuosic strumming. The “Finding of Jesus in the Temple” was a mini-dance suite. After a brief intermission (and change of instruments), the “Lamento” of the “Agony in the Garden” with a dissonant C minor tuning was almost programmatic in its sorrowful narrative, with mournful echo effects straight out of an operatic tomba scene. Even more programmatic were the percussive blows produced by the guitar in the “Scourging of Jesus,” all within the context of an Allemande and Sarabande with variations in a strained F Major tuning. For the “Crowning with Thorns” the lowest string was raised by a fifth, putting it under tremendous tension. The “Crucifixion” was cast in G Minor in a series of variations that included full-throated chords as well as rapid tremolo effects on the open strings. Opening the group of “glorious” events, the “Resurrexit” sonata calls for the most extreme tuning of all, in which the two middle strings exchange positions, so that the two upper strings play an octave on D and the two lower strings another octave on G. With two pairs of adjacent strings sounding in resonant octaves, G Major, the Easter hymn “Surrexit Christus hodie” (Christus is risen today) rang out with powerful sonorities, whether intoned in long notes or elaborated in descanting divisions. In the “Ascension” sonata, tuning up to a tense C major allowed the violin to evoke the bright overtones of a trumpet fanfare.  Contrast between a sprightly Gigue and a hesitant Sarabande could be heard as representing the joy and the fear of the apostles at the “Descent of the Holy Ghost.” In a quaintly literal depiction of the “Assumption” of the Virgin, the violin dropped out entirely as Mary was received into heaven and lively figuration in the cello and percussive strumming on the guitar brought a Gigue to its conclusion. Mary‘s “Coronation,” with the top three strings tuned down to notes of the C Major scale, featured variations of an Aria and a Sarabande.

In the realization of the continuo accompaniment, bass support was provided by Michael Unterman on Baroque cello, with Martin Pearlman, music director of Boston Baroque, alternating between harpsichord and a small chamber organ. Michael Leopold played a theorbo, with wonderfully resonant unstopped bass strings. In several sonatas, Leopold picked up a versatile Baroque guitar that he either plucked as a melodic instrument or strummed for a powerful percussive effect. Shifting continuo components provided welcome sonic variety to the series, although one could have wished to hear more from the keyboard instruments, nearly inaudible much of the time.

The cycle concluded with a giant Passacaglia in G Minor for unaccompanied violin that, like the opening sonata, employs normal violin tuning without scordatura. Here the violin played its own accompaniment: the four-note “la-sol-fa-mi” motive that is the foundation of innumerable Renaissance and Baroque variations on a ground. The motive also occurs at the beginning of a hymn to the Guardian Angel, whose feast was celebrated on October 2nd as part of the rosary devotions. In the manuscript score, in fact, the Passacaglia is headed by a picture of a child with his guardian angel. Transposed up an octave to the tenor range, the ground bass motive is repeated some 65 times against a series of elaborate variations. Here was a truly virtuosic tour de force for unaccompanied violin, unequaled for a century until Bach’s famous Chaconne from the D Minor Partita.

Christina Day Martinson deserves our gratitude for the stamina and musicianship that allowed us to hear Biber’s Sonatas live and in their entirety. Recorded performances—and there are several fine renditions available—afford the luxury of repeated takes and corrections. Martinson and her collaborators, though, commanded the rapt attention of a nearly full house while horrible weather raged outside. Missing, for this listener, was that extra measure of expressivity that might have further warmed our souls.

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

Martin Pearlman, Martinson, Michael Unterman on Baroque cello,and Michael Leopold on therobo (Kathy Wittman photo)


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Fridays performance by Christina Day Martinson was a remarkable display of ethereal delight that touched the hearts of humans and angels alike. Her masterful virtuosity conquered the herculean task with a delicacy of feeling. Her captivating playing captured the heart and soul of everyone in attendance with musical enchantment and indelible joy.

    Comment by Richard Riley — March 12, 2017 at 7:28 pm

  2. I can only echo Virginia Newes wonderful review of this concert, and Richard Riley’s comments absolutely encapsulate this astounding feat. Things that could possibly go wrong (and didn’t) in this multiviolin three hour adventure holding listeners captive. And kudos to the continuo players for their marathon sensitive work. Looking forward to the forthcoming recording from these artists.

    Comment by Terry Decima — March 13, 2017 at 11:00 am

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