Escape from Daily Life with the Mystery Sonatas

Von Biber performed his "Mystery Sonatas" during church services to remember the Stations of the Cross. © Charles Thibo
Von Biber performed his “Mystery Sonatas” during church services to remember the Stations of the Cross. © Charles Thibo

Every now and then I stumble by accident over music pieces that immediately catch my full attention. Here is one of my favorite examples: I was looking for recordings by the German viola di gamba (viol) player Hille Perl, whose play I like very much. She has recorded together with her husband, the lute player Lee Santana, a beautiful cycle of Baroque sonatas for violin and bass, in this case played by an organ, a harpsichord, an archlute and a theorbo, a kind of bass lute: the “Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas” composed in the 17th century by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704).

Down the road to mysticism

The 15 sonatas correspond to the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, which in turn describe 15 different periods in the life of Jesus and the Holy Virgin, also known as the Stations of the Cross, and play a central role in the Rosary processions, where each mystery invites to meditations and prayers. The cycle is divided in five Joyful Mysteries, five Sorrowful Mysteries and five Glorious Mysteries. This is about as far as I will take you on the road to Catholic mysticism – it’s a bizarre world and not to everybody’s taste!

However, this mystic strain of christianity has led the Austrian composer von Biber around 1676 to compose a cycle that is not only a prime example of Baroque aesthetics, but also of an example of musical innovation, that was quite a challenge for musicians of the 17th century.

Von Biber, apparently one of the best violinists of his time, introduced new technical skills and new composition ideas, that most violinists of his time did not master. Exceptionally I will directly quote from Oxford Music Online: “The tuning chosen for each Mystery Sonata […] helps to set the mood by providing for special tone-colours, rich sonorities and many multiple stops not ordinarily obtainable on the violin.”

Diversity of style

What fascinates me about this cycle, is its diversity in style, the hypnotizing effect it occasionally has on me and the pictures it conjures in my mind of Baroque churches with musicians playing such magnificent tunes that those who attend the service can for a moment or two forget the harsh life of ordinary citizens in the 16th century and escape to a dream world, just like I do today. When von Biber composed the Mystery Sonatas, he was at the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg, and he performed them during the Rosary processions at the Cathedral of Salzburg.

Though the pieces were written as part of church services, I can deeply enjoy these compositions without having to associate it with faith or religion. As far as I am concerned, they could also have been written to entertain some Baroque prince. I really cherish the recording by Hille Perl and Lee Santana, available on Spotify, but at least one other recording is available (Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pichl and the “Battalia” ensemble). And through fellow blogger Andrew Benson-Wilson I have discovered a third recording with Anne Schumann (violin) and Sebastian Knebel (organ).

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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One thought on “Escape from Daily Life with the Mystery Sonatas”

  1. ‘The Mystery Sonatas’ are among my very favourite pieces of music. I have a recording with Italian violinist Riccardo Minasi, who I think is one of the best. His violin sings. Funny, at when I first heard the ‘Rosary Sonatas’ I remember thinking they lacked the structured serenity I associate with the slightly mesmerising repetitiveness of a Rosary recitation (but then I’ve only ever heard it a couple of times on Vatican Radio, late a night) but I do feel there’s something deeply spiritual about the sonatas. You can hear ardent faith, doubt, anger, questioning, despair and joy.

    Great post.

    Do you know Pandolfi’s violin sonatas?

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