Do you like Vivaldi? In his different violin concertos that are commonly known as the “Four Seasons”, there is one that describes a peaceful day in the fields on a hot summer day, just before a thunderstorm breaks out. Ah, I love that part! But here is a violin sonata that takes up a similar mood. The warmth of the violin’s play expresses the joy of being in the midst of nature and an unbound optimism: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Violin Sonata No. 1. The ensemble Romanesca led by the British violinist Andrew Manze has released already in 1994 a recordings of ten violin sonatas and two passaglias written by Biber. We have met this composer and violinist of the 17th century already, when I wrote about his beautiful “Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas”.
An outstanding violin virtuoso
At the time, I was busy explaining the Christian mysticism that is the background of the Mystery Sonatas and omitted any biographical details. However, I have fallen deeply in love with Biber’s music and it may be worthwhile to shed a little light on his life. He was born in Wartenberg in Bohemia, now known as Straz pod Ralskem in August 1644 and died in the Austrian city of Salzburg in May 1704. According to Oxford Music Online, “he was the outstanding violin virtuoso of the 17th century and a first-rate composer; he wrote instrumental or vocal, sacred or secular music with equal ease. His fame rests mainly upon his violin sonatas.”
Little is known about his musical education, but in 1670 he entered the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg. He wrote both secular and church music as would befit his post and steadily rose in the social hierarchy in Salzburg. In 1690, he was raised to the noble rank of knight, the culminating point of his career.
A delightful lightness
The Violin Sonatas numbered 1 to 8, written in 1681, and especially his Sonata Representativa illustrating the voices and moods of several animals (cuckoo, frog, cat…) long before Sergey Prokofiev came up with “Peter and the Wolf” are marked by the lightness that I like so much about Vivaldi. It is, simply put, delightful chamber music and deceptively pleasant. Deceptively? Oh yes, the pieces sound simple and clear in their structure, but Biber was a virtuoso and breaking new ground in the field of violin music requiring special technical skills from the player. Some 100 years later the musical historian Charles Burney would note: “[His] solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period.”
Let this album become for you one more reminiscence of the past summer.
© Charles Thibo