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Composers and Traditions

In the period during which H.I.F. Biber and J.S. Bach lived and worked, musicians made their livelihoods at the behest of either or both the ruling class and the church. The power of the first was granted by princely authority, and of the second by a spiritual inheritance that had been torn by schism but remained strong within the realm of European Christendom. 

Composers wrote sacred or profane music to mark religious functions as well as birthdays, weddings, or banquets. In either case, both Biber and Bach were immersed in a world steeped in musical and religious traditions, and yet both redefined compositional style and performance practice in a way that left their contemporaries far behind.

Biber's Catholic faith and Jesuit training informed and inspired his innovative use of scordatura to create a contemplative sound world which becomes a meditative journey equally for the listener and performer. In the presentation of the Rosary Sonatas to his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, in the month of October (the chosen month to celebrate the rosary), Biber dedicated the sonatas "to the fifteen sacred mysteries, which you promote so fervently".

Bach's brief but fruitful employment in a secular setting at the court of Prince Leopold was bookended first by his years as organist at Weimar and, in his last period, as composer of religious works at Leipzig. As Kapellmeister at Cöthen, Bach was also an accomplished violinist who may well have performed these supremely complicated and challenging works. 

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Violin Virtuoso

Rosenkranz Sonatas Dedication by H.I.F. Biber to Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph of Salzburg

"Celsissime ac Reverendissime Princeps, Domine, Domine Clementissime. Harmoniam Soli Iustitiz et Luna sine macula consecratam TIBI tertia Luci, quam ab utroque Divino Sumpsisti Lumine humilime dedico. Filius enim dignitate sacra rutilans, Matris Virgineum Virgo defendis honorem; Ideò pro mercede a filio Christo calesti manna nutriris, a Matre Maria gratis lactaris. Qua primum de suo beatissimo Nomine sumens Litteram, primam Tuo Celsissimo Nomini imposuit. Sic Maria Maximilianum condecoravit. Quatuor Chordis Chelym meam instructam quindecim vicibus discordatam diversisque Sonatis, Preludiis, Allemandis, Courentis, Sarabandis, Ariis, Ciacona, Variationibus, etc. Una cum Basso continuo sedulà cum diligentià, et secundum possibilitatem magnoartifitio elaboratum reperies. Causam si numen scire velis encleabo: Hac omnia Honori XV. Sacronem Mysterionem consecravi, quem cum Tu serventissima promoveas. CELSITUD^ TU/E. TIBI flexo poplite dedico, Humilimus Servus, Henricus) Ignat{ius] Franciscus Biber."


O most distinguished and most reverend Prince. O master, o most clement master.

I humbly dedicate these harmonies, consecrated to the Sun of Righteousness and the

Spotless Moon, to YOU, third Light, that receives divine radiance from them

Son of glowing sacred dignity, you, a virgin, defend the honor of the Virgin

Mother; therefore, as thanks, you are fed heavenly manna by the Son of Christ,

and nursed by his Mother Mary full of grace, who [Mother Mary] put the initial

letter of her most blessed Name as the first [letter] of your heavenly Name. So

Mary celebrated Maximilian. [Here] you can find, for my four-stringed lyre tuned in

fifteen different ways, Sonatas, Preludes, Allemande, Courantes, Sarabandes,

Airs, Chaconnes, Variations, etc., with Basso Continuo elaborated with care

and according to the possibilities of much artistry. The reason of these works is this:

I have consecrated all [these] to the XV Sacred Mysteries that you zealously promote.

I kneel down to dedicate you [these].

Your humble Servant,

Henr. Ignat. Franciscus Biber.

--Translation by Ambra Casonato.

  Joyful               Sorrowful             Glorious


Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's dedication of the Mysteries of the Rosary Sonatas to his patron, the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg, in or around 1676, was in no small measure a tribute to the Archbishop's fervent devotion to a brotherhood of the Virgin Mary that followed a strict observance of the Rosary. In fact, the Archbishop was responsible for the dedication of the Rosary each October, the month in which Biber most likely presented the Rosenkrantz Sonatas to him.

The Catholic tradition of the Rosary involves a ritual of prayer (usually accompanied with Rosary beads to keep track of the repetitions) designed to deepen the practitioner's experience of the sacred mysteries, which reflect on the life and divinity of Jesus and the faith and devotion of Mary. During the ceremony of the Rosary, the practitioner repeats fifty Hail Marys, divided into five groups of ten that focused on each of three Mysteries illustrating the life of Christ and Mary: 


The Joyful Mysteries depict the early life of Jesus, and are celebrated on Monday and Saturday.

The Sorrowful Mysteries, celebrated on Tuesday and Friday, illustrate the life of Christ from the betrayal until his crucifixion.

The Glorious Mysteries depict the resurrection of Christ and Mary's assumption into Heaven, and are celebrated on Wednesday and Sunday.

Unlike Bach, Biber was not from a musical family. Born in the Northern Bohemian city of Wartenburg, his father was a huntsman and game-keeper, and his early education was likely shaped by a Jesuit Gymnasium in Troppau, with music instruction from a local organist. After a brief stint as a valet and musician in Kromeriz, he worked his way up within the Salzburg court from valet to kapellmeister, to dean of the choir school, and finally becoming a nobleman in 1690.

Interestingly, Biber's middle names, which appear on the Rosary Sonatas dedication, Ignaz and Franz, are not on his birth certificate. That he adopted the names of the founders of the Jesuit order--St. Ignatius and Francis Xavier--strongly suggests his affinity to the Jesuit tradition.


In spite of his humble beginnings, Biber quickly gained a reputation as one of the foremost violin virtuosi and composers of the High Baroque era. The Austrian stylus phantasticus (fantastical style) involved flashy and fast passage-work, with high e-string writing and descriptive writing that was designed to amaze the listener with its spontaneity and brilliance. Biber's unique approach to composing, in particular for the violin, links both the sacred and the profane, the earthly and the divine, in humorous, imaginative and spectacularly virtuosic ways. 

These sonatas are often called the Copperplate Sonatas because of the small copper engravings that appear in the manuscript at the beginning of each of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, as well as one of a Guardian Angel that prefaces the final Passacaglia. Each engraving illustrates a moment in Jesus' life as stations of the Cross. In keeping with the meditative tradition of the Rosary experience, Biber uses traditional music forms to emphasize the repetitive nature of the Rosary devotional books, all the while evoking strong emotional and pictorial responses from his listeners.

Perhaps the most mysterious and miraculous aspect of the Rosary Sonatas, however, is the extensive use of scordatura, or dis-tuning of the violin. In this respect, Biber explored the limits of the violin in a way no one before or since has done. Because the violinist is reading tablature-style notation that does not reflect the actual pitches played, performing them is in itself an act of faith. Although the scordatura tuning is not always audible to the listener, the effect of greater or lesser tension of the strings changes the character of the violin to create a sonic marvel reflecting these contemplative mysteries.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Organ Virtuoso

Bach Church in Arnstadt
St. Nicholas Organ

From 1708 until 1717, Bach was renowned as organist of the court of Weimar-Saxony, composing his masterpieces for the "king of instruments", as well as a series of church cantatas for the court chapel, one per month. From 1723 until the end of his life, in his role as Cantor Bach wrote sacred music for four churches in Leipzig: St. Thomas', St. Nicholas', the New Church and St. Peter's. In between these two periods, from 1717 to 1723, Bach was employed as Kapelmeister for the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen.


As Prince Leopold was Calvinist, for the first time in his career Bach was not required to write sacred works, since music in the Reformed Church could only include Calvinist psalms. In this new secular environment and with the enthusiastic support of the Prince, Bach could explore the limits of instruments such as the violin, and also focus on works suited best for the instrumentation of the court musicians. As Prince Leopold had only recently established a court chamber orchestra, by the time of Bach's appointment the ensemble had grown to eighteen musicians who played wind, string and keyboard instruments.  


Bach was the product not only of a Lutheran tradition, but a family lineage with deep roots in a Protestantism that began with Viet Bach (1550-1619), who had fled Hungary to avoid persecution by the Protestant Counter-Reformation. As Bach's predecessors were at the service of protestant churches in Germany, the musical legacy that was his birthright was imbedded in Lutheran traditions. For Martin Luther, the role of both instrumental and vocal music was to transmit the gospel through art. Luther's quote, "Music is next to theology", placed this art form as an alternative and co-equal means of experiencing God. Bach was a devoted student of Luther's writings, and as cantor had to not only write sacred music but also to teach Lutheran theology.

It is in this context that we can view the Cöthen period as a time of experimentation and the exploration of expression and technical possibilities of instrumental music. While the Renaissance placed instruments (and stringed instruments in particular) in a supportive role to vocal lines, the Baroque Era exploded with instrumental expression, or affect, made possible with a lengthened bow, and even a newly developed curved stick, called the "Bach bow".


With the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bach expanded not only the violinist's expressive and technical sound world, but also gave the instrument multiple voicing by introducing chordal writing in many ways more easily suited to the organ. There are contemporary references to Bach's skill as a performer from contemporaries that suggest that he may have even performed these works himself.

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