Biber: The Rosary Sonatas

CD sleeve notes about the Mystery/Rosary Sonatas recorded by violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and released on the Avie label in 2004 on a double-CD set with readings before each movement by Timothy West from contemporary Rosary Psalters.

In 1676 Heinrich Biber wrote of his 'faith in stringed instruments (fidem in fidibus)', demonstrating his love of rhetoric, probably imbued in him by his Jesuit education. Of all Biber's seven collections of music, however, the expression 'faith in stringed instruments' is most evident in the Mystery or Rosary Sonatas, which survive in a beautifully-written manuscript, compiled in the early 1670s, and now housed in the Bavarian State Library. The manuscript contains fifteen compositions for violin and bass, and a concluding Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. In the absence of a title page, the various titles in use today derive from the fifteen engravings in the manuscript, one placed at the start of each of the first fifteen compositions depicting, in turn, the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. Similarly, the Passacaglia is preceded by a drawing of a Guardian Angel holding the hand of a child.

The engravings were probably cut from a Rosary psalter, the name given to the hundreds of devotional books published by Rosary confraternities active in central Europe at this time. These books contained detailed instruction on praying the Rosary, and frequently included biblical quotations, meditations, prayers, and engravings depicting the mysteries. Such books were produced by the Jesuits-a religious order who influenced education and devotional practices more than any other religious group in seventeenth-century Europe-and who were known for advocating Rosary devotion with music. One such confraternity existed in Salzburg during the seventeenth century. It met in the lecture hall-the Aula Academica-of Salzburg's University, which still contains fifteen paintings depicting the mysteries. The Rosary Sonatas were probably performed in this room. As Biber mentions in the Latin dedication of the Rosary Sonatas, Rosary devotion was promoted most ardently by the dedicatee of the collection and Biber's employer, Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg, who may have attended meetings in the Aula Academica. The paintings in the Aula Academica, the engravings in Biber's manuscript and Rosary psalters exemplifiy the importance of imagery in Rosary devotion in the region at this time, which correlates with a principal concept of Jesuit devotion, namely, the use all five senses when praying. Thus, 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. The readings on this recording are taken from Rosary psalters.

Besides the images in the manuscript, another technique uniting the sonatas is the use of scordatura (the retuning of the violin strings to notes other than the conventional g, d', a', e'') in all but the first and last of the sonatas, requiring a total of fifteen different tunings in the whole collection. The compositions using scordatura are notated in the manner of certain tablatures in that the violinist is told where on the string to place the fingers, but the resulting pitch is different from the notated pitch. The requisite scordatura tuning is indicated at the start of each composition, along with a signature often including a curious mixture of sharp and flat signs. The most extraordinary scordatura tuning in the set is in Rosary Sonata XI ('The Resurrection'), which requires the violinist to interchange the middle two strings, crossing them before the bridge of the violin and again at the nut, resulting in a symbolic cross shape.

The Rosary is formed of three groups of five mysteries: the joyful mysteries (I-V), the sorrowful mysteries (VI-X), and the glorious mysteries (XI-XV), which are presented in this order in Biber's manuscript. Sonata I ('The Annunciation'), opens with rapid violin figuration, associated elsewhere in Biber's music with the idea that children are a gift from God. This is portrayed in contemporary art by the Holy Ghost (represented by a dove) whose light shines on the Virgin. In Sonata II ('The Visitation'), the first two movements reflect the discomfort of Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth. The brighter final movement, might reflect the mutual joy of the women. Sonata III ('The Nativity'), however, focuses on the suffering of Mary and Joseph during their journey to Bethlehem, and on Christ, who will suffer a life of hardship before dying on the cross for man's salvation. This is portrayed in some baroque art by including the crucifixion scene in the same picture as the nativity, and Biber refers to this in the Adagio with references to music from Sonata X ('The Crucifixion'). The same serious mood pervades the variations comprising Sonata IV ('The Presentation in the Temple'). The fifth variation is a direct reference to the Adagio variation of Sonata X, evoking the aged Simeon foreseeing the piercing of Christ's side at the Crucifixion. Sonata IV and Sonata X have similar scordatura tunings and violin figuration. The exuberance of Sonata V focuses on the joyous moment Mary and Joseph find Christ in the Temple.

In Sonata VI ('The Agony in the Garden') Biber evokes sympathy to Christ's despair with figuration he frequently used in laments. These include descending/ascending chromatic melodic lines, the tremolo (repeated double stops) and melodies with descending lines. The repeated downward leaps in the Adagio are often said to depict Christ sweating blood, as described in the Bible and portrayed in contemporary art. The Bible contains no descriptive details of the events of Sonatas VII and VIII, which were not witnessed by Mary in person, but in a vision, as depicted in the paintings in the Aula Academica. These events were often described in exhaustive detail in contemporary writings, however, which focused on the brutality of the whips and the spikes of the thorns, and the dreadful wounds they inflicted. This is depicted in the music through the use of Monteverdi's genera concitato, a procedure using rapid repetition of notes of the same pitch to express agitation or anger, combined here with sharply twisting melodic lines. Sonata IX ('The Carrying of the Cross') depicts Christ's struggle to Calvary through increasingly difficult figuration, and the thoughtful opening and closing movements allow reflection on Mary's grief. The dotted rhythms towards the end of the composition resemble a passage in Sonata X, and thus announce arrival at Calvary. The violent opening of Sonata X has been described as the hammering of the nails and the music of the final variation employs virtuosic figuration, perhaps representing the earthquake after Christ's death. The nails were an important focus of devotional art and writings, and the earthquake is portrayed in contemporary art, including the painting of the Crucifixion in the Aula academica.

The mood alters in Sonata XI ('The Resurrection') to celebration, with swirling circulatio figures (a musical-rhetorical device involving circular melodies) depicting the sun surrounding Christ the 'Sun of Justice (Soli Iustit? as Biber refers to him in the dedication. The second movement, headed Surexit Christus hodie in the manuscript, is likely to be based on a contemporary hymn tune, as suggested by the violin playing mainly in octaves, evoking singing in church. The Ascension (Sonata XII) opens with the violin imitating a trumpet fanfare, enhanced by multiple stopping. Trumpet fanfares often announced important people, and this style is often used at the text 'et ascendit' in Biber's masses. The opening figuration of Sonata XIII ('The Descent of the Holy Ghost') is sometimes described as the winds of Pentecost. The exuberance returns in Sonata XIV ('The Assumption of the Virgin'), which is full of ascending melodies depicting the happy event. In the final variation the violin stops mid phrase (a musical-rhetorical figure called abruptio), perhaps indicating the moment of assumption. The dignified Sonata XV ('The Coronation of the Virgin') uses the circulatio figure, this time depicting the crown. This is confirmed by the drawing, at the end of this work in the manuscript, of a crown inside a half moon-the Marian symbol Biber refers to with the phrase 'Immaculate Moon (Lune sine macula)' in his dedication. One commentator referred to the variations of the Passacaglia which concludes the Rosary Sonatas as 'the constant watchfulness of the Guardian Angel', which is suggested by many of the paintings in the Aula academica in which Mary is shown comforted by an Angel. The image of an angel holding a child's hand and pointing towards heaven is sometimes seen in paintings in Jesuit churches in central Europe.

(c) Dr James Clements, January 2004