Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (now there’s a name!) was a rock star violinist in his day. He was one of the most important composers for the violin, ever. He had an incredible technique, and could easily reach all of the required hand positions (where the left hand is placed on the strings, and not always easy to shift from one spot to another). He explored all the instrument could do, more than previous composers of the violin, and even what different tunings that could be done. The violin was primarily an instrument for ensembles until Biber came along; he wrong one of the first known solo pieces for violin, the Passacaglia (music with a repetitive bass, and quite dramatic) which was part of the Mystery Sonatas.
Kathleen Kajioka, host of “A Little Night Music” on weekday evenings and “Dinner Classics” on Saturday evenings, is our in-house violist and violinist, who often performs Baroque music. I asked her for her thoughts on Biber’s music.
“Biber is a touchstone of what makes 17th century my favourite musical period. He embodies the wild fantasy of that era, a time when imagination and emotional scope were not fettered by manners or formal constraints. He, in particular, reminds us that the extended techniques that were supposedly ‘invented’ in the 20th century were, in fact, simply circling back to what had been tried 300 years earlier. The scordatura – de-tuning – of Bartok’s “Contrasts” (1938) hearkens back to the countless experiments Biber made in violin timbre and technique by tuning the strings in different ways. And how astonishing to find, the first time I played his ‘Battalia’, a cacophonous moment right out of Charles Ives, with nine individual melodies all clashing together at once! I always look forward to a project when Biber is on the programme, knowing I will get to sink my teeth into his sinewy textures, and enjoy everything from foot-stomping dance rhythms to moments of breathtakingly delicate transcendence.”
Have a listen to Andrew Manze’s recording of Biber’s Passacaglia for Unaccompanied Violin. To our ears, accustomed to several instruments simultaneously, the solo violin may sound sparse. Give it time; this work is both simple (in terms of one lone instrument) and complex (in terms of what is actually being played). I think it’s beautiful.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was born August 12, 1644 in Wartenberg which is now the Czech Republic, and died May 3, 1704, Salzburg, Austria, in 1704.