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Old Music Monday: Biber’s Resurrection Sonata

There’s something about Baroque music that just screams Autumn to me.  I don’t know where it comes from – I suppose the main baroque music my family listened to growing up would have been a recording of the Messiah which would begin its heavy Christmas rotation soon after Halloween, so perhaps there’s some kind of lingering association there.  Because it’s Back to School time, and I’ve been home from Spain soaking up all the notebooks and crayons at Target, I am also now craving the ornamentation and stylistic flair of baroque music to accompany the falling leaves.

One of my favorite composers is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, an Austrian composer who worked in the late 17th century.  He was a virtuoso at the violin, and his compositions show the techniques that he helped develop.  He wrote counterpoint and polyphonic music for the violin, and also experimented with alternative violin tunings, called scordatura.

The Rosary Sonatas (also known as the Mystery Sonatas or Copper-Engraving Sonatas)  are a collection of 16 short sonatas for violin and continuo, with a final passacaglia for solo violin. Each has a title related to the Christian Rosary devotion practice.

What does this mean to the modern ears?  It means that, from the opening bars of the first 2 minute Sonata (“the Annunciation” part 1 of 3), your ears are almost assaulted with this virtuoso violin playing scales and arpeggios like they’re strumming simple chords on a guitar.  Intermixed with that are these passages of quiet peacefulness, that hint at the story that is coming.  It mimics the story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she was going to be impregnated with a son who would be the Savior.  The following two Sonatas play and expand on the feeling of the first, with the uncomfortable key of D Minor, foreshadowing both the apprehension that Mary must have felt to have this announcement made to her, as well as the journey that her son was destined to make.

The rest of the piece continues on, alternating between major and minor key, perfect musical snapshots that someone could have on while they are reciting their Rosary, or meditating in general.  These pieces seem to hint at some of the tragedies of being human, and Biber himself lost 7 of his 11 children.  I wonder whether he composed some of this music in response to the loss of a child in 1676 – his surviving children were born in 1674, 1677, 1679 and 1681, so there would have been a span around 1676 when these pieces were written when he could very well have experienced the loss of a baby, and the pieces seem to hint at this otherworldly grief yet promise of redemption.  I suppose there’s no way of ever knowing, but it’s something I like to think about when I listen to this music.

Even though the Sonatas were written in 1676, they were unknown until their publication in 1905. The music of Biber was never entirely forgotten due to the high technical skill required to play many of his works and so they would continue to be used for practice; this is especially true of his works for violin. Once rediscovered, the Mystery Sonatas became Biber’s most widely known composition.

There’s a fantastic new recording of the Mystery Sonatas, which has been getting heavy rotation in my Spotify listening the past few weeks.