N.B. Proof-reading in progress to rid a hurriedly copied document of typos.
When Biber composed his Mystery Sonatas, little did he know that they were going to inspire, intrigue, fascinate, and at the same time, completely frustrate numerous performers, musicologists and music lovers for centuries to come. Although being without a doubt among his most widely discussed and performed compositions, they are at the same time perhaps the least understood. This afternoon's talk does not attempt to answer all of the questions and problems this music raises, nor necessarily attempt to offer THE definitive interpretation of the works (if such a thing could ever exist), but instead, to offer AN interpretation or interpretations, and in doing so, hopefully leave you with the same sense of eager fascination and intigue experienced by our predecessors. I shall begin by talking a little about Biber's background and like, before moving on to discuss the Mysery Sonatas, which we are going to hear performed today.
Given the title of the Mysery Sonatas, it is no surprise to find that Biber has often been written about as a 'mystery man' or a 'man of many mysteries'. I think, however, that this would have appealed to his sense of humour, as it is clear from much of his music that he had a sharp wit as good as anyone, and the written Latin and German dedications to his music collections reveal that Biber was never satisfied to say anything concisely or straightforwardly and with one meaning, when two, three or more meanings were possible. The first such ambiguity with Biber releated to his birth. Born in 1644 in the small town of Wartenberg in Bohemianow Stráž pod Ralskem in the Czech RepublicBiber was technically a Bohemian, although he was of 'German' parentage. In modern-day terms he would be described as a Sudeten Germanthat is, a German living in what were the German-occupied areas of Behemia. To confuse matters further, after a brief period of employment in the archiepiscopal town of Kroměříž in Moravia, Biber finally settled in Salzburg in 1670which was then a state, independent of Austrian lands. He remained in Salzburg until his death in 1704.
The problems of Biber's nationality have had an impact on his reception, particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite the fact that the largest collection of Biber's music is in the archives in Kroměříž, most of the research undertaken (particularly in the early part of the twentieth century), was by German or Austrian scholars, who championed Biber as the leader of the German school of violin playing. Biber was written about very little in Czech music histories until the last thirty or so years of the twentieth century, and indeed, some early Czech music historiesthose that do manage to mention Biberoften dismiss him quickly or apologise for his 'Germanness' before moving on to focus on so-called Czech natioanlistic aspects of music of the period. The 1905 edition of the Mystery Sonatas, which was until recently the only 'modern' edition of the works despite its numerous errors and problems, was prepared by one such German scholar, and published in Austria. And it was the Mystery Sonatas (among others) which were cited as examples by those writers who wished to cultivate the view of Biber as the master of the German virtuoso school of violin playing.
This view of Biber was not new, however, as the seventeenth-century violin maker Jakob Stainer had famously referred to Biber in a letter as 'the superb virtuoso Herr Biber', and various other contemporaries also mention Biber's artistry on the violin. Biber's reputation lasted well into the eighteenth century when the English writer on music, Charles Burney, described Biber's music as the most 'difficult and most fanciful' of any he has heard from the period. Burney was probably talking about Biber's set of eight violin sonatas published in 1681, and not the Mystery Sonatas, as there is no evidence that they were known until the rediscovery of the manuscript in the 1890s. Besides these works, and a further four publications of instrumental music dating from the 1670s, 80s, and 90s, Biber also wrote a variety of other instrumental sonatas and dance suites. He was, however, also an accomplished composer of vocal music, and there are numerous splendid settings of the mass, and music for vespers, and other motets. Sadly Biber's vocal music has received less attention than his instrumental music, although this situatopm os gradually changing as much of it is edited, published and performed.
Although we know almost nothing about Biber's early life between 1644 and his appearance at the Kroměříž court in about 1668, a number of hypotheses have been put forward regarding this period of his life. It is often suggested that Biber studied in Vienna with the violinist composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer or the Italian Antonio Bertali. This has never been proved, however, although there are clear connections between Biber's music and Schmelzer's. Of greater interest to us is the proposal pit forward by Jiří Sehnal, who suggested that Biber may have studied at the Jesuit College in Opava in Moravia. Sehnal has shown that by 1663the date of the first composition we have of Biber's, a setting of the Salve reginaBiber was in touch with a number of students at the College, who were later to become important composers in the region. One of thesePavel Josef Vejvanovskýwas to remain in close contact with Biber throughout his life.
The Jesuits were probably the most important and influential of all the religious orders active in central Europe at this time. They were founded in the sixteenth century by the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyolalater to become St Ignatius. By the seventeenth century the order had grown so considerably in size, that it was able to run most of the universities and colleges in central Europe, as well as many schools. The most important music theorist of the baroqueAthanasius Kircherwas trained by the Jesuits, and spent much of his life teacjing at the German Jesuit college in Rome, known as the Collegium Germanicum. Kircher's monumental music treatisethe Musurgia universalis written 1650was of lasting influence well into the eighteenth century, and significantly, we know that Biber had used this work during the 1660s, as he quotes the various bird songs notated by Kircher in his famous Sonata representativa of 1669. Also of interest, Biber's two middle namesIgnaz and Franzwere not on his birth certificate, but we know he had started using these names by about 1676. These names are, of course, the names of the two most important founder-members of the Jesuits: Ignatius of Loyola and Franz Xavier.
The major religious work of the Jesuitsthe Spiritual Exercises, an instruction manual for devotion written by Ignatius himselfwas translated into numberous languages and published widely during the seventeenth century. This work tells us much about the devotional practices of counter-reformation Catholicism, and is an important work for understanding the devotional context in which the Mystery Sonatas were written. I shall return to this work later.
The Mystery Sonatas survive in a lavish presentation manuscript now held in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. We don't know how it got to Munich. All we know is that it was in a private collection before it was deposited in the library around 1890. We know nothing about the history of the manuscript betfore then as to whether or not it was generally known about, although there is no evidence to suggest that it was. The manuscript contains fifteen compositions for violin and bass, and a concluding Passagalia for unaccompanied violin. The title page no longer survives, so we don't know what the works were originally called. The various titles by which the set has become knownRosary Sonatas, Mysery Sonatas, Copper-Plate Engraving Sonatasderive from the fifteen engravings in the manuscript, one each placed at the start of each of the first fifteen compositions depicting, in turn, the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. Similarly, the Passagalia in preceded by a drawing of a Guardian Angel holding the hand of a child. It is likely that the original title of the set would have been in Latinas is the case with Biber's other sets of instrumental musicand would probably have included some elaborate word play relating to the Rosary or the Virgin Mary.
The date of compilation of the manuscript has never been established. It may well have been on the title pagewhich is now lostas is the case with Biber's other Salzburg publications. The earliest possible date is 1670, which was when Biber first joined the Salzburg court after absconding from his former position at Kroměříž. The latest possible date is, of course, 1687, which was when the dedicatee of the setthe Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburgdied. Scholars have tended to place the works in the early to mid 1670s on the basis of style: they almost certainly predate the technical demands seen in the eight solo violin sonatas of 1681. It is very likely that they were Biber's first dedication to Maximilian Gandolph, which could explain the lavish presentation of the manuscript, and the fact that it was never published. The ornate prose style of the Latin dedication, however, suggests a date after 1676, which was when Biber published a set of twelve ensemble sonatas using a much simpler and more straightforward prose style in the dedication, compared to that of the Mystery Sonatas. Some commentators have suggested that the Mystery Sonatas were written for specific events in Salzburg during the mid 1670s, although that cannot be substantiated. The most specific we can be is to say that the manuscript dates from between 1670 and 1680.
Although the manuscript was compiled during the 1670s, the music was not necessarily composed the: as Eric Chafe suggests, some of the music may well date from Biber's time at Kroměříž, a period in which scordatura was very much in fashion and greatly desired by Biber's employer there, Prince-Bishop Karl, Count Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn of Olomouc. Indeed, the prominence of Maria devotion in Kroměříž supports this notion, as does the presence of a Marian cycle of medieval paintings in the picture gallery in the magnificent baroque castle there, which can still be seen today.
The first page of the manuscript, after a plain cover, contains the dedication to Biber's employer in Salzburg, Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, written in highly ornate Latin, in which Biber demonstrated his skill in Latin rhetoric through the use of numerous wordplays and rhetorical figures, techniques central to all his dedications. In the opening of the dedication, Biber refers to the sun of justice and the immaculate moon to which he is consecrating the music. These were established metaphors for Christ as the light of the world, and the Virgin Mary, respectively, who are the two central figures of the mysteries of the rosary. This is important in some of the music, as I shall show later. Biber goes on to describe his patron Maximilian Gandolph as the third light receiving illumination from both Christ and Mary. This not only refers to his holy status by making an analogy between him and Christ, but it also places him in a threefold unity with Christ and Mary. This metaphor is extended as Biber draws closer analogies between Maximilian Gandolph and the Virgin Mary. He tells Maximilian 'as a Son you grow in holy radiance, and as a Virgin you defend the Virginal honour of the Mother'. The word play and ambiguity in meaning in this context on the word son (filius is the Latin word Biber uses) who shines in hoky radiance refers, of course, to the common metaphor for Christ as the light of the world or sun of justice and also as the son of God. Towards the end of the dedication Biber tells us that his 'four-stringed violin' is accompanied by a 'basso continuo', which perhaps has significance for performers. For example, in all of his sacred vocal music Biber specifies the use of an organ, whilst a harpsichord is specified most frequently in the secular instrumental music. Perhaps we are to assume then, that Biber is suggesting that the 'basso continuo' part of the Mystery Sonatas need not be limited to either of these instruments, and that Biber had a more varied continuo group in mind?
Besides the images in the manuscript, another technique uniting the set is the use of scordaturathe retuning of the strings of the violin to notes other than the conventional g, d', a', e''. This is used in all but the first and last of the compositions, requiring a total of fifteen different tunings in the whole set. The compositions using scordatura are notated in the manner of a transposing instrument, in that the violinist is told where on the string to place the fingers, but the resulting pitch is different to the notated pitch. The required scordatura tuning is indicated at the start of each composition, along with a signature often including a curious mixture of sharp and flat signs. This confusing key signature results from the fact that each accidental only applies to the note in the particular octave in which it is written, and not the octave above or below, unless this is indicated. Most of the scordatura tunings require the violinist to raise or lower the strings by a tone or a second, although there are some extreme tunings used in the set which require the raising or lowering of one or more of the violin strings by as much as a fourth or fifth. The most extraordinary scordatura in the set is in Mystery 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 at both ends of the violin. Such symbolism was in keeping with contemporary thought, and, as one commentator has shown, the number 22the letter 'x' in the number alphabetis an important numerological structuring device in the sonatas which relate to the events of Christ's passion. I shall come back to this later.
The purpose of the scordatura in the Mystery Sonatas has not always been appreciated, however. The scordatura tuning of 'The Resurrection' sonata, for example, was so unique that the editors of the 1905 edition of the sonatas completely misundertsood it, which resulted in a misconceived edition of this sonata, full of mistakes. They did attempt to correcy it with a reprint published in 1959, although many mistakes were still left unaltered. In 1923, the violinist Robert Reitz edited the Mystery Sonatas for Universal Edition, in an arrangement for a conventionally tuned violin. Such an attitude stems from the misconception of Biber's use of scordatura merely as an external gimmick, employed only as an artificial device to enhance the virtuosity of the set. The scordatura tunings do indeed facilitate the playing of triads in close position, and other technical features which would otherwise be more difficult on a conventionally-tuned violin. More importantly, however, each individual scordatura creates its own resonance or sound world, which helps enhance the mood of each sonata.
For the purpose of devotion, the fifteen mysteries of the rosary are divided into three groups of five. The first five are the joyful mysteries which deal with events from the annunciation to Christ's childhood. The five sorrorful mysteries cover the events of the passion from Christ's praying on the Mount of Olives to his Crucifixion, and the five glorious mysteries deal with the events from the Resurrection to Mary's coronation. Biber's awareness of this subdivision is reflected in his choice of sharp keys in the joyful and glorious mysteries, and flat keys in the sorrowful mysteries. For each mystery of the Rosary, one also says the Ave Maria ten times, the Pater noster, and the Gloria Patri. This was often done with a set of rosary beads, and numerous examples of beautifully carved rosary beads have survived from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
When Biber compiled the manuscript of the Mystery Sonatas there was already a will-established tradition of Rosary devotion. Numerous Rosary confraternitiespious groups of individuals who met on a regular basiswere founded, and hundred of Rosary Psalters were published throughout Europe. These books contained detailed instruction on how to pray the Rosary, and frequently included quotations from the Bible, meditations, prayers, and engravings relating to each of the mysteries. It is from one of these books which the engravings in Biber's manuscript appear to have been cut, although we have been unable to identify the precise source. The Jesuits in particular were noted for their strong encouragement of Rosary devotion among their members, and this was part of the society's constitutions.
One such Rosary confraternity existed in Salzburg in the seventeenth century, and we know that Maximilian GandolphvBiber's employer and dedicatee of the Mystery Sonataswas a member and promoter of it. Maximilian Gandolph, incidentally, had also received Jesuit training, which included some time spent studying at the Collegium Germanicum in Rome, where Kircher worked. The room in which the Rosary confraternityor more specifically congregation is though to have met in Salzburg is the Aula Academica of the University, erected in 1619. It contains large scale paintings of the fifteen mysteries of the rosary on its walls, some of which are anonymous, others of which have been attributed to or confirmed to be the work of the painters Zacharias Miller and Abraham Bloemaert. These fifteen images are the same as the first fifteen images in Biber's manuscript, and thus link the music and the venue. The Marian cingregation which met there would have been split into a large and a small congregation: all students of the University would have been registered in the former, and all pupils of the College in the latter. Additionally, there existed from 1619 onwards the Congregation Angelica for the lower grades or the preparatory classes of the Gymnasium. It seems clear that the Mystery Sonatas would have been performed in these rooms as part of the devotional exercises, although as Ernst Kubitschek has pointed out, the rather large room is not particularly suited to the intimate nature of the music in the Mystery Sonatas. Kubitschek also suggested a connection between the Congregatio Angelica and the Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas, the latter of which is preceded by a drawing of a guardian angel holding the hand of a child in Biber's manuscript. The likelihood that this work would have been performed to such young children also seems difficult to imagine, however.
Whether or not Biber was a member of this Rosary congregation is uncertain, although we do know that he was a member of one such religious confraternity in SalzburgHeilig-Kreuz-Bruderschaft (or Holy Cross Brotherhood)and his wife Maria Biber was a member of the Josefsbruderschaft (Brotherhood of St Joseph), so the possibility that Biber took part in the Marian congregations must not be ruled out. What is clear, is that Biber is likely to have written his Mystery Sonatas for the Marian congregations, given that we know he wrote his Litany to Saint Josepg for the brotherhood of the same name, and it is fair to say that he probably wrote his Offertorium in Festo 7 dolorum (Offertory for the feast of the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary) for another confraternity founded in Salzburg in 1688, the Maria-Sieben Schmerzen Burderschaft (the Brotherhood of the Seven Sorrows of Mary).
Marian veneration was central to the ideology of rosary confraternities: Mary had a central role in the fifteen mysteries, when used in devotion. This is made clear in the paintings of the fifteen mysteries in the Aula Academica of Salzburg University. In the paintings depicting the sorrowful mysteries, Mary is the largest figure in the foreground, being comforted by an angel, and is seeing the events (such as the flagellation, the crowning with thorns etc.) in a vision, and in the pictures they are taking place in the background. The emphasis in these particular paintings is on Mary's suffering, and it is also a way of giving Mary a central role in events which she is believed not to have seen first hand. Likewise, a large portion of Biber's music has a Marian agenda: apart from the Mystery Sonatas, his earliest surviving composition was a setting of the Marian text Salve regina, his Vespers publication from 1693 includes a group of Psalms of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he also wrote a Stabat Mater, another text about Mary.
The various Rosary Psalters which were published by the confraternities of the Rosary tended to contain information on the origin of the rosary, statutes of the confraternity, and the text of the Salve regina, various prayers and litanies of the Virgin Mary. Most important, they would list the fifteen mysteries of the rosary and include meditations on them. The latter could include any or all of the following: a narrative of events for each mystery, quotations from relevant sections of the gospels, accompanying prayers, and engravings depicting each of the mysteries. Likewise, many of the rosary beads which have survived, contain miniature, beautifully carved images of each mystery. Most of the Rosary psalters were very small in format, and were intended for private devotion. To aid the person using the book, detailed instructions were often given on the order of the recitations, and when to say the Ave Marias and Pater nosters. The images were included to act as a stimulus to the imagination of the person which was praying, and this formed part of a long tradition. This is exemplified by one such book, published in Antwerp in 1533, which tells us that 'unto every saynge or facte of Cryst there is correspondent a fayer picture: that the inwarde mynde might favour the thinge that the otword eye beholdeth'. The person praying on each mystery was expected to do so for a considerable timeoften several hoursand was expected to imagine all details of the scene with the aid of the prayers, the text from the gospel and the pictures. Things which they might be required to think about with these aids included the physical attributes of the scene in which the mystery took place (often in exhaustive detail), the clothes and external features of the participants, the dialogue of the participants and their own personal role in the events of each mystery. A similar approach to devotion is adopted in the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuits.
This highlights the importance of both images and the use of imagination in prayer which was as relevant in late-seventeenth-century, Catholic Salzburg, as it was when the Jesuit's Spiritual Exercises were first written in the sixteenth century, and is exemplified by the many sumptuous oil paintings seen in churches and Cathedrals in central Europe (including Salzburg), depicting events from the life of Christ. An important case in point here being the magnificent rosary paintings in the Aula Academica of Salzburg University. The emphasis on the active, imaginative and creative involvement of the person praying perhaps represents a contrast to the stylised automatic repetition of set prayers which is sometimes done today. The Jesuits advicate a much more sensory approach: the application of the five senses to all the events in the life of Christis highly recommended by them.
The importance of the use of music as a devotional 'tool' in this context is clear. A member of the Marian congregation in the Aula Academica in Salzburg University during the 1670s could see the paintings on the wall, and hear any texts being read by the person directing the devotional exercises, and use both of these to visualise the event being meditated. The use of music in this context alongside art complements the religious aesthetic both by moving the affections of the listener towards the mood of the events being meditated, and also by highlighting specific, established symbols and images which are mentioned both in the texts associated with each mystery and in the artistics traditions, thus enabling them to be visualised with greater explicitness. The music the, like the texts, readings and paintings, was a 'tool', aimed at inducing a particular state of mind.
One of the principal means available to a composer to represent such symbols, images and moods or affections in music is rhetoric. Interest in rhetoric was revived and studied with new vigour during the Renaissance, a period in which there was fervent passion for all things from classical antiquity. At the same time, people began to explore the impact and uses of rhetoric in the other arts. Music was no exception, and there began to appear writings about the new musical rhetoric. This was particularly strong in the German-speaking lands, and throughout the seventeenth century, numerous treatises were written classifying musical rhetoric which was then known as musica poetica. The emphasis was on composition, and the way that a composer could use musical-rhetorical devices as the building blocks for a composition. Much time was spent in classifying, listing and giving examples of the hundreds of musical-rhetorical figures. These were analogous to the figures of speech in written rhetoric, which had been discussed in writings on rhetoric for centuries. Indeed, much of the terminology adopted to describe musical-rhetorical figures was taken directly from classical sources on rhetoric. These figuressuch as those listed by Athanasius Kircher who I mentioned earlierwere intended not only to represent specific ideas and symbols relating to the subject matter a piece of music, but also to arouse the corresponding affectionsthat is, the emotional responsein the listener.
The importance of rhetoric during the period is testified by the fact that it formed the climax of a Jesuit education, being reserved only for the older students. There is little doubt that Biber studied rhetoric during his education. The dedications which he wrote for his published collections of music, and also for the Mystery Sonatas, demonstrate a high level of skill in ornate Latin and German prose, and rhetorical artistry. They are full of rhetorical figures, word plays, double meanings, and some of them even allude to specific musical-rhetorical figures which can then be found in the music itself. We also know that Biber worked with two musicians who wrote about rhetoric and the musical-rhetorical figures. During a period of employment sometime during the 1660s he worked in Graz with the composer Johann Jakob Prinner whose only music treatise lists many of the figures, based largely on the work of the earlier composer and theorist Christoph Bernhard who worked at the Dresden court with Heinrich Schütz. Bernhard's definitions of figures are also emulated in the two-volume music treatise written by Johann Baptist Samber, who was a colleague of Biber's at Salzburg. The important thing about Samber's publication, is that Biber wrote an approbatiothat is, an approval of the volume printed at the start of the treatisesaying how he had read the contents, approved of them, and recommended them for use by all.
Biber's vocal music, which includes numerous settings of the mass and other compositions for church as well as one opera, is full of rhetorical figures representing specific ideas in the text. It is not surprising therefore that rhetoric also plays an important role in his instrumental music. A common definition of rhetoric is 'the use of language for persuasion', which is one of the reasons why it has often been given a bad press. Today, one thinks immediately of politics when the word rhetoric is used, and expressions such as 'empty rhetoric'. This was not always the way in which rhetoric was viewed, however, and the persuasive quality of rhetoric, particularly in courts of law, was one of its traditional and valued uses. The function of the persuasive quality of rhetoric in the context of the Mystery Sonatas is particularly advantageous. The aim of Rosary devotionsor indeed any form of devotionwas to invoke a particular response in the listener, to 'persuade' (for want of a better term) their thoughts and emotions in a particular direction. Biber makes splendid use of rhetoric in the Mystery Sonatas, most noticeably by using it as a tool to evoke ideas, symbols and images which were of importance to the devotional and artistic traditions of which they form a part. I shall now focus on some specific examples of how Biber does this in the music, beginning with his sonatas on the five joyful mysteries.
Biber's sonatas on the joyful mysteries pose a variety of problems with regard to their interpretation. The rapid scales in the violin part of the opening work relating to the Annunciation, for example, are often described as the rustling of the Angel Gabriel's wings. This is possible, although it is hard to imagine Biber using such a crude device to depict a comparatively unimportant aspect of the Angel. A more likely explanation is that this figuration relates to the idea that children are a gift from God, something which is suggested by another composition by Biberhis Nisi Dominuswhich uses the same violin figuration to accompany the text 'children are an heritage of the Lord'. This is an example of the way in which the use of various figurations and compositional devices in Biber's vocal music are important 'clues' to what a particular figuration meant to Biber. This interpretation is not only rooted in Biber's own work, but is also reflected in contemporary art in which the actual moment of conception is often portrayed by the use of a beam of light coming from God to Mary. God is usually represented in such images by the Holy Ghost, depicted in the form of a Dove, as we shall see later on today. The Austrian musicologist Dieter Haberl, has undertaken extensive number analysis of the Mystery Sonatas which involved counting all the notes in every movement and interpreting the numbers and number patterns in the context of contemporary thought. He concluded that the 496 notes of the opening movement of this work relates to the immaculate conception, given that 496 is the third 'perfect number'. The first four perfect numbers are 6, 28 and 496, and 8128 and are defined as numbers which add up to the sum of all the numbers by which they can be divided. This aspect of number symbolism in this movement, then, relates to the figuration associated with the idea of children being a gift from God.
It is the third of Biber's joyful mysteries which has caused most confusion, however. Whilst the engraving in the manuscript depicts the nativity, the music is very melancholy in character. It is in a minor key, and seems to be worlds away from the usual happy elements of the Christmas story depicted by other composers, and indeed, used by Biber elsewhere. One commentator has said that the sonata perhaps depicts the pains of child birth, although for a more appropriate interpretation, we need to return to the devotional context. In the Jesuit's Spiritual Exercises, for example, the person engaged in meditation is told to reflect on the hardships endured by Mary and Joseph during their journey to Bethlehem, before Christ is born in utter destitution, and to remember how 'after all his labours, after suffering from hunger and thirst, heat and cold, being treated with injustice and insulted, he is to die on the cross'. This interpretation of the Christmas story is reflected in many baroque depictions of the nativity, which often include the baby Jesus lying on a skull (the symbol of death), Mary praying over a dead Christ child, and sometimes even including the Crucifixion in the same scene as the nativity. We know that Biber was referring to this aspect of nativity devotion because of the fact that he includes a musical quotation from Mystery Sonata X ('The Crucifixion') in the Adagio which concludes this work. Indeed, the use of musical cross references between one Mystery Sonata and another is an important feature of the set. Another quotation from Mystery Sonata X is found in the fourth Mystery Sonata ('The Presentation [of the 12-day old Christ] in the Temple') which foresees the events of the Crucifixion. It refers to the moment when Christ's side is pierced during the Crucifixion, an event foreseen by the aged Simeon during the Presentation in the Temple. Close parallels can also be drawn between much of the violin figuration in the two compositions.
Musical-rhetorical figures play an important part in evoking these images and thus encouraging the listener to respond appropriately. In the 'Nativity sonata', for example, the profound nature of the focus of the devotion is evoked through the use of the passus duriusculus, a figure involving the use of a chromatic descent or ascent to depict sad or sorrowful affections. As we shall see later, this device is one of many that Biber frequently uses to depict lamentation in his music. Figures of rhetoric are also used to evoke joyful emotions in the sonatas depicting the joyful mysteries. In Mystery Sonata II ('The Visitation [of Mary to Elizabeth]') and Mystery Sonata V ('The Finding [of the 12-year old Jesus preaching] in the Temple')both of which are in A major with similar scordatura tuningsthe figure known as anabasis is used. This figure, which involves the use of ascending melodies to depict exalted and exuberant emotions, is particularly noticeable in the fifth sonata, in which every movement starts with an ascending melody, as you shall hear later today.
The change in musical style between the last of Biber's compositions on the joyful mysteries and the first work related to the sorrowful mysteries could not be more clearly defined. Mystery Sonata VI, depicting Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, forms an antithesisa rhetorical figure involving the use of contrastwith Mystery Sonata V. For example, whereas Sonata V was in A major, Sonata VI is in C minor, these being the two extremes of sharp and flat keys (respectively) used in the Mystery Sonatas. Furthermore, the extensive use of the anabasis figure in the fifth work which I just described, is contrasted with its opposite musical figure in the sixth workthe catabasis. The catabasis is a rhetorical figure which uses descending melodies to express sorrowful affections, and it is striking how every movement of Mystery Sonata VI begins with a descending melody, evoking a sense of heaviness and lamentation. Indeed, the opening movement of this sonata is given the title Lamento in the manuscript, and parallels contemporary artistic lamentations, which often include a strong sense of gravity, with people falling, swooning, or bending downwards.
This deep sense of sorrow is described in the Spiritual Exercises, which tell us that Jesus 'fell into such dread that He said: "My soul is ready to die with sorrow." And he sweated blood so abundantly that St Luke tells us: "His sweat fell to the ground like thick drops of blood".' It is often suggested that the downward plunging violin figuration just before the end of this sonata actually depicts the sweating of blood. Whilst we can't be certain that this is what Biber had in mind, it is clear that it relates to contemporary descriptions of the events of the passion in devotional books and representations in the visual arts. The former would often include pages of descriptions of Christ's wounds during the passion, as they were the subject of devotion at this time. Regarding the scourging at the pillar, for examplesomething mentioned only briefly in the Biblelengthy descriptions were written in devotional books describing the number of whips, the number of scourgers, the number of wounds (often thousands).
Biber evokes the whipping in Mystery Sonata VII through the use of the genera concitato?a compositional device supposedly invented by Monteverdiwhich uses rapid repetition of notes of the same pitch to express angry, agitated or war-like affections. Prominent rhetorical figures in these sonatas include the passus duriusculus (particularly in Mystery Sonata VI), and a tremolo figureinvolving a series of slow, undulating double stops in the violin. Both of these figures were associated by Biber with lamentation, as is testified by their use in his Balleti lamentabili.
The focal point and climax of these five sonatas is the last one'The Crucifixion'to which they all lead. This is made clear by the use of some short quotations from 'The Crucifixion' sonata in the Lamento of Mystery Sonata VI and likewise at the end of Mystery Sonata IX ('The Carrying of the Cross'). Dieter Haberl has also shown that this idea is also represented in the use of numerological proportions in several of Biber's sonatas on the sorrowful mysteries. He has shown how the number 22 is an important structural number in these works, most notably, the number of notes in many of the individual movements are divisible by 22. 22 was an important number in contemporary thought on number symbolism, in that it represented the letter 'x' in the natural order number alphabet. The natural order number alphabet used a system in which a = 1, b = 2, c = 3 and so on until we reach 'x' which equals 22, therefore a number symbol for the cross.
When we finally reach Mystery Sonata X, we hear dotted triplet rhythms at the start using multiple stopping in the violin which is sometimes thought to represent the hammering in of the nails. This is a likely scenario given that the nails were an important symbol of the passion, and focal point of contemporary devotion. Structurally this is the most important composition in the collection relating to the event which marks the end of Christ's life on earth. Much of the music which came before begins to make sense as we hear all of the figures and passages in this composition which were quoted in earlier ones. At the very end of this work the violin engages in rapid passage work of extraordinary virtuosity, sometimes described as a musical representation of the moment when Christ dies on the cross, after which darkness falls on the earth, and there is an earthquake. Certainly the darkness in the sky is depicted in both the engraving in the manuscript and also in the picture in the Aula Academica in Salzburg University. Another interpretation of this moment, however, is that the violin figuration is imitating figuration typical of lyre music, an instrument which was an established symbol for the crucifixion, with its gut strings, tightly stretched across a wooden frame. There is no reason why these two interpretations can't exist side by side, however. As is clear in Biber's dedications, ambiguity was of great importance, and one thing could be understood in various different ways and on differing levels. Likewise, the emphasis in the Spiritual Exercises was on the congregationor in today's performance, you, the audiencedrawing a personal, and individual interpretation and response from the music, images, and readings, all of which were mere 'tools', serving a much higher purpose.
Following 'The Crucifixion' sonata, we have Biber's sonata on the first of the five glorious mysteries depicting the Resurrection, with its extraordinary scordatura tuning as I mentioned earlier. This work forms an antithesis (the rhetorical figure involving contrast) with the previous sonata, thus marking the change from the sorrowful mysteries to the glorious mysteries, in the same way that sonatas V and VI formed an antithesis highlighting the change from the joyful to the soffowful mysteries, as I mentioned earlier. The contrast lies in the use of G minor for 'The Crucifixion' sonata and G major, for 'The Resurrection' sonata.
Musical rhetorical figures are used to depict specific images described in contemporary devotional works, and also depicted in much contemporary art. The opening of 'The Resurrection' sonata, for example, uses a repeated circulatio figure in the violin part, which is heard at different octaves. The circulatio was often used in vocal music to depict ideas of circular motion expressed in the text. In this composition it evokes the image of Christ as the light of the worldsymbolised by the sun, a traditional symbol for Jesus. Indeed, several contemporary paintings depict the Resurrection with sunlight emanating from Christ, or have Jesus positioned with a large sun behind his head. The same rhetorical figure is also heard at the end of the last of Biber's sonatas on the glorious mysteries, depicting the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven. Here it is repeated many times, and alludes to the circular shape of the crown of the coronation which is seen in the engraving. This is confirmed by the fact that in Biber's manuscript at the end of this sonata, there is an ornamental drawing which marks the end of the music on the page, depicting a crown inside a half moon, the latter being an established symbol for Mary. A similar technique is also employed by Monteverdi in his opera Poppea, where he uses a circulatio figure on the word corona (meaning 'crown') in act three.
Mystery Sonata XIV ('The Assumption of the Virgin') also makes use of rhetorical figures, most notably, the anabasis, which (as I mentioned earlier) is used elsewhere in the collection. The ascending melodies of the anabasis refer here to the upward motion of Mary during her assumption. The most striking use of a rhetorical figure in this whole set, however, comes at the end of this composition, when the violin breaks off in the middle of a phrase, leaving the continuo players to conclude the phrase and the piece alone. This is known as an abruptioa rhetorical figure involving an abrupt and unexpected breaking off of a phrase or cadence. It suggests here the moment of Mary's entry into heaven, leaving the disciples behind on earth.
Number symbolism also plays a role in these compositions. The middle movement of 'The Resurrection' sonata, for example, which is a chorale tune based probably on a contemporary hymn tune, is played in octaves in the violin part imitating the sound of chorale singing, a device used elsewhere by Biber. If you were to count in today's performance the number of notes in the chorale tune the first time it is sounded in the bass at the opening of the composition, you will notice that there are 33 notes in all. This was viewed at that time as Christ's age when he died on the cross.
There are also one or two other imitative effects which can be heard in the glorious mysteries, which are not rhetorical figures as such. In the opening of Mystery Sonata XII ('The Ascension') for example, the violin imitates a chorus of trumpets playing a fanfare, which is enhanced by the use of much multiple stopping in the violin, facilitated by the scordatura. This represents the arrival and presence of Christ. Such trumpet fanfares would have announced the arrival of important dignitariesBiber wrote several such piecesand this style of writing is often used in Biber's masses at the text et ascendit. Likewise, music was often represented in scenes in art depicting the Ascension as we shall see later today. The other striking affect in the glorious mysteries is in Mystery Sonata XIII ('The Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost') which opens with rapid, swirling thirds in the violin part, which is often said to depict the great winds of Pentecost.
The final work you will hear in today's concert is the Passagalia which concludes the collection in the manuscript. This work is not related to the fifteen mysteries of the rosary, and is different from the rest of the compositions by being scored for unaccompanied violin. It comprises of sixty-five variations on a familiar baroque ground bass. As I said earlier, it may relate to the Aula Angelica of Salzburg University, but it may well also have been intended to be performed during the feast of the Guardian Angel, which took place along with Rosary devotions in October in seventeenth-century Salzburg. Biber may also have had in mind what one commentator describes as 'the constant watchfulness of the Guardian Angel', an idea reflected in the depiction of an angel comforting Mary in her sufferings in many of the paintings in the Aula Academica.
In today's performances you'll not only hear all of the Mystery Sonatas performed, but also be able to see the kinds of paintings which would have surrounded anyone praying the Rosary in late-seventeenth century Salzburg. You will hear the texts which might have been read in the Aula Academica in Salzburg University during Rosary devotions in the 1670s. This will enable you to engage with the music and draw your own personal response using a highly sensory approach in the same way that someone meditating on the Rosary in seventeenth-century Salzburg might have done. I hope that today's talk has inspired you to do that, and to go on asking similar (and many more questions) about the Mystery Sonatas with the same sense of fascination and intrigue which I alluded to at the start of today's talk.
(C) James Clements, April 2001