Biber sonatas PAS1088

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704)
Mystery Sonatas
Mayumi Hirasaki (violin), Jan Freiheit (viola da gamba), Johannes Loescher (violone), Michael Freimuth (archlute, theorbo), Christine Schornsheim (harpsichord, organ)
rec. 2020/21, Chamber Music Hall of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany
Passacaille PAS1088 [75]

The Mystery Sonatas (in German: Rosenkranz-Sonaten) are among the most intriguing compositions of the 17th century, and definitely nowadays the most popular of Biber’s compositions, as the number of recordings indicates.

The collection consists of fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo, with an added Passacaglia for violin solo. The title page of the manuscript has disappeared. Therefore it is not known how Biber called these sonatas. Nowadays they are usually referred to as Mystery Sonatas or Rosary Sonatas. The reason is that in the manuscript every sonata is preceded by an engraving, showing stages from the life of Jesus and of his mother Mary, which can be thematically linked to the mysteries of the Rosary. Those who are not familiar with this aspect of the Roman Catholic faith should read the article on Wikipedia.

The collection is divided into three groups of sonatas: the ‘Joyful Mysteries’ (Die fünf freudenreichen Mysterien; Sonatas I – V), the ‘Sorrowful Mysteries’ (Die fünf schmerzhaften Mysterien; Sonatas VI – X) and the ‘Glorious Mysteries’ (Die fünf glorreichen Mysterien; Sonatas XI – XV). As the engraving which precedes the concluding Passacaglia shows an angel holding the hand of a child it is often labelled ‘the Guardian Angel’.

A particular feature of this collection is the use of scordatura, meaning that one or more of the strings are retuned as indicated at the start of the sonata. This can hardly come as a surprise: although Biber wasn’t the only composer to use this technique, he prescribed it more frequently than any other. With the exception of the first sonata and the passacaglia all sonatas require retuning, resulting in 15 different tunings throughout the collection. This is more than just a playing technique for its own sake. Bernd Heyder, in his liner-notes to the present recording, states: “From the second sonata onwards, instead of the usual tuning of the instrument in fifths (G – D’ – A’ – E”), at least one string of the instrument is tuned to a different pitch; this opens up not only unusual fingering possibilities but also unusual chord progressions in polyphonic playing on what was primarily a melody instrument. Equally as important for the effect of the sonatas, however, is that each scordatura gives the violin many new tone colours and a very different character.” In his comments on the individual sonatas, he explains how the scordatura is used to express the meaning of that particular piece.

There are a number of questions regarding these works, which still can’t be answered with certainty.

One of these is when and for which occasion they were written and under what circumstances they were performed. It is thought they were written around 1678. They were dedicated to Max Gandolph, the archbishop of Salzburg and employer of Biber. Heyder suggests that Biber may have offered them to thank him for being elevated to the post of vice-Kapellmeister in January of that year. From the dedication text we learn that the archbishop strongly promoted the worship of the Virgin Mary and Rosary devotion in particular. In 1674 he had joined the Salzburg Brotherhood of the Rosary, an association of academics, founded in 1619 in the wake of the Counter-Reformation and the growing devotion to Mary which was part of it. The sonatas may have been performed in the Aula Academica, the lecture hall of the Jesuit confraternity in Salzburg. The hall contains fifteen paintings depicting the mysteries, and the Jesuits were strongly advocating Rosary devotion with music. However, the sonatas may also have been intended for performance – probably by Biber himself – in Max Gandolph’s own chapel, during his meditation about the mysteries of the Rosary. The fact that these sonatas were never published may support that option.

Another question regards the connection between the music and the mysteries of the Rosary. It has been attempted to see the events in the life of Jesus and his mother illustrated in the sonatas. Some musical figures can be interpreted as illustrations of particular events as described in the Rosary psalters of the time. Heyder gives several examples of musical figures that may refer to events in the life of Jesus and Mary. With regard to the first sonata, he writes: “The opening of the work with its garlands of notes undoubtedly depicts the angel’s arrival from heaven.” The illustrative features of some sonatas on the Passion of Christ can hardly be overlooked, for instance in Die Geißelung (The Scourging) and Die Kreuzigung (The Crucifixion).

Interesting is the first of the last group of sonatas, Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). Heyder writes: “Here Biber visibly takes the scordatura to extremes: the two middle strings are reversed in such a way that they reproduce the shape of the cross – the Christian symbol for the overcoming of death – in the pegbox and between the bridge and tailpiece. The scordatura G – G’ – D’ – D” uses two strings in succession at octave intervals, causing the third string from the bottom to sound lower than the second. This is employed to great effect in the centre of the sonata: the continuo instruments and the upper voice intone the ancient Easter hymn Surrexit Christus hodie in succession, whilst the violin imitates the unison congregational singing of children, women and men with octave doublings.” Mayumi Hirasaki believes that Biber uses the form of the Passacaglia at the end of the cyle for a reason. “Given that the Ave Maria and the Lord’s Prayer are often repeated in the Rosary, Biber made appropriate use of many ostinato motifs in his cycle. The notated music of this final passacaglia is prefaced with a copperplate engraving in which an angel offers his hand to a human soul and supports him – the ostinato bass similarly supports the melodic line.”

These observations are quite interesting, and the listener may find other things that he associates with what is described in these sonatas. However, we should not look at these works as a kind of ‘programme music’. One has to assume that Biber uses affective and rhetorical commonplaces to stimulate the meditation about the mysteries.

In this regard it is appropriate to explain the term meditation, mentioned above. Nowadays music presented as meditative is mostly soft and unobtrusive, allowing the listener to dream away and sink down into himself. But the Latin verb meditare also means ‘study thoroughly’ or ‘practice’. One commentator writes that “by contemplating the image, reading the texts, and hearing the music, individuals were supposed to create a mental picture of the mystery, often in minute detail and at great length.” And another one states: “Graphic sound painting has parallels in much counter-Reformation art which seeks a powerful immediacy of visualisation with the depicted emotions, but provoking so strong a reaction that his emotions are heartfelt rather than merely sympathetic.” This explains the often strongly dramatic music to be found in this collection which is rather disturbing than meditative in the modern sense of the word. The most disturbing sonata of the whole set is undoubtedly the one about the Crucifixion.

As far as the performance practice is concerned, there is quite some variety between the recordings in the catalogue with regard to the line-up of the basso continuo. There are different opinions as to which and how much instruments should perform the bass part. The answer to this question partly depends on where one thinks these sonatas have been performed in Biber’s time. If they were meant to be performed at the private chapel of archbishop Max Gandolph, then it is very unlikely that more instruments have been used than just one keyboard instrument, perhaps with an additional string bass. (Even that practice is only based on the indication of violone solo in the bass part of Sonata XII. That doesn’t necessarily mean a string bass is required in all sonatas.) But if one believes that the sonatas were played in the Aula Academica in Salzburg, then it is perhaps possible to imagine a performance with an additional plucked instrument. Mayumi Hirasaki has opted for the latter possibility, but rightly avoided the use of instruments such as the lirone, the harp and the guitar, which participate in some other recordings. The variety within the line-up of the basso continuo makes much sense. The participation of a cello is avoided, and that is historically right as well.

I have not heard all available recordings, but among those I have heard the present one is definitely one of the best. Mayumi Hirasaki, best-known as one of the concertmasters of Concerto Köln, delivers an exciting, intense and often dramatic performance, which fully explores the expressive features of these sonatas. Technically her performances, and especially the handling of the different tunings, is quite impressive, but she uses them for expressive purposes. The timing, articulation and dynamics are important instruments to achieve a maximum expression. The ‘Crucifixion’ sonata is one of the highlights of this recording; the horror of this event is graphically depicted and may let no listener unaffected. The basso continuo group is Hirasaki’s perfect partner, and substantially contributes to the impact of these performances.

Johan van Veen

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music