The Glorious Mysteries of Heinrich Biber


Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704); his only known portrait

Virtuoso violinist and musical mystic, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) wrote flamboyantly colorful music which exudes a distinctively Catholic spirit. The Baroque era, of which he was a leading light, was dedicated to the idea that music had the power to express universal human emotions and states of the soul.  Not only vocal music, but instrumental as well; and indeed it was during the Baroque that instrumental music attained an independent existence. Many of the new experiments centered on the violin, a recently perfected instrument which in its “singing” quality and physical vulnerability was felt to be the most human. A whole school of composer-performers progressively developed the violin’s technique and expressive powers. The violin acquired an almost mystical aura and the violinist-composer became a sort of tone-poet who could, as Shakespeare said, “hale souls out of men’s bodies.” Biber, one of the greatest violinists of his time, represented the peak of this early development.

In briefly exploring his life and work we connect up with two previous posts in this series on Catholicism and art—one in which we considered Dutch Catholic painting of the seventeenth century, and another in which we examined the Catholic spirit in Haydn, a composer of a later generation than Biber who also made his home in Catholic Austria.

salzburg 1

Salzburg, Austria

A fair amount of mystery surrounds Biber. Even his nationality is ambiguous: he has been variously described as Bohemian, Austrian, and German. He was born in the German-speaking Moravia region of Bohemia (current-day Czechoslovakia) and later made his career in the Austrian cities of Graz and Salzburg. The entire region encompassing Austria, South Germany and Bohemia was solidly Catholic, and it’s believed that Biber was schooled by the Jesuits, who were particularly strong in Bohemia at that time. His thorough knowledge of Latin—as shown in his dedicatory prefaces to his musical works—would seem to corroborate this; so does his full name, which incorporates the names of the two chief Jesuit saints Ignatius and Francis. Biber’s music, marrying German intellectual rigor to an extrovert Italian flair, bears witness to the ultramontane cultural currents of Catholic South Germany.

His life—or what we know of it—was not sensational. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, he was a humble musical craftsman and public servant who lent his talents to the glory of God during an era when composers were artisans rather than artistes. In 1670 Biber became Kapellmeister (Master of Music) to the Archbishop of Salzburg. There he wrote a wide variety of sacred music and an opera, as well as instrumental music, much of it featuring his own instrument, the violin. In 1690 Biber was knighted and was henceforth known by the honorific name of “Heinrich Biber von Bibern.” He was married to Maria Weiss in 1672 and the couple had eleven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood. Biber’s daughters Maria Cäcilia and Anna Magdalena entered religious life, and the latter served as an accomplished musician in her religious house. Biber died in Salzburg in 1704, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday; the cause is not known.

Biber moved in an aristocratic environment in which ceremony, pageantry and music were part of daily existence—when music was a truly living art. Birthdays, name days, weddings, banquets, and religious functions of all kinds—from Masses to rosary devotions—required a constant supply of fresh works, and the nobles of the Holy Roman Empire prized the services of the talented and shrewd artists, like Biber, whom they patronized. The Church was along with the nobility the principal patron of music, which often served to lift the mind to the contemplation of the mysteries of religion. After lending their talents to the enrichment of the Mass, it was not uncommon for musicians to remain to give a concert. Bach’s statement that music existed “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul” reflects a common view.


salzburg 2

Salzburg Cathedral, where many of Biber’s works were first performed

During his career Biber wrote Masses, motets, Requiems, and other sacred music, much of it intended for the magnificent Salzburg Cathedral. The work which has most contributed to his latter-day fame is also sacred, though of a completely different kind. It is his cycle of fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo on the Mysteries of the Rosary. Appropriately enough, there is much that is “mysterious” about this extraordinary set of pieces, which was composed probably in the 1670s, then forgotten until being rediscovered in 1905. The sonatas have come to be known collectively as the Mystery or Rosary Sonatas; but in fact we don’t know exactly what Biber intended to call them. The title page of the original manuscript has been lost, although the Latin dedicatory preface to the prince-archbishop of Salzburg does survive, in which Biber explains that he has consecrated the sonatas “to the honor of the Fifteen Sacred Mysteries.”

This, and the copper-plate engravings depicting the Mysteries which adorn each sonata, reveal that these pieces are a sort of sacred music without words. (Biber’s countryman Haydn would contribute to this genre a century later with his Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.) It is not known where or under what circumstances the sonatas were originally performed; some scholars believe that they were created to be played during rosary devotions held during the month of October. In that case the sonatas would have functioned as an adjunct to meditation—mood music played in between the rosary decades, intended to uplift the mind to visualize the Mysteries.

To this purpose Biber uses a wealth of musical symbolism and pictorial devices, perhaps even more than immediately meet the ear. Most obvious is the technique of scordatura, or unconventional tuning of the violin’s strings, to the end of modifying the sound color, increasing resonance, and opening up new possibilities for technical virtuosity. Each of the Mystery Sonatas has a different scordatura tuning, and each creates a unique sound world appropriate to the mystery being depicted. In the Joyful Mysteries the tunings are bright, emphasizing the resonance of the violin’s open (unstopped) strings. In the Sorrowful Mysteries, the tunings and tonalities take on an increasingly dark and foreboding hue, on the flat rather than sharp side of the spectrum. The violin is, in a sense, made to “suffer,” its resonances crushed by the dissonant tunings.

The Sorrowful Mysteries culminate in the “Crucifixion,” which features an emblematic musical motif that resembles a cross on the page and ends with a musical “earthquake,” reflecting Matthew 27:51.  After this the “Resurrection” depicts Easter morning, with the violin intoning the Easter hymn Surrexit Christus hodie in octaves. Biber expresses the earth-shattering newness of this mystery by asking the violinist to cross the middle strings of the violin. The Glorious Mysteries bring with them a sense of exaltation as the scordatura tunings again turn bright and luminous. In the “Descent of the Holy Spirit” we get musical tongues of flame; in the “Assumption” sonata, Mary seems to dance up to Heaven to the strains of a jig.

biber rosary

A Baroque violin pictured with the score of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas; the violin’s middle strings are crossed for the Resurrection sonata


The mixture of folk elements, humor, and devotion was wholly characteristic of Biber and his integrated Catholic world. It is this same spirit that pervades Monteverdi, Haydn and Mozart, among other composers. The musicologist Charles E. Brewer put his finger on it when he said that music “was thought to have the power to make the most sacred rituals pleasing and to allow even the most secular entertainments to be imbued with piety.” Music was a human reflection of divine order and as such pervaded all of reality, “whether it was at a table filled with culinary delights or a table upon which the mystery of the Eucharist was performed.”

Nowhere is this idea better expressed than in Biber’s ensemble sonata die Pauern Kirchfahrt genandt (“The Peasants’ Procession to Church”) which depicts the following program: morning dawns, the people arise and gradually assemble in the church singing a chorale to the Blessed Virgin, then celebrate afterwords at a tavern.

Musical fashions come and go, and with the switch to the sweeter and less knotty violin music of Arcangelo Corelli, Biber was eventually forgotten. It was left to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to rediscover his works and restore them to their proper place in the musical canon. Indeed, the Biber revival in the last several decades has been impressive, just one phase of the larger Early Music Revival. Biber is my favorite composer and I would not hesitate to place him in the company of the “great B’s” (with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). I play his music on a regular basis, and it never ceases to astound, invigorate, and haunt the memory.



Tags » ,

Related posts