Biber’s life was, in a sense, a dream of new-world upward mobility. Born into the servant class in the mid 1600s, his talent and accomplishments — as well as some savvy decisions – saw him rise to knighthood, and then ultimately to high steward. He earned a handsome salary in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg, which included free board, food, wine and firewood. From valet/violinist to Kapellmeister with 75-80 excellent singers and instrumentalists at his disposal – he was the most highly honoured violin virtuoso of his time, anywhere. One music historian from 100 years later wrote that “of all 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.” While we have no records of any concert tours, the stunning repertoire he left behind reached every corner of the Prussian kingdom, as well as France and Italy. He died in 1704, aged 60, and was buried in Salburg. There is no question that his is a critical moment in the evolution of music in the German-speaking world, and provides valuable context for the more familiar composers of the next generation , such as Bach. Certainly, his importance to violin music is incalculable. Among his most famous works are the 15 Rosary Sonatas, which conclude with the stunning Passacaglia for Solo Violin.
Biber also wrote several volumes of ensemble pieces, such as the collection called “Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes” (“Sonatas as much for the altar as for the table”) which are incomparably rich in texture, imagination and musical dialogue. His writing offers so much for musicians to sink their teeth into, and he provides satisfying material for every voice in the ensemble, which is one reason why he is a favourite of Ensemble Masques.
In the video below Ensemble Masques plays one of their signature Biber pieces, the Sonata IX in B-flat. Try to spot our very own Kathleen Kajioka, host of A Little Night Music and Dinner Classics performing in this concert. (HINT: Kathleen’s black hair and bow is peaking out from behind the the music stand on the organ)
Ensemble Masques 1st violinist, Sophie Gent, plays one of Biber’s most celebrated pieces, the Passacaglia for Solo Violin. Click here to watch.