Rosary Sonata No. 2 : Work information

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Andrew Manze & Richard Egarr

This work

Work name
Rosary Sonata No. 2
Work number
A major
1676-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Heinz Jansen
Recording date

Track listing

  • Sonata 1:46 min
  • Allemande 2:22 min
  • Presto 1:06 min

The Composers

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber

Biber was born in Wartenberg (now Stráž pod Ralskem, Czech Republic). He received his first position in 1668 as musician in the court of Archbishop Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn at Olmutz. But Biber failed to return from a visit to Innsbruck without permission. On this visit he met the at the time famous violin maker Jakob Stainer, who mentioned him in a later document as "der vortreffliche Virtuos (the outstanding virtuoso) Herr Biber." He was first a violinist at the castle of Kromìøíž, and in 1684 became Kapellmeister in Salzburg, where he died twenty years later.

Biber's music exemplifies the Austrian baroque style, which is a combination of Italian and German influences. His works show a predilection for canonic use and harmonic diapason that pre-date the later Baroque works of Johann Pachelbel and Johann Sebastian Bach. He was known as a violin virtuoso and is best known for his highly virtuosic and expressive violin works, many of which employ scordatura (unconventional tunings of the open strings). In his violin music Biber built on the achievements of earlier Italian violinist/composers such as Marini, Fontana, and Uccellini, as well as his Austrian near-contemporary (and possible teacher) Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

The music of Biber has enjoyed a renaissance, in part, because of the Rosary Sonatas. This remarkable set of 16 sonatas is also known as the Mystery Sonatas (in reference to key events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ) and the Copper-Engraving Sonatas (because of the engravings at the head of the sonatas). Each sonata employs a different tuning of the violin. This use of scordatura transforms the violin's expressivity from the pleasures of the Five Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, etc.) through the trauma of the Five Sorrowful Mysteries (the Crucifixion, etc.) to the ethereal nature of the Six Glorious Mysteries. The Glorious Mysteries start with the Resurrection Sonata—where the two middle strings are symbolically crossed over—and end with a passacaglia for solo violin using standard tuning (Sonata No 16), thereby completing the cycle of scordaturas. Remarkably, in Sonata No 15 Biber anticipates the theme of Paganini's Capriccio No 24 almost exactly. We can assume that Paganini took his inspiration from Biber (just as Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov were later inspired by Paganini's famous Caprice).

The Rosary Sonatas remained unpublished during Biber's lifetime. Among his important published collections of instrumental music are a set of eight sonatas (1681) for violin and continuo and the magisterial Harmonia artificioso-ariosa (consisting of seven trio sonata-suites utilizing scordatura violins and violas d'amore). Biber was a prolific composer of sacred vocal music, of the which the Requiem in F minor and the Missa Christi resurgentis are outstanding examples.