Heinrich Biber — composer of rapture and ravings

The violinist-composer who mixed the sacred and profane in his fantastical music is a lost genius of the 17th century.

A sketch of Heinrich Beiber. Credit: Austrian National Library / Fiona Martin.
A sketch of Heinrich Beiber. Credit: Austrian National Library / Fiona Martin.

It’s thanks to his notoriously difficult music that violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s name was never quite forgotten. In 1789, eighty-five years after his death, English music historian Charles Burney described Biber’s violin music as ‘the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period.’ It seems that Burney’s knowledge of Biber’s output was limited to just one or two works; today he remains misunderstood and his music neglected both in performance and academic spheres.

Biber was born in 1644 in Wartenberg in Bohemia, present day Czech Republic. The son of a field guard, there is scant record of his early life; he re-emerges as a valet and musician to the bishop of Olomouc, in the Moravian town of Kroměříž, in 1668, where he quickly established himself as a violinist of the first rank.

We know little of Biber’s temperament or tastes, but he was clearly an ambitious man determined to better his position. In 1670, whilst ostensibly on a trip to buy new musical instruments, he made the reckless decision to abandon his employment, taking a job in Salzburg. Evidently he had spied opportunity in the big city, and indeed in a short time he climbed the ladder, ending up as Kapellmeister (essentially the person in charge of music) in Salzburg in 1684. He spent the rest of his days there,  enjoying musical and social success, and he even attained noble status, an honour bestowed on him by Emperor Leopold I (on only Biber’s second time of asking). By 1690 he was no longer just Biber; he was ‘Biber von Bibern’.

He married Maria Weiss in May 1672 in the bishop of Salzburg’s summer residence, and together they had eleven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. All of them were musical, and one son, Karl Biber, later landed his father’s old job as Kapellmeister at Salzburg, where he supervised Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus.

In Salzburg two divergent musical traditions from Italy and Germany collided. While Biber did not travel as extensively as many other musicians of his generation, he clearly had an ear for this influx of styles, and an ability to absorb and synthesise them in his own work. Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t have such a clear handle on Biber today is that his compositions vary so wildly. He wrote many settings of the mass, requiem and vespers, composed extraordinary (and extraordinarily difficult) instrumental music ranging from the satirical to the spiritual, and created Salzburg’s first ever opera, Arminio, in the early 1690s. In addition, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, there are over a hundred lost works which we’ll likely never hear.

Biber’s Battalia, written for 10 string instruments, is striking in its use of expressive and dramatic effects, using what would now be called ‘extended techniques.’ It conjures up the gathering of troops, the roar of a battle, drunken soldiers, and a lament for the dead, with players striking their instruments in unorthodox ways to imitate the sounds of muskets and cannons. In Sonata Representiva we hear frogs, hens, quails, and cats (and some more musketeers for good measure), Biber showing the player exactly how to ribbit and cluck and meow through detailed notation. In the hands of a true Biber zealot, such as violinist Andrew Manze, these details leap off the page.

His adventurous musical mind is perhaps best exhibited in the Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo, written as musical representations of the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, and dedicated to the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, Max Gandolph. In these sonatas, Biber uses a technique called scordatura, which translates as ‘mistuning.’ Rather than keeping the violin strings tuned to the notes G-D-A-E as is typical, Biber has a different tuning for each of the fifteen sonatas. In ‘The Visitation’ the strings are tuned A-E-A-E, ‘The Nativity’ is B-F sharp-B-D, and so on. Of particular note is ‘The Resurrection’, tuned G-D-G-D: Biber asks for the two middle strings to physically cross over, making the sign of the crucifix visible on the instrument.

To conclude the work, Biber wrote a monumental Passacaglia, probably the first piece ever written for the violin completely on its own. Using a repeating pattern quoted from a hymn to the guardian angel as its foundation, it’s a work of incredible power, and great representation of the coming together of Italian virtuosity and German contrapuntal writing, with the violin taking on multiple voices simultaneously.

Biber’s use of scordatura is more than simple trickery; rather, it serves to heighten the emotional power of the music. 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,’ and ‘The Beatification of the Virgin.’ Tighter, raspier 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. While composers from Mozart to Paganini and Mahler to Stravinsky have used scordatura since Biber’s time, the way he fully embraced it is unparalleled in Western music. The result is a set of works constantly questing, striving, contorting to plumb ever-deeper emotional and spiritual states.

The Mystery Sonatas were unpublished during Biber’s lifetime, and remained so until 1905. The only existing manuscript, now kept in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, is beautifully set out, with engravings of the fifteen scenes of the rosary pasted into the score. The original purpose of the work is not clear, but it’s quite possible the sonatas were written to accompany the dedicatee’s private devotions, and part of me almost feels guilt listening to these sublime works, perhaps never intended for public ears.

At the other end of the scale is Biber’s monster Missa Salisburgensis for fifty-three voices, the largest of his works written for the colossal setting of Salzburg Cathedral, which used choirs, ensembles and organs placed throughout the building (very much following a Venetian model). This was another of Biber’s lost works, until the manuscript was rediscovered in the 1870s in the home of a Salzburg greengrocer in a pile of paper to wrap vegetables. The sonic effect of the work is without doubt impressive, but its scale and bombast has overshadowed Biber’s more intimately-constructed vocal works, like the Missa Quadragesimalis for just four voices, or the smaller of his two requiems. The latter, written around 1692, packs an emotional punch, but is uncharacteristically understated in its expressive palette. Biber resorts to more universal rhetorical gestures, changes in texture and subtle word-painting, with a particularly evocative depiction of the day of wrath.

Beyond his music, the only real insight into Biber’s personality lie in his dedications. Naturally, these are full of flattery for his patrons, but one interesting phrase crops up now and again: ‘Fidem in Fidibus,’ or Faith in Fiddles. Punning on the Latin ‘fides’ and using the colloquial ‘fiddle’ rather than violin, this wonderful maxim seems to perfectly capture Biber and his embrace of the high and the low, the sacred and the profane. An outsider who made his own way inside, Biber had the courage to innovate when he arrived. Today, we should recognise a singular musical mind, one that captured both the rapturous theatre of Catholicism, and the ravings of a pack of animals.


James Hardie