Birth: Aug 12, 1644 in Wartenberg, Czechoslovakia
Death: May 3, 1704 in Salzburg, Austria
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was one of the first great instrumental composers, a thoroughly idiosyncratic musical thinker, and by many accounts the finest violinist of the seventeenth century.
He was born on a large estate, where his father was the huntsman or forester. There is no record of his early development as a musician. What is known is that by the mid-1660s he was in the orchestra of Prince-Bishop Karl Lichtenstein-Kastelkorn of Olmьtz, one of the leading music-lovers of the time and the owner of one of the great collections of early Baroque music manuscripts. Biber's fame was growing to the extent that he felt he could do better elsewhere, and left the Bishop's employment in 1670.
However, he had not obtained permission to do so and, according to the rules of that time, the Prince-Bishop issued a warrant for his arrest. Biber hid out with an instrument maker in the South Tyrol, Jakob Stainer, who was spreading the word that Biber was a "formidable virtuoso."
Biber obtained a job with the court of Maximilian Gandolf, Reichsgraf von Khьnberg, Prince Bishop of Salzburg, in the winter of 1670. In May 1672 he married. In Salzburg he obtained a series of promotions: trainer of the cathedral choir boys (1677); vice-Kapellmeister (1679); dean of the choir boys' school and Court Kapellmeister (1684).
It is not known whether Biber traveled much. The record shows that he was decorated by the Bavarian court twice, indicating his presence in Munich, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, awarded him a patent of nobility in 1690, raising an inference that he also played in Vienna.
However, he composed and published extensively. His jilted first employer in Olmьtz received many of his manuscripts and first editions directly from Biber, indicating that Biber was forgiven for his independence.
Biber is best known to history for his violin music, especially for writing pieces exploiting effects made possible through scordatura, or non-standard tuning of the violin. However, he also wrote two operas (one of which survives) and a variety of religious music. The two most famous works heavily reliant on scordatura for special tone colors are the Mystery Sonatas (15 sonatas on the Rosary) and Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, a work for string ensemble.
He was also advanced in his treatment of the trumpet, writing sonatas for trumpet and strings. He may have been the author of the Messa salisburgensis, a highly polyphonic work in 53 voices. Previously attributed to Orazio Benevoli and dated 1628, it now appears to have been by Biber and first heard in 1682.
Biber had a highly accomplished contrapuntal mind which, coupled with a truly outstanding melodic gift, makes his music a wonderful flow of invention. He was also unconventional, with piles-ups of textures and ideas in his music that are oddly comparable with those of Charles Ives. Paul Hindemith considered him the greatest composer before J.C. Bach.
- Joseph Stevenson (All Music Guide)
The Battalia was completed in 1673, and under the title was an explanation that read "Das liderliche Schwarmen der Musquetirer, Mars, die Schlacht undt Lamento der Verwundeten, mit Arien initirt und Baccho dedicirt, von H. Biber, Ao. 1673." This, translated, reads: "The dissolute revelling of musketeers, march, the battle, and lamento of the wounded, imitated with airs and dedicated to Bacchus, by H. Biber, 1673." The second movement of the Battalia is perhaps the most perplexing to one who does not know of what this movement is representative. There are eight different parts playing simultaneously, in different key signatures and time signatures, to represent what Biber has titled "The Profligate Society of Common Humour." Each part (there are three violin parts, two viola parts, two cello parts, and one bass part) plays a different folk song representing a different part of Europe. The folk songs include "Ne takes my mluvuel" (a Slovak folk song), "Vojansky figator" (an eighteenth-century Bohemian folk song), "Kraut und Ruben" (often sung in northern Italy, Austria and Hungary), and "Nambli wol kan ich ietz glauben" (a Styrian folk song).
They are meant to clash; this represents the views of the various groups. The fourth movement, the March, is played by solo violin and solo bass, with a piece of paper slipped between the strings of the bass quite impressively to create the effect of a snare drum (in his notes accompanying the score Biber writes, "where the drum appears in the bass one must affix some paper to the string, so that there is a loud noise, but only in the march"). In the seventh movement, the Battle, the lower strings (celli and bass) snap their strings to imitate the sound of a cannon, similar to the knocking of the bow against the side of the instrument in the first movement, which invokes the sound of the soldiers' footsteps. The final movement, the Lament of the Wounded, represents the dying and tranquillity after a battle.
Biber's Rosary Sonatas use a tuning method called scordatura, which requires tuning the instrument to different notes than the usual G-D-A-E (violin, as in this case). The Sonata No. 4 belongs to the first group of rosary sonatas, The Mysteries of Joy. This particular sonata is called Christi Darstellung im Tempel, or The Presentation in the Temple. It is a sonata in one movement, a Ciacona, and the scordatura is as follows: the G string is tuned a tone higher, and the E a tone lower.
Biber also composed two eight-part sonatas; the "Sonata Prima a 8" is the first of the two; the "Sonata Seconda a 8" is the second. The instruments used are divided into three groups. There are two virtuoso solo trumpets, two solo violins, and four violas. The violas contrast the higher instruments with their contrapuntal melodies. The Sonata I consists of two movements: the first is a praeludium and a presto, and the second is a variatio and a finale. The second movement includes variations on the first. This sonata is particularly representative of Biber's technical capabilities.
The "Sonata a 7" most certainly requires trumpeters of tremendous capabilities, for it goes beyond the normal requirements of the trumpet at those times. Ordinarily the trumpets would have been divided into three separate registers (high, middle, and low), but Biber ignores this and requires that each trumpet play in all three registers. He also requires that the trumpets go beyond the restrictions of the D major range. The Rosary Sonata No. 1 also belongs to the first group of sonatas; it is titled Ankundigung der Geburt Christi durch den Erzengel Gabriel, or The Annunciation of the Birth of Christ by the Angel Gabriel. This is the only of the fifteen rosary sonatas which was composed for a normally tuned violin. The praeludium and the finale surround the aria, which is built upon an ostinato (a repeated note or series of notes which continues without varying through the entire piece). The aria and variations lead straight into the finale with no pause between movements.
The Sonata Representativa is one of the most remarkable of Biber's works. It was written for the Count of Kromeriz, under whom Biber was employed. Biber borrowed a number of the sounds represented from a work of Jesuit musicology called the Musurgia Universalis. This work was published first in Rome in 1650 and in Germany in about 1662. The concept of a "doctrine of affections" is presented through this representative form of music, which systematically related both physical and psychological states to musical expression. Biber's quoting of this work was an excellent advertisement of his education and reading. The opening and closing movements are an allegro and an allemande, respectively. In between are movements representing a nightingale, a cuckoo, a frog, a cock & hen, a quail, a cat, and a musketeer's march. One will notice that the musketeer's march is identical to the march movement in the Battalia, though it is performed at a tempo that is a little more presto than the allegro vivacissimo of the march included in the Battalia. In fact, in his written instructions that accompany the Battalia, he writes, "the march is already well known, but I could do no better than to use it..." Its inclusion in the Sonata Representativa was the reason that the march was "already well known."
The Ballettae a 4 Violettae is simply a series of five dance movements that are only numbered; that is, they do not have given titles. The feel of the music is very like that of folk music of the time and involves five forms of traditional folk dance: the Allemande, the Galliarde, the Menuet, the Gavotte, and the Siciliano.
The Sonata a 6 die Pauern Kirchfahrt is another of Biber's musical "illustrations". It portrays a church holiday in the country. We hear first the assembling of the elderly and the children, then the procession toward the church, next the chanting of the litany by the men and women (this is brilliantly depicted by a passage being played and then repeated, each time by groups of instruments in unison). This chanting leads almost without pause into the playing of the organ, an effect which is created by bow vibrato. Next is a chorale and the conclusion of the holiday in a village tavern. The final movement of the piece is a dance.
Biber was famous for his ability as a violinist and as a composer; he had an exceptional talent for improvisation, and it is from his improvisations that a great number of these works have come. Another of his talents, however, was his talent for painting with a violin bow as a painter would a paintbrush. He could illustrate any scene by placing notes carefully and adding just the right ornamentation with the bow. This is seen particularly in the Battalia, where he gives a number of instructions. In the first movement, for example, he writes, "where there are lines one must strike the violin with the bow instead of bowing normally, and this must be well rehearsed." And in the seventh movement, the Battle: "The battle must not be played with the bow, and the string must be snapped like a cannon with the right hand. Vigorously!" Biber was well ahead of his time in understanding the capabilities not only of the violin but of music in general. Today his music may seem unimpressive, but the listener must understand that such things as these were not commonly done in the High Baroque. Works of today, such as Heitzeg's "Mustang" for symphony orchestra, require the stomping of the violinists' feet and use such things as hubcaps for percussion, but Biber was well ahead of his time. He understood early on the principle of "painting" with music and illustrating for the listener exactly what is being depicted. Biber's music is not for the common listener; it is difficult to appreciate by the untrained ear, and difficult to understand by the pseudo- or non- intellectual. The appreciation of Biber's music requires a true understanding of it, and though this takes time to develop, it is well worth the effort.
Essay (c) 1997 RLB