Von Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz
Composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704) wrote some of the most imaginative music of the Baroque era in Germany. His music increased sharply in popularity between the late 1980s and the early 2000s. A highly talented violinist himself, he wrote difficult music that continues to challenge violinists today, and his music for other instruments was equally original.
Living and working in Austria and in German-speaking Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the late 1600s, Biber (pronounced BEE-ber) employed unusual and arcane violin techniques such as scordatura (retuning the violin's strings) to produce sounds from the instrument that no other composer has called for, before or since. Working his way up from modest origins—a composer during this period was often considered no more than a servant of a powerful family or ecclesiastical authority—Biber gained renown as deputy music director and later music director to the Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg. In later years he redirected his compositional efforts from violin music to the more sumptuous genres of opera and choral music, but many of his later works have unfortunately been lost.
Skipped Out on Instrument-Buying Trip
Biber was born around August 12, 1644 in Wartenberg, Bohemia, a German-speaking region near what is now the Czech city of Liberec. He may have taken music lessons with a local organist and received a basic education in a Jesuit school. Little is known of his background and early life. His birthplace was part of an estate owned by the brother of the powerful Bishop of Olmütz, and after he did a brief stint as a musician in the employ of a prince in Graz, Austria, a violinist friend, the Czech-born performer Pavel Vejvanovsky, arranged a job for Biber in the bishop's musical retinue. Even in his early 20s, Biber was a compelling violin performer who gained friends and influence around Bohemia, and he soon decided he was destined for bigger things. When the bishop sent him on a trip in 1670 to purchase new violins for his orchestra, Biber quietly left town. He made his way to Salzburg in western Austria, a city rich in church music where Mozart later was born and began his career, and his talents quickly won him a place in the archbishop's orchestra.
The Bishop of Olmütz was not pleased by this turn of events, and Biber later tried to atone for his insult by composing new music and sending it to the bishop. Nevertheless, Biber's decision proved a smart one. When he was hired, his official status was equivalent to that of the archbishop's servants who carried firewood. But the fortunes of a composer in the 1600s and 1700s often depended on the attitude toward music of the powerful church official or aristocratic family for whom the composer worked, and Archbishop Khuenberg was a lover of music—specifically of the violin and the other relatively new members of the stringed-instrument family that were undergoing rapid technical development and attracting a new breed of virtuoso performers.
Biber was one of those performers, and he was part of a tradition of German and Austrian violinist-composers that included Johann Paul von Westhoff and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. These figures did not have the international fame of Italy's Arcangelo Corelli, who laid down technical and compositional foundations for violin music that in many cases have persisted to the present time. The Germanic tradition, however, led directly to the awe-inspiring solo violin works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Biber gained admirers as far afield as England. A hundred years later, the English essayist and music historian Charles Burney would write (according to Alex Ross of the New York Times) that "of the violin players of the last century, Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period."
A presumably early work by Biber, the Sonata representativa, shows the composer's imagination at its most vivid. Programmatic music, or music that depicts non-musical beings, scenes, or stories, was common in the Baroque era (1600–1750), but Biber here took it to a new extreme in a sonata in which the violin is made to imitate a whole menagerie of animals including the nightingale, cuckoo, frog, hen, quail, rooster, frog, and cat. Various unusual violin techniques, including the sounding of harmonics on the instrument's strings, are pressed into service in Biber's little animal portraits.
Performed for Holy Roman Emperor
The Catholic Church in Austria during this period was both an ecclesiastical and a civil authority, for much of Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the lands directly under the rule of the church in Rome. Biber wrote both sacred and secular music for the archbishop, and his work quickly found favor. He composed new music for large ceremonial events, and in 1672 he felt secure enough to marry Maria Weiss, a member of one of Salzburg's prominent merchant families. Biber and his wife had eleven children, four of whom survived to adulthood; three of those became musicians. In 1677 Biber was chosen to travel to Luxembourg to perform for the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. The emperor rewarded Biber's performance with a gold chain.
We do not know exactly what music Biber performed on this occasion, but it is clear that he had developed a completely distinctive voice as a composer to go with his fearsome violin skills. His music had a spiritual, inward quality that modern listeners often experience as moody and dramatic, and he heightened his music's emotional effects with groundbreaking technical wizardry. It was probably just before he departed for Luxembourg that Biber completed one of his most famous compositions, the group of so-called Mystery or Rosary sonatas for violin and continuo (basically a simple harmonic accompaniment). This set of 15 sonatas, rounded out in their original manuscript by an extremely difficult Passacaglia (a composition utilizing a repeating sequence of bass notes), had its roots in Biber's membership in a religious society in Salzburg devoted to the Catholic Rosary.
Each of the 15 sonatas is associated (and accompanied in the manuscript by an appropriate engraving) with one of the Mysteries of the Rosary, representing a stage in the story of Jesus Christ's immaculate conception, life, and death. Other Baroque composers such as Antonio Vivaldi used violin music to draw vivid pictures in sound, but Biber instead takes a subtler approach. Beginning with the four strings of the violin tuned to their normal pitches of G, D, A, and E, he specifies that different tunings be used as the set proceeds. This technique is known as scordatura. The sound of the violin changes as new tunings are used, and the instrument becomes capable of new combinations of tones. At the dramatic center of the work, the sonata representing Christ's crucifixion, Biber directs that the violin be played with two of its strings crossed, probably symbolizing Christ's cross itself or the meeting of heavenly and earthly realms.
Needless to say, this procedure entails fiendish difficulties for the violinist who aims to perform the work and must learn new fingerings for each tuning. Modern violinists often use a set of pre-tuned violins, but some contend that the work's essence is best brought out if a single instrument is put through Biber's changes. English violinist Andrew Manze, as quoted on the All Music Guide website, notes that "as it is pulled into different tunings, the violin undergoes experiences, some pleasant (as in the Visitation and Coronation), some traumatic (the Agony and Crowning with Thorns), for example." Biber's other works for stringed instruments, such as the Sonatas for Violin Solo (published in 1681), the Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum (1683), and the Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa for two stringed instruments and continuo, also make use of the scordatura procedure and pose similar technical and interpretive challenges.
Biber's music for orchestra was no less original than his compositions for solo violin or violin with accompaniment. Much of it was programmatic. His Battalia (The Battle) was a remarkable depiction, not just of a military conflict but of its aftermath, with cannon fire, the groans of wounded men, and the off-key singing of drunken soldiers after the fight—all represented on the instruments of a small orchestra, with no voices involved. The dissonant quality of the drunken-singing section is regarded by some music writers as being hundreds of years ahead of its time. The work may have been written for a Carnival celebration in 1683. Biber's delightful Sonata for Six Instruments subtitled "The Farmers on Their Way to Church" likewise makes human beings—a group of farmers singing a chorale as they walk into town on a Sunday morning—come alive within a purely instrumental context.
In 1679 Biber was appointed deputy Kapellmeister (music director) at the archbishop's court, and in 1684 he was elevated to Kapellmeister and made director of the archdiocesan choir school. After performing twice more for Emperor Leopold and asking for a formal enhancement of his status, he was made a knight in 1690 and allowed to add the noble "von" to his name. His salary was a generous 60 gulden a month, plus room, board, and wine. The musician who had once been equal in status to the archbishop's firewood carriers now received free firewood as well.
Responsible for training the archbishop's top choral singers, Biber had large choirs at his own disposal. Later in life he turned his attention to the more formal genres of choral and vocal music. His choral compositions were performed in Salzburg's magnificent cathedral, and he exploited the complex architecture of that structure by writing what are known as polychoral pieces—works for several choirs. Most impressive among them was the Missa Salisburgensis (Salzburg Mass) of 1682, written for the 1,100th anniversary of the establishment of the post of Archbishop of Salzburg. This enormous work had 53 vocal parts, grouped into five separate choirs, each accompanied by its own orchestra, with two separate instrumental ensembles of trumpets and tympani.
Toward the end of his life Biber wrote operas and school dramas—smaller vocal works with dialogue intended for students at Salzburg's Benedictine University. Most of these works have been lost, and only one opera, Chi la dura la vince (Victory Comes to Those Who Persist, 1687), has survived. Music historians consider it less significant than Biber's instrumental or choral works. Biber died in Salzburg on May 3, 1704.
Biber's music and performances were remembered through the 1700s, but after that he was almost completely forgotten. His music was published in academic editions, and he was known to historians of the violin, but public performances of his works were rare. As interest in music of the Baroque era began to grow in the late 20th century, however, Biber was rediscovered. Numerous recordings of the Mystery Sonatas appeared, each with a slightly different twist. Performers also began to unearth new wonders among the approximately 60 works by Biber that have survived. Baroque music, as heard in the works of composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, had once been thought of as regular, clearly structured, almost mathematical at times. The music of Biber, however, revealed a very different profile on the other side of the coin.
"Heinrich Ignaz von Biber," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan UK, 2001.
American Record Guide, September-October 1996; July-August 1999.
New York Times, October 8, 1995.
Notes, June 2003.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), November 20, 2002.
"Heinrich Biber," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 7, 2005).
Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von
Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von
Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von, outstanding Bohemian composer and violinist; b. Wartenberg, Aug. 12, 1644; d. Salzburg, May 3, 1704. He was in the service of Prince Bishop Karl, Count Liechstenstein-Kastelkorn of Olmütz, by about 1665. In 1670 he settled in Salzburg as a member of the archbishop’s Kapelle, where he was made Vice-Kapellmeister in 1679 and Kapellmeister in 1684. In 1690 he was ennobled by Emperor Leopold I. Biber was a remarkable composer of both secular and sacred music, and was a virtuoso violinist who excelled in scordatura. His Mystery and Rosary Sonatas for Violin and Continuo (c. 1676), composed as postludes for the services of the Rosary Mysteries at Salzburg Cathedral, are notable examples of scordatura. His 8 sonatas for Solo Violin and Continuo (1681) are also fine scores. Among his other chamber works are 2 collections of music for 1 or 2 Violins, 2 Violas, and Bass (1680, 1683). He also publ. a collection of music for Trumpets and Strings (1676). Among his finest sacred works are the 32-part Vesperae (1693), the Missa Sancü Henrici (1701), the 36-part Missa Alleluja, and the Requiems in A major and F minor. An anonymous 53-part Missa salisburgensis (1682) may be his as well. He also wrote the operas Chi la dura la vince (1687), Alessandro in Pietra (1689; not extant), and L’ossequio di Salisburgo (1699; not extant), as well as several school dramas.
E. Luntz, H.I.F. B. (Vienna and Leipzig, 1906); E. Dann, H. B. and the Seventeenth-century Violin (diss., Columbia Univ., 1968); P. Eder et al, eds., H.F B., 1644–1704: Musik u. Kultur im hochbarocken Salzburg: Studien und Quellen (Salzburg, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire