Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber may have been the finest violinist of the 17th century. He was also a highly innovative composer whose works -- most notably his sonatas for violin -- have gained new prominence in the performing repertory since the historical performance movement began.
Biber was born in the Bohemian town of Wartenberg (now in the Czech Republic). Little is known of his background or education, although he is believed to have studied in Vienna with the eminent German violinist Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. He began his career playing violin and gamba in the aristocratic courts of Moravia, and is known to have assumed a post in the band belonging to Count Karl of Liechtenstein-Castelcorno at Kromeriz. In 1670, he abandoned this position without permission, and joined the Kapelle in Salzburg, being named Kapellmeister there in 1684. His brilliance and virtuosity on the violin made Biber one of the most renowned soloists in Europe, and in 1690 Emperor Leopold I added the aristocratic prefix "von" to his name. He died at age 59 in Salzburg.
Biber's compositions stand as some of the most startlingly advanced music of the Baroque era. Biber's manuscripts and publications record violin improvisations in unprecedented detail; in his Sonata Representativa, one will find Biber's instrumental impressions of cuckoos, frogs, cats, and marching musketeers. These are supplied with a simple ground bass that provides plenty of room for the soloist to stretch out and show off, but are written at such a high level of difficulty that few violinists attempt to master them. In his "Mystery", or "Rosenkranz" sonatas, Biber makes extensive use of scordatura, violin re-tunings that change the tonal character of the instrument and make "impossible" figurations possible.
Biber was clearly influenced by the Musurgia Universalis, a theoretical work written by German Jesuit scientist and mathematician Athanasius Kircher. First published in 1650, Kircher draws parallels between musical tones, planetary motion, and psychological states of being. Biber's music is strongly affective emotionally, and in works of a programmatic character, such as his orchestral piece Battalia, he attempts to combine both a literal and subjective listening experience. In Battalia, the orchestra is required to play several marching songs in different keys at once -- in a manner similar to the music of Charles Ives -- to indicate eager soldiers of various regiments leading off to battle. A soft, hushed passage at the end of the work represents the result, a somber tableau of battlefield dead.
Biber also composed a number of sacred vocal works; most of these reside easily within the required strictures of the Church. A standout piece is his 15-part requiem, an expressive and harmonically adventurous mass that eschews the sobriety of the text in favor of glorious antiphonal choral textures. Along those same lines, musicologists have established that the anonymous, huge 53-part Missa Salisburgensis is also likely the work of Biber.
© Uncle Dave Lewis /TiVo