In February of this year when introducing von Biber’s Missa Alleluia I wrote that as "a virtuoso violinist and composer for the instrument his rich colourful music has assured him a permanent place in the Pantheon". Of these compositions for violin perhaps the best known today are the "Rosary Sonatas" a group of violin sonatas that von Biber composed either for his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg or the Salzburg Confraternity of the Rosary during the mid-1670s. The first fifteen sonatas are meditations on the Mysteries of the Rosary, the sixteenth and concluding work in the group is the Passacaglia in G Minor for violin which is the subject of today’s posting stands somewhat apart from its fellows:
- The instrument upon which the Passacaglia is to be played is tuned normally (open strings on G, D, A and E) unlike the preceding fifteen sonatas which require a non-standard tuning1
- Its subject matter is associated with the Feast of the Guardian Angel rather than episodes in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
In Salzburg at the time von Biber composed the Rosary sonatas and the Passacaglia there were a series of Marian devotions held during the months of September and October. During these devotions the faithful would hold processions around paintings and sculptures placed in Salzburg’s churches which dealt with various events during Jesus’ and the Virgin Mary’s life. To emphasise the link between the sonatas and these devotions the original printed manuscript for each sonata had an engraving relevant to the sonata’s theme pasted onto the heading stave. The illustration pasted onto the stave at the head of the music for the Passacaglia depicts a guardian angel leading a child while the Passacaglia’s basis is a descending tetrachord of four notes descending from tonic to dominant in the minor mode:
G → F → E flat → D.
This pattern of notes is both associated with Italian passacaglia ground bass and is the first line of a contemporary hymn to the Guardian Angel first published in 1666 ‘Einen Engel Gott mir geben’ (God, Give Me an Angel) which has a remarkably similar tune to Passacaglia, so similar in fact that were I writing about a piece of choral music I would be describing it as a cantus firmus. It’s a fiendishly difficult piece to play consisting as it does of no less than sixty five (65!) variations of the theme organised into five different sections as follows
1-9 → the descending tetrachord played alone → 10-19 → the descending tetrachord played alone → 20-36 → the descending tetrachord played alone → 37-50 → the descending tetrachord played alone → 51-65.
Throughout these sections the notes of the theme provide continuity while the variations some of which rocket skyward like a firework are played above it. It’s this combination of a sustaining theme coupled with rapidly rising variations that make the piece so difficult to play but it’s also what makes it a piece that virtuoso violinists want to play to this day, because the ingenuity with which those four notes are embedded within the changing figurations is what allows the violinist to depict contrasting and varied moods and emotions and to do so in a uniquely personal way. Von Biber concludes the Passacaglia in G Minor with a G major triad.
It’s an important piece of music both because of its intrinsic beauty but also because as word of it spread it became the standard against which all such pieces were to be judged including those of one Johann Sebastian Bach. The performance below dates from this year and is by the incomparable Rachel Podger. Enjoy :-)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704) : Passacaglia in G Minor for Violin
- This is the technique known as scordatura a word which means ‘mistuning’ in Italian. The fifteen Rosary Sonatas are certainly the most important scordatura works ever written for violin and are, in my opinion, amongst the most important works for violin ever composed – mfi. ↩