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The Music

The Rosary Sonatas

The reputation of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber as the greatest violin virtuoso of his time has survived safely tucked away in the annals of music history texts. Some, including Paul Hindemith, even considered Biber to be the Baroque era's greatest composer before Bach.


But for over 200 years, much of this composer's music (in particular the Rosankrantz Sonaten) had been lost to our ears. That is, until the publication in 1898 of the Biber volumes, edited by musicologist Guido Adler (as part of the historical series: Monuments of Music in Austria [DTÖ]) brought this collection of sonatas to life again. The only manuscript of these sonatas*, meanwhile, has remained in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.  

17th Century Virtuosity and Scordatura

To be a virtuoso in 17th century Europe was to inspire meraviglia (marvel) and diletto (delight) in the audience through the musician's ingegno (ingenuity). The flamboyant style of Austrian virtuosity involved, in addition, the stylus phantasticus, unfettered by structure, word, or harmonic rules, guided simply by a manifest invention that guides the composer's pen toward harmonic phrasing. It was characterized by fast running notes, high e-string writing (without a chin rest, a technique that was challenging in Biber's time), and complex chordal or contrapuntal writing.


Biber, however, also added the element of marvel to his writing through the use of scordatura (the dis-tuning of the violin to create pitches that sound differently from the notes on the page). Although many composers were exploring compositional innovations at this time, Biber's scordatura in the Rosary Sonatas represents the most extensive use of this writing technique before or since.

What is scordatura? By changing the pitches of the strings, the violin part appears in a tablature-style (also called hand-grip) notation*, which instructs the positioning of the fingers on the strings without revealing the actual pitches. A violinist who can hear pitches when reading music (either with perfect or relative pitch) will quickly realize that what they are seeing on the page does not conform with the sounding notes produced. 

The Manuscript

The manuscript consists of 15 accompanied sonatas and one concluding solo passacaglia*. The first of the Rosary Sonatas and the final Passacaglia use the standard tuning in fifths of G-D-A-E. Each of the remaining 14 rosary sonatas requires a different scordatura tuning, presented at the beginning of each.

In the presentation manuscript, a small engraving depicting one of each of the events in the life of Jesus (or decades of the mystery of the rosary) accompanies each sonata. The final passacaglia is given the engraving of a guardian angel. 


I. The Annunciation

II. The Visitation

III. The Nativity

IV. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

V. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple


VI. The Agony in the Garden

VII. The Scourging at the Pillar

VIII. The Crowning with Thorns

IX. The Carrying of the Cross

X. The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus


XI. The Resurrection

XII. The Ascension

XIII. The Descent of the Holy Spirit

XIV. The Assumption pf Mary into Heaven

XV. The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth

XVI. Passacaglia

Meditative Practice of the Rosary


Why and for whom did Biber write these sonatas? In or around 1676, Biber (at the time Vice-Kapellmeister in Salzburg) presented his manuscript to the Archbishop Maximilian Randolph von Khuenberg, along with a dedication letter that highighted the Archbishop's role in the annual presentation of the Holy Rosary in October.

The element of scordatura no doubt inspired the meraviglia of both the listener and performer. But the choice of repetitive musical forms to create imagery in the mind of the listener, rather than pictorial writing, speaks more to Biber's devotional training and desire to provide a multi-sensory meditative experience to evoke a contemplative spiritual experience.


Rosary prayer involves the practitioner's use of a series of repetitive prayers while meditating on each event in the life of Christ, which over time deepens the meditative experience. The rosary beads function as a memory aid as the practitioner recites the prayer sequence.

Just so, Biber's Rosary Sonatas are filled with repetitive musical forms, including theme and variation, dances and doubles, and repetitive bass line forms such as passacaglia and ciaccona*

Perhaps Biber's intent was to create a contemplative experience for all involved in the performance of these works: listener, performer and reader. This music continues to inspire wonder from each participant's perspective, and invokes an acceptance of outcome that can only be inspired by faith.

*Sonata: in general, a piece of music intended for instruments rather than the voice (as in a cantata), usually divided into several sections, or movements, of contrasting mood or tempo. In the Baroque era, a sonata for one or more instruments was accompanied by continuo in the form of of the organ, harpsichord, or cello or gamba.

*Tablature-style notation: also called hand grip notation, this was a system of musical notation showing the location of notes on the instrument rather than the pitches. Similar to guitar tabs, in the case of the Rosary Sonatas, this notation also included sharps and flats (raised or lowered pitches) in the key signatures of each sonata.

*Passacaglia: from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street), this music form was based on a walking, repetitive bass line over which the composer layers melody or variations, usually with three beats to the bar.

*Ciaccona: similar to the passacaglia, also originated in Spain, and characterized by a repeated harmonic progression overlaid by variations or melodic material.


               The Rosary Sonatas Mysteries                 Joyful                   Sorrowful            Glorious

Baroque vs. modern violin bow

The Solo Sonatas and Partitas

As an organist, Bach's approach to the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, complete with heavy chordal writing in both lighter Partita dance movements and heavier Sonata Fugue writing, would seem to have been impossible given the technical limitations of the instrument at this time. However, in his position as Kapellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen, Bach was given free rein to experiment and extend the scope of secular instrumental music, allowing him to also expand the technical and expressive capabilities of the instrument.

In contrast to the Renaissance Period, in which the role instruments was supportive of the dominant vocal line, during the 18th century Baroque Period the violin emerged especially as a virtuosic solo instrument capable of clear musical expression, even in the absence of text. 


The earliest bowed instruments to arrive in Europe may have come through Spain as possibly the rabāb, or through Sicily as the Byzantine-Greek lira. These stringed instruments evolved to be held in the arms as the viola da braccio, or between the knees as the viola da gamba. The player produced sound by stroking the strings with a bow made of wood and stretched horsehair held together with a simple dowel attached to the tip of the bow.


This early bow remained short, and for the viola da braccio (the early violin) this meant that it was only the length of the instrument. By Biber's and Bach's time, however, the violin bow had developed as players and composers demanded new effects and techniques. Bows during this period were arched or bowed away from the stick, unlike later innovations that actually warped the stick toward the hair. The bow gradually lengthened and developed greater height of the hair from the stick. This increased length made more sustained tone possible, and allowed more flexibility of the bow to touch more than one string at a time on the arched bridge. Bach was able to take full advantage of these new developments by writing sustained polyphonic chordal music for an instrument that had previously played primarily single lines.

These developments allowed performers greater latitude for expression, introducing not only sustained expressive playing more characteristic of vocal writing, but also a virtuosity that gave way to spontaneous improvisation. 


Improvisatory playing in the Baroque era was inspired by the imagination of the virtuoso during performances, guided by treatises on ornamentation and traditions in different regions of Europe, and in some ways akin to the improvisatory playing of jazz musicians. But it was Bach's fundamental approach to ornaments as an extension of sustained notes and chords that revolutionized the way ornaments had been used before the Solo Sonatas and Partitas.


Bach's masterful writing for the violin in these works conveys the rich complexity of the organ by utilizing the new capabilities of the bow to play chords and to sustain more than one line at a time. Bach, however, was also the first composer to painstakingly write out all ornamentation. Because Bach does not leave embellishment choices up to the performer, the violinist must instead channel their passion, imagination and personal expression through tone, dynamic and tempo changes.

In this way, Bach's writing for the violin is a sharp departure from the Baroque performer's spontaneous ingenio. Interestingly, there has been speculation that Bach may have used the writing of Biber as inspiration for his solo violin writing, in particular in the final Passacaglia of the Rosary Sonatas. In the Passacaglia, Biber wrote out all ornamentation for the performer to play over the simple four-note bass line, only allowing them to channel expressive interpretation of the repetitive bass line by changing tone, speed, or dynamics. If Bach was indeed influenced by the example of his older contemporary, this new compositional style could have suggested a path for Bach as he created music revolutionizing the technical limits and of the instrument and expressive capabilities of the artist.


The set of Sonatas and Partitas do not necessarily represent a chronological order of writing. We do not know the order in which Bach wrote them, but for the purposes of these performances, they will follow the order as first presented:

Sonata No. 1 in G minor

Partita No. 1 in B minor

Sonata No. 2 in A minor

Partita No. 2 in D minor

Sonata No. 3 in C Major

Partita No. 3 in E Major


The sonatas follow the form of the Baroque church sonata, a four-movement piece with contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast movements. Each sonata contains a fugue, and each fugue in the set becomes increasingly complex.


The Partitas follow a loose Baroque dance suite form. The B Minor, No. 1, follows a strict four-dance form, with each dance followed by a double movement at double tempo; the D Minor, No. 2, includes four dance movements follow by a monumental chaconne; and the E Major begins with a virtuosic Prelude followed by five dance movements.

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