Biber’s Rosary Sonatas: The Glorious Mysteries
Anne Loeser (baroque violin), Jane Young (baroque cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord/organ)
The third and final part of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Rosary Sonatas
The Glorious Mysteries and the concluding Passacaglia: ‘The Guardian Angel’
St Teresa’s Catholic Church, 301 Karori Road, Karori
Friday 5 February 6pm
Middle C missed the first two parts of Biber’s famous Rosary Sonatas late last year. These are instrumental compositions inspired by the sense of each of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary. So it was rewarding to hear the third group of ‘sonatas’, which comprises sonatas 11 to 15, plus the famous, stand-alone Passacaglia; and to be told that it was hoped to perform the entire series again later this year.
Not a great deal is known about Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. We don’t even know when they were written, although it is guessed at somewhere around 1680. But we do know from a letter of dedication that they were written for Biber’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) composed them for violin and continuo (baroque cello and harpsichord), which is how they were played on Friday. Other instrumental arrangements have been created, as will be evident by looking at the Internet. Biber lived about two generations before Bach, rather a contemporary of Corelli, Buxtehude, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, Lully, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Bononcini, Stradella….
Much of the following is drawn from Wikipedia and the notes Gregory Hill wrote to read at this and the first two concerts in 2020.
The manuscript of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas was discovered in the Bavarian State Library in about 1890, and first published in 1905. They had never been published or disseminated and in the previous 200 years, nobody had heard them, or heard of them. Once rediscovered, the Mystery Sonatas became Biber’s best known composition.
The title page is missing from the manuscript, so we don’t know what Biber called them. But we know from Biber’s dedication letter to the Archbishop of Salzburg that they were written to reflect the 15 Sacred Mysteries in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
While the individual mysteries are not named either, there is a blank space at the top of each sonata in which a copperplate engraving is printed, representing each of the mysteries of the Rosary, thus associating each sonata with that mystery. When the sonatas were first discovered, they were in fact referred to as The Copperplate Engraving Sonatas.
The work is prized for its virtuosic style, scordatura tunings and its programmatic structure.
One of the most singular aspects of the music is the way the violin is tuned, differently for each sonata, known as ‘Scordatura’, a term familiar, I imagine, to most string players: it involves modifying the tone of the violin by changing the pitch of certain strings. For example, No 13 is tuned, upwards: A E C# E and No 15: G C G D (compared with the normal, in fifths, G D A E).
Biber uses scordatura primarily to manipulate the violin’s tone colour, while the creation of otherwise impossible chords and textures are a secondary opportunity.
In addition, the eleventh sonata, the first of the Glorious Mystery group, requires the violinist to cross the middle strings at both the bridge and the nut to allow octave tunings – two Gs and two Ds – between the adjacent pairs of outer strings. There was a photo on a screen illustrating how that looked.
Every sonata required a different scordatura tuning. So that no long pauses for re-tuing were needed, Anne Loeser used four violins: two, her own, the others lent by Shelley Wilkinson and Gregory Squire. Gregory Hill thanked Gregory Squire for the job “of keeping all those violins in perfect mistune”; he went back and forth between the sonatas with the appropriately tuned violin.
Middle C seems to have had rather limited experience of Biber. There have been reviews of performances of certain of the Rosary Sonatas; in addition, in 2014, the ‘Battle’ scene from his Battalia, a singular portrayal of aspects of war (only some 30 years after the end of the devastating Thirty Years War, an aspect of European history that used to be ignored when the British Empire was almost the sole history subject; I fear that things may not be much better now with New Zealand’s emphasis on the, shall-we-say, parochial).
This concert: The Glorious Mysteries
The recital was in the Catholic church of Saint Teresa, a large, acoustically splendid space that sometimes had me looking for signs of a sound system, so warm and rich were the performances.
The Glorious Mysteries consists of:
The Assumprion of Mary into Heaven
The Coronation of Mary in Heaven
the Passacaglia – The Guardian Angel which is scored for violin alone.
The music was introduced by Gregory Hill (recently retired principal horn in the NZSO) who began by outlining the character of the entire series of 15 Rosary Sonatas, plus the final Passacaglia. The series is divided into three groups of ‘mysteries’, five in each. Middle C missed the first two series in late 2020: The Joyful Mysteries and The Sorrowful Mysteries. This concert completed the series with the third and final part: The Glorious Mysteries (sonatas 11 to 15) plus the concluding Passacaglia The Guardian Angel, not strictly one of the Rosary Sonatas.
The playing of the Resurrection sonata arrested the audience by emerging from behind, in the organ gallery: Douglas Mews’ sustained organ pedal note that was punctuated by sporadic cello sounds and a simple repetitive phrase by the violin. The second phase (is ‘movement’ the right word? – it’s named Surrexit Christus hodie – ‘Christ in born today’, after the old Latin hymn) soon emerged as a calming melody in triplets against balanced, harmonising passages on the organ. It’s a long movement that gains a hypnotic feeling before long in spite of the occasional playing of the hymn melody. The last movement became contemplative.
The players descended to the floor of the church to explore – incongruously – the character of No 12, the Ascension, about Christ’s rise to Heaven after 40 days. The rhythmic character of the opening part (described as a ‘martial intrada’) expressed a cheerful enough spirit. The following movement, entitled ‘Aria tubicinum’, or ‘trumpet tune’ which the players succeeded in investing with a certain spiritual feeling from the calm delight of being in heaven. Now that the players were closer to us, their wonderful technical command and animated musical feeling was evident, and the major contributions by Jane Young’s baroque cello and Mews’s harpsichord, often equal in importance to the violin, as well as in expression and colour.
Though it would not have been obvious to the audience, the nature of the scordatura for the Ascension was, as remarked by Gregory Hill, tuned to the simple C major chord (C E G C) with the G string tuned up a fourth to C which makes it ‘painfully tight’ for the fingers.
The third of the Glorious Mysteries, No XIII, the Pentecost, begins with a movement simply entitled ‘Sonata’, mainly in ¾ time; then short episodes, Gavotta and a Gigue with much excitable cross-string playing. It ended with a contemplative Sarabanda, and underlying drone passages, in ‘wonderment of the holy spirit’, in the words of the commentary.
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the fourth Mystery, Sonata 14. After a few flighty bars a Grave, then an Adagio episode followed, creating a peaceful scene; then an Aria which sounded more like a dance, in triple time, becoming more and more excitable and delightful. There seemed to be an almost Spanish flavour in the music. Though I hardly noticed it, the very danceable Aria movement moved subtly into a very similar Gigue. It was probably the gayest sonata in the group of ‘Glorious Mysteries’, though it ended enigmatically as the violin, which represented Mary, disappeared, leaving the last bars to cello and harpsichord.
The last of the actual ‘Glorious Mysteries’, No XV, is The Coronation of Mary in Heaven. A distinct difference was marked by the players’ return to the organ gallery, with the keyboard part again taken by the organ. It started with considerable solemnity, with an undefined ‘Sonata’. Though it’s in C major, there’s a general sense of peace, of acceptance in the music. Another neutral word, Aria, describes the next section with its three variations. It was replete with warmth, tumbling triplet semi-quavers and flashes of demi-semi-quavers. The playing was technically engrossing and emotionally at peace. It ended in the same general mood, though the concluding Sarabande, with endless presto semi-quavers in gay triple time.
Outside the strict series of the ‘Glorious Mystery’ sonatas, is the Passacaglia, ‘The Guardian Angel’, where Anne Loeser’s violin is left alone. Apart from the score marking it as a ‘Passacaglia’ no descriptive title is shown, apart from occasional tempo indications: Adagio, Allegro. The name comes from the copper-plate engraving at the beginning of the manuscript, as you’ll see from the website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtoh-i5yU64. There are no distinct movements or episodes, so the rhythm is constant through its roughly eight minutes – about the same as each of the five Glorious Mystery sonatas themselves. Its commanding, hypnotic attention was simply the result of the spiritual and emotional delivery of Loeser’s playing.
It did not eclipse the polished, intelligent and emotion-led playing of all three musicians in the Glorious Mysteries themselves; and the quite numerous audience applauded them with enthusiasm.