Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Mystery Sonatas

As we get deeper into Holy Week, it’s time to plunder some of the musical jewels that have come down to us; works that capture the pure drama of this most miraculous story.

One such treasure is The Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Written for violin and keyboard (usually a harpsichord or chamber organ), the sonatas follow the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, a form of Catholic prayer that can be performed using rosary beads. At the top of each sonata in the score is a small copper-plate engraving of the scene to which it corresponds.

Biber was a composer and violinist born in 1644 in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. He eventually settled in Salzburg, where two divergent musical traditions from Italy and Germany collided. His bonkers compositions were the result, like his Salzburg Mass for 53 different parts to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, which is the largest-scale piece of sacred music from the Baroque era. The score was found in 1870 at a greengrocer’s in the Austrian town, next on the pile to wrap fruit and veg.

Biber also pioneered a technique called scordatura, which translates as “mistuning”. Rather than having the violin strings tuned all the way through to the notes G-D-A-E as is typical, Biber sets each of the 16 sonatas with different tuning. Sonata 2 is tuned A-E-A-E, Sonata 3 is B-F sharp-B-D, and so on. Of particular note is Sonata 11, “The Resurrection”: Biber asks for the middle two strings to physically crossover, making the sign of the crucifix.

This is more than simply trickery or virtuosity though. It serves to heighten the emotional power of the music for both player and listener. As we journey through, the tone of the instrument changes with each new tuning. More resonant, transparent tunings are used for The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Beatification of the Virgin. Tighter, rasping tunings are used for Christ on the Mount of Olives and The Crown of Thorns, and manoeuvrings for the violinist become more difficult and strained.

To conclude the set, Biber wrote a monumental Passacaglia, which uses a repeating pattern quoted from a hymn to the Guardian Angel as its foundation. It’s a work of incredible power and virtuosity, and is a great representation of the coming together of Italian virtuosity and German polyphonic tradition, as the violin takes on multiple voices simultaneously.

Besides a dedication to Biber’s employer, what or when The Mystery Sonatas were actually written for remains unanswered. To be played in one go multiple violins or violinists are needed on account of the tunings. Such performances are rare, but bring the work to life with all the multi-sensory Catholic theatre it requires. Luckily, recordings of this piece of devotional music drama exist, and it makes perfect listening for this Holy Week.

Listen to Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr perform the Mystery Sonatas on Spotify