top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber

This cheery music comes from the pen of a composer who is most definitely not part of the mainstream of music heard in concerts nowadays. In fact he's mostly remembered - if remembered at all - on the reputation of two unique and extraordinary works which are very rarely heard performed live. As is usually the case, the man behind the music merits further exploration, and that's the purpose of this post. The composer in question is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1680)

Biber is an excellent example of a person who worked his way up the social ladder, of someone who knew how to "network", as we would say today.

We know little about his early life and training, but Biber was certainly born in the small town then known as Wartenberg in Bohemia, now known as Stráž pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic. It's near the city of Liberec, about 80 km north-east of Prague. He was baptised on 12 August 1644 so we can safely assume he was born either on that day or the day before.

There's much conjecture about the context of Biber's earliest musical experiences, but we know for certain that before 1668 - that is, when he was in his early 20s - Biber was in Graz where he was employed at the court of Prince Eggenberg. It was in 1668, though, that Biber entered the service of one of the three Austrian courts which then had major music establishments. Two of these - Vienna and Salzburg - are well-known, but the third, the palace of the prince-bishop of Olomouc (or Olmütz in German), was another major centre of musical activity in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

The seat of the diocese was the city of Kromĕříž, about 30 km south of Olomouc. It was here that the prince-bishop, Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, set up a large and vibrant musical establishment. Part of this included a vast music library, which still survives. It was into this stimulating environment that Biber entered in 1668.

Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, Prince-Bishop of Olomouc between 1664 and 1695

Biber's position was not especially lofty in Liechtenstein's court. He was a valet-cum-musician, but he learned a great deal from the court music director, Pavel Vejvanovský. He was a popular member of the staff and soon developed a reputation as a violin virtuoso.

Two years after being appointed, the bishop sent Biber to the famed violin maker Jacob Stainer in Absam to negotiate the purchase of new string instruments for the court. Biber decided to go AWOL, preferring to visit Salzburg and to take a new job there without being formally released from his position at Kromĕříž. Despite being greatly upset at Biber's actions, Liechtenstein didn't take action against Biber out of respect for the Salzburg Archbishop, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg, with whom he was on friendly terms. He did wait another six years, though, before providing the document officially releasing Biber from service. In the meantime Biber tried to make it up to Liechtenstein by sending his former boss a steady stream of new compositions from Salzburg.

One of the grandest of Biber's sacred works from this period is a set of Vespers for multiple choirs. This is its opening psalm. [listen]

Panorama of Salzburg (c. 1712)

Doubtless Biber would have directed that music while playing one of the violin parts himself. His contemporary famed rested primarily on his skill as a violinist and on his published compositions for that instrument. In fact, the middle of the second half of the 17th century was the one period in the Baroque during which the centre of violin playing and composition briefly shifted from Italy to the German-speaking countries, and Biber was one of its leading lights.

Of particular interest in Biber's violin music is his extensive use of a technique known as scordatura. Put simply, it involves the composer writing music which requires the violin's strings to be tuned to notes other than their regular pitches. This makes possible different sonorities and different chords than would otherwise have been available in the violin's regular tuning.

The real skill in composing in this way is being able to hear in one's head the actual pitches being produced while writing the violin music in such as way as to enable the player not to have to do so. In other words, for the strings which are re-tuned, the violinist plays notes which sound differently to those which appear on the page. For music requiring scordatura tuning, the composer has to specify at the start of the piece what pitches are required for the open strings.

Biber's most famous work requiring scordatura tunings was completed around 1675, a set of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, plus a Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. Known as the "Mystery" Sonatas, they are sometimes called the "Rosary" Sonatas ("Rosenkranz" in German.). Each sonata is a meditation on the one of the fifteen sacred mysteries - aspects of the life of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. It's thought by some scholars that Biber wrote this music for performances during Rosary Week - the first week of October - to assist the Confraternity of the Rosary in Salzburg with their private devotions.

In his 2003 recording of the Mystery Sonatas, the violinist Andrew Manze included this explanation of scordatura technique. This version on YouTube helpfully includes extracts from the scores. [listen]

The Mystery Sonatas contain some absolutely beautiful music. This is the opening movement of the eighth sonata, "The Crowning with Thorns". [listen]

In Salzburg, Biber had the chance to really show what he could do and his career went through the roof. In joining the court in 1670 he was classed as a valet and fire-stoker. Fortunately the archbishop loved music, especially music for stringed instruments, and Biber was promoted through the ranks. The Mystery Sonatas and several other instrumental works from the 1670s were dedicated to the archbishop, but Biber had another outlet for his compositional talents.

The spiritual heart of Salzburg is its famous baroque Cathedral of St Rupert, which was completed in 1628. Being ruled by a man who was both a prince and an archbishop, Salzburg's nobility was as much centred on the church as it was on the court and the day-to-day administration of the diocese. The Cathedral is a magnificent building with four elevated choir lofts (each with its own organ) and the musicians who worked here often took full advantage of the unique aspects of the place.

Salzburg Cathedral

Around 1673-74, Biber wrote a Mass which almost certainly was intended for performance in the Cathedral, the Missa Christi resurgentis. It uses four groups of musicians - two vocal choirs and two instrumental choirs. Contemporary drawings show groups of singers and musicians in the choir lofts, as well as placed elsewhere in the building, all performing together. This music would have sounded spectacular in such a beautiful space. [listen]

Salzburg Cathedral (nave)

The earnest seriousness of Biber's instrumental and sacred music heard so far in this survey can be balanced by a work he wrote around 1670 called Sonata Violino Solo Representativa. This "representative sonata" is an extraordinary piece. Lasting about ten minutes it includes short segments which depict birds, reptiles and animals in music. In one sequence you’ll hear a cuckoo followed by a frog, and then after a polite bit of "normal" music, a hen, a rooster, a quail and a cat. [listen]

In 1677 Biber performed some of his sonatas before the Emperor, Leopold I, and two years later, in 1679, was promoted to the post of deputy Kapellmeister in Salzburg. In 1681 he performed before the Emperor for a second time and it was on this occasion that he made his first petition for promotion to the ranks of the nobility.

It's evident just from what we've heard so far that Biber was clearly an inventive and highly-skilled composer, regardless of the context in which he was working. I said earlier that his reputation these days is largely founded on two works which are rarely performed live. One of these is the Mystery Sonatas; this is not often heard because it really only works on a period violin and the vagaries of scordatura tuning are a challenge to any player.

The other rarely-performed piece is one of the most enormous sacred works ever conceived, a gigantic setting of the Mass which was for many years attributed to another composer entirely. However this piece, the so-called "Salzburg Mass" or Missa Salisburgensis, is almost universally regarded now as the work of Biber, and there can be little doubt that it was composed for the grand spaces of Salzburg's Cathedral.

To give some idea of the epic nature of the Salzburg Mass: the Missa Christi resurgentis, from which we heard an extract a moment ago, is scored for nine vocal parts and two small instrumental ensembles all arranged into four choirs - about 23 performers in all. The Salzburg Mass is in 53 separate parts, constituted in seven choirs of instruments or voices, plus two additional ensembles which each comprise four trumpets and timpani. The whole is supported by an organ and continuo bass instruments. It has been dated to 1682, the year in which Salzburg celebrated 1,100 years as a centre of Christianity.

This spectacular video is of a live performance of the complete work given in Salzburg Cathedral. Turn it up! [listen]

In 1684 Biber eventually became Kapellmeister of the Salzburg court and Dean of the choir school. In 1690 he petitioned the Emperor again for promotion to the ranks of nobility and on this occasion his request was granted. He was elevated to the rank of knight and given the title Biber von Bibern. The new archbishop of Salzburg followed this up by promoting Biber to the rank of lord high steward.

Biber seems to have had a settled domestic life. He married Maria Weiss in May 1672 and together they had eleven children, only four of whom survived childhood. The surviving children, two sons and two daughters, were all musically gifted. The sons - Anton Heinrich and Karl Heinrich - were both violinists in the Salzburg court, and Karl Heinrich eventually rose to the post of Kapellmeister in 1743.

Both Biber's daughters became nuns. The elder, Maria Cäcilia, entered the convent of S Clara in Merano. The younger, Anna Magdalena, was a fine singer and violinist and she entered a Benedictine convent in Nonnberg, eventually becoming mistress of the novices and director of the convent's music. Biber composed a mass - the Missa Sancti Henrici - for Anna Magdalena's investiture as a nun in 1697.

In his final decades, Biber composed some of his most original and beautiful music. Two settings of the Requiem date from the 1690s and they make an interesting comparison. The Requiem in A major is unusual for its use of the bright major key, but it still conveys an atmosphere of austerity and richness in its use of brass instruments, winds and strings. [listen]

The other Requiem setting is better-known, and is completely different in tone. It's in the very "dark" key of F minor and is scored for voices, strings and continuo with optional trombones all divided into four choirs. Here is Biber's setting in the F minor setting of the very same text we just heard from the A major Requiem. [listen]

Salzburg Cathedral (altar)

Biber's instrumental music features his own instrument, the violin, very prominently. In 1696 he produced a collection of seven partitas (or suites) called Harmonia Artificioso-ariosa and like the Mystery Sonatas and other works, use is made in these of scordatura tuning. Much use is also made of variation form. [listen]

Biber's output includes a number of stage works, of which several are lost. There are also numerous other masses and sacred works, plus sonatas for solo violin, ensemble music and ceremonial music. The article on Biber in Grove ends with this neat summary:

There have been very few composers of the first rank – and Biber must be counted in the first rank of his time – who were so completely outstanding in their instrumental virtuosity. Fortunately his virtuosity as a violin composer was at the service of a splendid musical mind. He had a gift for melody and was a master of counterpoint – and that mastery had its effect, even in the most fanciful of his violin preludes. As a composer of sacred music and instrumental ensemble music he was at least the equal of his Viennese contemporaries; as a virtuoso and composer for the violin his position is unique and of historic importance.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber died in Salzburg on 3 May 1704 at the age of 59. One of his final works - it's possibly his very last work - dates from around 1700, another glorious polychoral mass. Although not on as massive a scale as the Missa Salisburgensis, the Missa Bruxellensis still needs five choirs of voices and instruments and was undoubtedly written for Salzburg Cathedral. It contains amazingly modern-sounding harmonies. The title ("Brussels Mass") refers to the place where the manuscript was found, and where it is still kept. But we'll conclude with part of this sumptuous work in a recording made in Salzburg Cathedral. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2009.

182 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page