Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Landmarks (48)

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber:   15 Sonatas for violin and continuo with a closing Passacaglia for solo violin, known as the "Mystery", "Rosary" or "Copper-Engraving" Sonatas (ca 1676).

With a single manuscript source, rediscovered in 1905, we do not know the composer's intended title for the sequence of sonatas other than a prefacing remark that  he had "consecrated the whole to the honour of the XV Sacred Mysteries"; we know next to nothing about the circumstances of the composition of the individual sonatas and do not know if they had been composed together as a set or had been gathered together later by the composer.  In any case, the manuscript gathers them in a sequence mirroring a sequence of devotional prayers to the rosary, here in three sets of five sonatas, each of the fifteen sonatas in a different scordatura (the first sonata and the closing passacaglia use the standard tuning in fifths.)

These pieces are famous for this uniquely rich scordatura scheme and, combined with the somewhat forbidding notational convention for scordatura playing, this has given the sonatas something of a reputation for technical complexity requiring forbidding virtuosity.  While this is indeed music for a virtuoso and  the composition of the entire sequence certainly reflects an agile compositional mind, the balance between technical demand, compositional technique and immediate musical expression is here never settled on the technical side.

What the scordatura achieves is, first of all, a unique resonance for each movement, bright and tending to the sharp side in the first five sonatas, depicting joyous mysteries form the early life of Christ, the second set of five depict sorrowful mysteries place the instrument in a darker tessitura, the extraordinary eleventh sonata, depicting the resurrection, uses the most radically retuning, crossing the second and third strings in the peg box and between the bridge and tailpiece and then tuning the strings g - g' - d' - d", perhaps the best projecting collection of tones on a fiddle but here with octaves available on neighboring strings, and the remaining four sonatas return to bright, sharp-keyed tunings, contributing to the cathartic nature of hearing the whole sequence of sonatas in order.  (The dramatic effect is real; the regret that Biber's opera Alessandro in Pietra (1689) has not survived is heavier because of this.)  Biber does take some advantage of the possibilities for novel chordal arrangements produced by the scordaturas, but tone color appears, to my ears at least, to be the immediate concern. The closing Passacaglia, without continuo, must be heard as a very individual reflection on the preceding and is justifiably regarded as the most significant movement for solo violin prior to Bach's Chaconne.


Elaine Fine said...

I think it is interesting that in order to play the whole set of Mystery Sonatas in concert you need a large number of pre-tuned fiddles; or perhaps during a performance you could have an assistant grab a couple of "used" fiddles, take them into another room, tune them in their appropriate scordatura, and bring them back on stage at their appointed times.

Daniel Wolf said...

Elaine, that's something that I've wondered about. There are 'folk' fiddling traditions in which frequent retuning is common. The pegs and strings would have to be rather more forgiving about this than those of modern classical violins to accommodate this. Add in the factor of gut strings and I'd really like to spend some time with a baroque violin specialist to see if a complete continuous performance with a single instrument would have been possible.