The late 17th century Austrian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was quite a celebrity in his day within the courts for his masterful compositions and virtuoso violin playing. He composed both instrumental and choral music in both the secular and sacred genres. He was particularly appreciated for his violin sonatas.
Biber was known for his ability to write for a wide range of instrumentations and for his use scordatura, in which the violin uses an alternate tuning to create a specific mood. According to the prominent music historian Charles Burney, “Biber seems to have been the best [violinist of his century], and his solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any music…of the same period”.
Biber was born in Wartenberg, Austria (modern day Stráž pod Ralskem in the Liberic Region of the Czech Republic). Not much about his early musical training is known, though it appears that he had music lessons as a young boy, perhaps with the local organist, Wiegand Knöffee. It is quite likely that he attended a Jesuit Gymnasium in Bohemia, eventually befriending Pavel Vejvanovský, who studied in Troppau with the Jesuits. It is also possible that he was a student of J.H. Schmelzer.
Biber’s first appointment, sometime before 1668, was as a musician to Prince Johann Seyfried Eggenberg in Graz. There he met Philipp Jakob Rittler and Jakob Prinner, who were also in the service of the prince. In 1668, Biber left the service of the prince to serve in Kroměříž as a valet de chamber and musician for Karl Liechtenstein-Castelcorno, the Bishop of Olmütz. His old friend Vejvanovský was the director of the Kapelle there. During his time with the bishop, Biber established himself as a worthy composer and violin virtuoso, becoming one of the most valued employees.
Unfortunately for the bishop, Biber left his service abruptly and sneakily. The bishop had sent Biber to Absam to visit the violin maker Jacob Stainer in 1970. The goal of this trip was to have the bishop select and purchase new instruments for the musicians of the court. Instead of visiting Stainer, Biber went to Salzburg and joined the court musicians of Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Lichtenstein was, of course, enraged and offended by Biber’s actions, but did not seek revenge or anything of the sort, as he was on friendly terms with Khuenburg. Though, it was not until 1676 that Lichtenstein officially released Biber from his service. In an attempt to appease his former employer and to seek forgiveness, Biber sent a number of works to the bishop.
Biber’s sly transition to Salzburg was very profitable for his career, as string music was a favourite of the archbishop. For his employer, Biber dedicated four printed collections of instrumental music between 1676 and 1684.
In the late 1670s, Biber had the opportunity to perform a number of his well-regarded violin sonatas for Emperor Leopold I, who presented him with a gold chain. At a second performance of the emperor in 1681, Biber unsuccessfully petitioned to become a member of the nobility.
In the meantime, he was appointed deputy Kapellmeister to Andreas Hofer in 1679, later becoming Kapellmeister and dean of the choir school after the death of Hofer in 1684. He also composed music for the 1682 jubilee celebrations.
A number of years later, Biber applied yet again to the emperor to enter the ranks of the nobility, this time with success. He received the rank of knight and the title “Biber von Bibern” in 1690. Shortly thereafter, his status was raised to “lord high steward” by the new archbishop.
That same year, Biber received a salary raise, which included free room and board, and also wine, bread and firewood. Not only did he have luxurious living conditions, but also a large number of talented singers and instrumentalists to work with, between 75 and 80 people in total.
Despite a long and successful career in Salzburg, it seems that Biber did not have a very friendly relationship with the court organist, Georg Muffat.
Biber married Maria Weiss, the daughter of an Austrian merchant, in 1672 in Hellbrunn. The couple had 11 children, of which only four—two daughters and two sons—survived childhood.
Biber provided all his children with a substantial musical education. Not surprisingly, all his children possessed musical talent. Both of his sons, Anton Heinrich and Karl Heinrich, became violinists at the court. The younger of the two, Karl Heinrich, would follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming deputy Kapellmeister in 1714 and Kapellmeister in 1743.
As for his daughters, Maria Cäcilia and Anna Magdalena, both became nuns. Anna Magdalena was a talented violinist and alto singer, leading her to be appointed director of the choir and Kapelle of her convent in 1727. She was inspired by her father’s teachings and used his manualSingfundament. For her investiture as nun, her father composed and directed his Missa S Henrici in 1697. Maria Cäcilia joined the convent of S Clar in Merano.
Biber’s output includes instrumental and vocal works in both the sacred and secular genres. He also composed a number of operas and school dramas, though only one of his operas,Chi la dura la vince (c. 1690-92), has survived. The majority of Biber’s works were printed during his lifetime, especially the most important works.
Standing out among Biber’s works are the eight sonatas for violin and continuo from 1681,Sonatae violin solo. These masterful works include free preludes and many variations. In addition, the violin range is extended. Two of these sonatas use the altered tuning method of scordatura.
Other notable works include the 16 Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas for violin and bass (c. 1676), the majority of which use scordatura. These works, which were not printed, were likely composed and performed for services at the Salzburg Cathedral in October, which was devoted to the Rosary Mysteries. Each of the different tunings was explicitly chosen by Biber to highlight convey emotions and moods.
Other scordatura pieces by Biber include the seven partitas for two instruments and bass,Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa. While scordatura is often employed in Biber’s solo works, it is never used in his ensemble works, which were more traditional.
Biber’s unaccompanied Passacaglia is a monumental work, which he built upon 65 repetitions of a descending tetrachord. This polyphonic masterpiece is perhaps the best of its kind, before the BachChaconne.
Later in his life, Biber wrote a large number of sacred works, which feature splendid vocal writing and an assortment of instruments. Particularly impressed are the masses and vespers. His 53-part hymnPlaudite tympana, is a great example of his sacred music. This work was previously attributed to Orazio Benevoli, but has since been proven to be from Biber. It was written to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the St Rupert’s founding of the archbishop of Salzburg and uses a huge ensemble, which is divided into seven different groups. Also noteworthy among his polychoral works are theMiss S Henrici, the Missa Bruzellensisand the 32-part Vesperae. His Missa quadragesimalis is a brilliant example of his use of a capella.
Despite the fact that Biber’s music fell quickly out of fashion in the early 18 th century, due to the new interest in Corelli and his school, upon the rediscovery of his music, it became popular once again and can often be heard today in concert halls.