Sunday, April 6, 2014

Heinrich Biber

Heinrich Biber (Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern) was a Czech (some would say Austrian) violinist and composer born (in Wartenberg) on a date unknown but probably in July or August of 1644.  Although he was a virtuosic violinist and highly regarded in his day for his skill in playing the violin, he is today better known as a composer.  One source states that he seldom (if ever) toured as a concert violinist.  He was in the employ of the nobility and wrote music, both secular and sacred, for them.  He was even ascended to the nobility (1690 - at about age 45) by one of his employers.  Just as Bach, Vivaldi, Zelenka, and a few other Baroque composers lost favor and remained obscure during a time span of one hundred years or more but were re-discovered, Biber and his music enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1900s.  This was due mainly to the discovery of a brilliant set of violin sonatas known as the Mystery Sonatas or the Rosary Sonatas.  The set is comprised of 15 works plus a Passacaglia attached to the end as number 16.  There are quite a number of recordings of the Sonatas, just as there are dozens of recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Biber is said to be one of the most important composers of violin music – just as are Locatelli, Corelli, Vivaldi, Tartini, Paganini, Spohr, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Sarasate, and a few others.  Little is known of his early life.  He did work at various courts from an early age.  Eventually he ended up spending the bulk of his career in Salzburg – from the year 1670 onward; playing, conducting, and composing for Maximilian Gandolph, Archbishop of Salzburg.  This was about 90 years before Mozart’s time.  Biber first published his works in 1676.  He was 32 years old.  In 1679, he became assistant music director and in 1684, he was appointed music director.  Today, his most popular and best-known work consists of the Mystery Sonatas, although they were not published during Biber’s lifetime.  If he played these sonatas himself, he must have been an extraordinary violinist because they are riddled with difficulties.  In addition, all of the sonatas require that the violin be tuned other than in the usual fifths – only the Passacaglia is played with normal tuning.  Biber composed much music for choir and orchestra as well as other instrumental works, some of it quite exploratory or experimental in nature.  A piece entitled The Battle (that’s the abbreviated title) makes use of effects which would not again see the light of day until more than two hundred years later – extreme polytonality, imitations of drums, imitations of canon fire, unusual harmonic progressions, and insertion of extraneous objects into instruments to change their texture.  Here is part one of a YouTube video of a performance of the piece.  Here is part two of the same performance.  This is part one of a partita (Partia) for six players in seven movements.  This is part two of the same partita.  And finally, eight of the famous Mystery Sonatas can be found here.  About one minute and 15 seconds into the Praeludium of Sonata number one you may think you hear a striking resemblance to the main melody in the second movement of Saint Saens’ first piano concerto but that is probably just a striking coincidence.  Similarly, Sonata number 15 contains a tiny portion which somewhat resembles the theme of Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice.  Biber died on May 3, 1704, at age 59.  

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