Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 85 - Biber

10 February 2008


“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.”  — 18th-century historian Charles Burney


  • From the 8 Sonatae a Violino Solo (Salzburg, 1681)

    Sonata I Praeludium—Presto—Variatio/Finale

    Sonata II Praeludium—Aria e Variatio—Finale

    Sonata III Praeludium—Aria e Variatio—Variatio


    Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber

  • The Annunciation from “The Mystery Sonatas” (c. 1674)

    Praeludium—Aria e VariatioAdagio—Finale



  • Sonata Representativa (c1669)

    CuCu (Cuckoo)
    Frosch (Frog)
    Die Henn & Der Hann (Hen & Cock)
    Die Wachtel (Quail)
    Die Katz (Cat)
    Musketier Marsch (Musketeer’s March)



  • Sonata IV from Sonatæ unarum fidium (1664)
    Johann Heinrich Schmelzer
    c. 1620-1680
  • Keyboard Instruments provided by Edward Brewer.
    Pitch: A=440, 1/6 comma meantone, Silbermann temperament




    "Listening to Biber, Some Thoughts"


    Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was born in the small Bohemian town of Wartenberg, now Stráx pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic. Little is known of his early training as a musician, though Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680), Kapellmeister of the Imperial Viennese Court knew and encouraged Biber’s career, and may even have been his teacher. Biber held posts in Graz and then Kromeriz, before establishing himself in Salzburg in 1670, a move he made without notifying his former employer he was leaving! He flourished in Salzburg, entering the service of Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg. In 1679, he was given the modest appointment Vice-Kapellmeister, advancing to Kapellmeister and dean of the choir school in 1684. Leopold I granted him ennoblement in 1690 with the title, ‘Biber von Bibern.’ Subsequently, Biber was promoted to the station of 'Lord High Steward' marking the culmination of his social career. By this point, his salary had risen to 60 gulden a month, with free board and lodging including such items as wine, bread and firewood. Jacob Stainer, the most celebrated instrument maker of the day referred to Biber as “the formidable virtuoso,” and indeed his reputation and compositions reveal a man of prodigious talent and quixotic temperament.


    Biber’s music can be heard as the culmination of the 17th-century Italian style birthed around 1600 with the invention of opera. In the first decades of the 17th Century, this new Italian music swept over The Alps, quickly dominating the courts of Austria, Germany, and France (the latter, only until the reign of Louis XIV). The major part of Biber’s career was spent in Salzburg, and indeed, it was in this city that Italian operatic music gained its first important foreign outpost. Archbishop Marcus Sitticus von Hohenums, who reigned from 1612-1619, fostered close ties to Italy and in 1614 built a stage in his residence appropriate for Italian opera. On 10 February 1614 (394 years ago today), the first performance of an opera outside of Italy took place on that stage in Salzburg.

    To appreciate the music of Biber, it is important to know some things about 17th-century Italian opera. Music before 1600 was characterized by complex polyphony, or the simultaneous sounding of multiple melodic lines. The euphonious pleasures and splendors of 16th-century Italian polyphonic vocal music outweighed clear communication of the text being sung. The music of Palestrina (c1525-1594) represents the highest achievement in music of this style. The invention of Italian opera offered the antidote to the excesses of this complex music. In the new musical style, the vocal line followed inflections of speech and the accompaniment did not obstruct a direct presentation of the text. Instead of polyphony, or multiple melodic lines, 17th-century Italian opera was based on monody.

    As Italian opera spread north of the peninsula, it influenced all musical genres, including instrumental music. By the time of Biber, this style had developed a great sophistication of affect, expression, and melodic inventiveness, while retaining its economy of means, and directness of expressive intent.

    Each of Biber’s sonatas is a single movement work with contrasting sections. These sections are quite recognizable and while the music is instantly appealing, it may help to know some of the signposts along the road. These works often begin with a freely rhapsodic prelude (Praeludium) where the violin plays seemingly improvised flourishes over long held notes in the continuo. These sections invite the listener to enter the sound world of the work; they seduce and in so doing, prepare the way for what is to come. These preludes are purely instrumental music, but Biber also writes Adagios in the vocal style of small opera arias. Here the accompaniment has a more active and regular metric feel over which the violin sings its songs (albeit without words). The most striking sections of Biber’s sonatas are the long sets of variations (Variatio or Aria e Variatio). These sections are the meat of his works and begin with either a simple song-like melody or simple chord progression. The violin then embarks on a series of fanciful reinterpretations of those simple building blocks. With all the inventive and virtuosic tricks of his trade, Biber moves through these variations, creating a music of accretion, upping the ante with each repetition. These sections can produce a trance-like or meditative experience in the listener. Your own imagination is in good hands with Biber and
    these musicians. Enjoy!

    Tonight's Violin Music

    The eight sonatas published in 1681 represent Biber’s most sophisticated marrying of composition and virtuoso violin technique. Fiendishly difficult, these melody-driven works are marked by unpredictability, inventiveness, and a spontaneity that suggests improvisations. The violinist Andrew Manze suggests that, “but for the fact that it exists on the printed page, [Biber’s music] might have been improvised straight into a baroque tape-recorder.” Biber revels in the surprises he throws at the audience, so be ready.

    Biber’s most famous work is a cycle of fifteen violin sonatas based on the Mysteries of the Rosary with a concluding Passacaglia for Violin Solo. “The Mystery Sonatas,” as they are titled, were published in the 1670s. They are remarkable for their use of scordatura, or the retuning of the violin’s strings to allow special harmonic and acoustic effects. Tonight we will hear the first of the “Mystery Sonatas” (and the only one to employ standard violin tuning), to open our second half.

    The Sonata Representativa was written for Carnival while Biber was living in Kromeriz. The Prince-Bishop of Olmouc-Kromeriz was a fan of programmatic effects in music, so the piece may have been written for him. The animal noises Biber sets are obvious enough, but they are not exactly his invention. He was quoting from an internationally influential musicological work, “Musurgia Universalis,” written by Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who codified melodies in imitation of nature. (A chart of these musical/bestial quotations is included with your program.) This work would certainly be an “inside joke” for the highly literate audience. As Robert Frost taught us “all the fun is how you say a thing," and when Biber says something, it turns out to be very fun, indeed.

    A quick note on Schmelzer

    Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680) began his career as a violinist in the Viennese Imperial court band, a world dominated by Italians, playing Italian music. This young Austrian musician went on to overturn the foreign domination by becoming a master of their style. His Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664 were the first solo sonatas to be published by a non-Italian. Schmelzer also became the first non-Italian Kapellmeister at the Viennese court and was widely considered to be ‘one of the most famous, distinguished violinists in the whole of Europe’ (J. J. Müller, Reise-Diarium, 1660). Though it has been suggested that he was Biber’s teacher, this attractive idea cannot be proven. We do know, however, that he used his influence to aid the younger musician, and certainly, he was an important role model to any aspiring Austrian musician.

    The sonata of Schmelzer that ends our program tonight opens with an extended set of variations—a passacaglia—built on a peaceful descending four-note melody. Over this bass line, Schmelzer presents a simple melodic line in the violin that builds in complexity as the piece unfolds. He weaves two contrasting Baroque dances into the repeating bass line, a graceful sarabande and a lively gigue. At the end of the passacaglia, Schmelzer offers a small aria before ending in flourishes of virtuosic display.


    We wish to express our gratitude to Helicon’s Members whose support makes possible the events of our twenty-third season:

    Helicon Society
    Joan K. Easton

    Directors Circle
    Karen McLaughlin & Mark Schubin

    Sponsoring Members
    V. Edward Dent, Arthur Richenthal, Ryo Toyonaga & Alvin Friedman-Kien, Marica & Jan Vilcek, Lisa & Paul Welch

    Sustaining Members
    Yukiko & Jim Gatheral, Franklin Heller & Christian Steiner, David S. Moyer, Laura Schoen & Robert Kaufman,
    Ann & Joe Scozzafava, Lavinia & William Simon, Joanne Witty & Eugene Keilin, Susan Zolla-Pazner, Ph.D. & Sherman Pazner, M.D.

    Contributing Members
    Patty Otis Abel & Dennis R. Reiff, Judy Evnin, Doreen Lindsay & Andrew Burt, Peter C. Lombardo, M.D., Arlene & Bruce Simon

    Anonymous (1), Carol & Jeff Barber, Cindy Bolt & Edmond V. Karam, R. David Bynum,
    Nancy Cardozo, Philippine Dodd, Pamela Drexel, Patricia & Michael Fast, Nancy Hall, Rosanna & Corwith Hansen,
    Rebecca Higgins, Hideko Kamino, M.D. & Howard Ratech, M.D., Paul Kimball, Sarah O.H. Johnson, Gregory Keilin,
    Honey & Michael Shara, Yoshiyuki Shimizu, Catherine Keller & Jason Starr, David Longmire, Lena Persson,
    Hervé Pierre, Gil Quito, Robert Schwartzman, Jane Taylor & Guy Renvoize, J
    oanna Wylomanska, Barry Wacksman, Anna Zetlin

    Amy & Bob Poster


    Artistic Director
    James Roe

    Board of Directors
    William A. Simon, President • Lisa Welch, Vice-President • Franklin Heller, Treasurer • Pamela Drexel, Secretary
    Joan K. Easton, Karen McLaughlin, David S. Moyer, Sherman Pazner, M.D., Susan Zolla-Pazner, Ph.D.

    Advisory Committee
    Leslie Armstrong, Abbe Aronson, Marianne Carroll, Bart Feller, Jennifer Frautschi, Randolph Harrison, Matthew Herren, Joe Hsu,
    Bejun Mehta, Pedja Muz˘ ijevic´ , Jody Ripplinger, Thomas Sokolowski, Jason Starr, Mark Steinberg, Barry Wacksman

    Helicon Founder, Albert Fuller†
    Craig Logan Jackson†, Zoltan Ovary, M.D.†, Gregory B. Smith†, Miss Alice Tully†