Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was among the finest composers of the late 17th Century. His wonderfully imaginative violin sonatas, employing new tunings and techniques, are only the most outstanding gems amidst the riches of his works in every genre.
Biber borrowed the opening for his “Pastorella” Sonata from an earlier trio sonata by Johann Schmelzer, demanding the same music from a single player. Ensemble Romanesca performs on a recording of this and other Biber Violin Sonatas released by the Harmonia Mundi label.
Solo Violin Music
A special technique for which Biber is known is “scordatura,” meaning “mistuned.” The technique involves tuning the violin strings differently from their usual pitches to make it possible to play chords and special passages more easily. Biber took the technique, which was a rarity and solidified its place in the violinist’s bag of tricks.
Biber wrote not only for solo violin, but for larger ensembles of strings, as well, fusing together the dance-based secular sonata and the more serious church sonata. Seattle Baroque performs a sonata for a mixed ensemble of six on their recording, Heinrich Biber: Sonatas for Strings.
A set of ensemble pieces that uses Biber’s trademark scordatura tuning has the imposing title of “Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa.” These trio sonatas treat both upper parts essentially as soloists and contain rich harmonies. Reinhard Goebel directs the Musica Antiqua Köln in a performance on the release from Archiv records, Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa: Diversi mode accordata.
Biber also enjoyed the grandeur of the chorus and orchestra. He wrote one of the largest-scale masses of the Baroque period, requiring sixteen simultaneous vocal parts with full orchestral accompaniment. The Gabrieli Consort and Players and Musica Antiqua Köln perform Biber’s “Missa Salisburgensis,” or Salzburg Mass, on their release from Archiv Records.
The works for solo violin that Biber called “Rosary” or “Mystery” sonatas are a mystery, indeed. They are intended to represent the joys and sorrows of the Virgin Mary. They were never published, but exist in a single manuscript. Ensemble Cordaria performs these on their CD release from Signum Records, Biber: The Mystery Sonatas.
It is clear that Biber was not only a virtuosic performer and gifted composer, but was also a bit of a comedian. Included on the ensemble Romansca’s album of Biber’s violin sonatas is his “Sonata Representativa,” each illustrating the sounds of creatures from the air, swamp, and barnyard, proving that he was a truly well-rounded character.