Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm a Bilieber!

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 - 1704)


A fan of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, that is, not of that other guy. As a commentator noted on one of the YouTube clips of Biber, "Who is this other Bieber that people and Youtube keeps referring to?Youtube suggestions keeps handing me videos of some androgynous looking young fellow who appears Shallow and Vain and mostly sounds like burning kittens in a broken elevator shaft to me?"

As I said in an update to my post on requiems, thanks to commentator Nathaniel Garbutt for pointing me towards the requiem(s) of Heinrich Biber (1644 - 1704) which got me thinking--and listening. I had a friend in graduate school who did her dissertation on the Mystery Sonatas of Biber and I had certainly run across him from time to time. Before going any further, I suggest you read the Wikipedia article on him, so I won't have to fill in all those details.

Heinrich Biber is certainly an important composer but I was astonished to discover that Richard Taruskin doesn't seem to think so. Going immediately to the Oxford History of Western Music for some further information I found not a single mention of Biber! Very odd. Of course, Taruskin is sometimes accused of partiality and of leaving out composers he doesn't like, but I couldn't think of a reason to leave out Biber. Coming from two generations before J. S. Bach and just a bit before the generation of Arcangelo Corelli, Biber is hugely important in at least one way and fairly important in a couple of others. In the history of violin-playing and composition he is very important for three things: he is the composer who was likely the most important influence on Bach's solo violin music because he, Biber, was one of the very, very few to write for unaccompanied violin before Bach. He was also very important in developing true contrapuntal writing for solo violin and for the use of scordatura, the re-tuning of the instrument in order to achieve special effects.

Other ways Biber is important is that he provides in his Mystery Sonatas (read this talk on them here) one of the most striking examples of musical symbolism and cyphers (which I have posted about here) in history. This may also have influenced Bach as he was also very prone to number symbolism in his music. There are other aspects of Biber that I am surprised have not led to him being given a great deal more space in music history books.


The last piece in the Mystery Sonatas is a solo passacaglia of monumental proportions that simply has to be the model for the monumental Chaconne by Bach:



In a piece dating from 1673 titled Batallia he uses both polyrhythms and polytonality. There was a tradition, dating from the 16th century, of depicting battles in music, but this is the most extensive example I know of. There is even a battle-piece for two lutes by Telemann.



Biber was not a one-trick pony, writing only for his own instrument like Paganini. He also wrote some very significant large works for chorus, soloists and orchestra including not just the two requiems, but a lot of other masses and vesperae. He also wrote a sonata for six trumpets, organ and tympani.



And finally, Biber was likely the most virtuoso violinist in history before Paganini! In fact, the theme to one of Paganini's most popular pieces bears a striking resemblance to the theme from the Sonata 15 of Biber's Mystery Sonatas.

Let's end with one of his major works, the Missa Salisburgensis for sixteen voices and thirty-seven instruments:



Heinrich Biber is certainly a composer worth knowing, wouldn't you say? Perhaps even more than his modern namesake Justin Bieber.

11 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, might not be the first time I've heard of this composer but I had no idea he was an important/good composer. Some of the blame is on Taruskin for sure. The music (judging from what I've listened so far) sounds good and interesting. The polytonality is very exquisite... Just kidding, it's more than a bit odd for my taste and it's certainly surprising for a baroque composer (but then again we have the example of Rebel's Chaos and also of the baroque piece depicting a surgery). But other than the polytonality the battle music is very excellent. This is the true Biber.

Bryan Townsend said...

Composers go in and out of fashion. It seems as if there has been something of a rediscovery of Heinrich Biber over the last twenty years.

Marc Puckett said...

Great post! I copied three paragraphs into my post from yesterday, ahem.

Listening today, I don't quite know if 'the 20th century' I heard in the Salzburg Mass is actually there or not. Not sure what I'm hearing, in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Just Biber, probably.

The parchment underneath the strings technique, that makes the violin sound snare drum-ish, is a clever, clever device. Can vaguely see how someone might be inclined to try the col legno, but not the paper business.

Wonder if John Eliot Gardiner will make the connexion between Biber's Passacaglia and Bach's Chaconne when he gets to that point? I am moving forward only slowly; it seems incredibly easy to give way to distractions etc while with JEG, for some reason....

Here's a link to Biber's Sonata repraesentativa, where his violin simulates a quail, a frog, a cat, a nightingale, a cock and hen....

[https://youtu.be/3VXcuaHwpac]

Marc Puckett said...

The first link [http://www.bluntinstrument.org.uk/biber/penetrating.htm] is dead, unhappily. You don't recall the name of whoever wrote all of that? there seems to have been several pages, photographs of sites associated with Biber, etc there but alas it appears to have vanished from the Internet. James Clements? does that name ring a bell?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. No, sadly I don't recall anything about that link to the article on Biber. Older posts are often subject to the dreaded "link rot", especially YouTube clips. Only very rarely do I go back and replace them with current videos. As soon as I realized this was a big problem, I started identifying exactly what clip I was posting so that readers could hunt down another version.

Marc Puckett said...

Does this sound plausible to you, Bryan (or anyone, I guess)--

"... A composer as well as a performer, Biber was fascinated by the doctrine of the affections: the belief that emotional states such as tenderness, fear, and anger could be given direct musical expression. Many Baroque composers pursued this idea but none did so with such a degree of quirkiness, flair, and sheer experimental verve as Biber...."

Or is the Rough Guide to Classical Music writer just laying it on thick?

Bryan Townsend said...

The 18th century did have the doctrine of the affections (Affektenlehre in German) and here is the article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_of_the_affections

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks for the link! I do still wonder how the writer knows Biber was 'fascinated'-- the Rough Guide (who knew such a thing existed?) was quoted in someone's blog or article etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, that is the sort of tossed-off claim that cries out for a footnote!

Marc Puckett said...

The other assertion that seems to me questionable, that I'm seeing scattered through the online sources, is that Biber was a committed social climber etc etc. One has to wonder about that, too. My guess is that, first, he moved to Salzburg!! from the Bohemian sticks (and the relocation involved a contract- or agreement-breaking that was no little thing in the circumstances of the day, granted), and, second, he repeated, tsk, tsk, his attempt at acquiring noble status!! which has to count for at least a handful of demerits in anything written by committed modern people. I have no personal interest in Biber being a saint but the nonsense contemporary academic historians write does a terrible disservice to the truth. I can write a sympathetic description of both of those events attested in the historical record (probably)-- but all it takes is one louche, unsympathetic writer, and voilà! un arriviste sans honte. Have been reading about Marvin Jarvis and his decision to make Anna Magdalena Bach composer of the Six Cello Suites etc etc and am irritable at the state of the world.

Bryan Townsend said...

I quite agree with your skepticism. I read somewhere recently that you should approach all written materials assuming that it is April 1st.