Overlong Speculation on a Weird Little Piece for Epiphany

January 7, 2013 at 12:18 am (By Tim)

Christmas is done, the tree is down, and I’m still vacuuming up the needles. I’ve finally put together a post that is like taking a moment to look at the old, treasured angel from the top of the tree before putting her back in her box for another year.

Despite the pronounciation of his surname, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, was NOT a mop-haired hearthrob. Instead, in the mid-17th century, he was arguably the best violinist in Europe, a prolific composer, a devout Catholic, and Mozart’s predecessor, by 100 years, at the Archepiscopal court of Salzburg. But Heinrich Ignaz Franz DID have long, bushy hair, or at least an amazingly large wig, if his portrait does him justice.


Biber composed music not just for violin, but in all genres of his time, both sacred and secular. He even wrote an opera or two. He is probably best-known today for his so-called “Mystery Sonatas,” a collection of 15 sonatas for violin and basso continuo, each a musical meditation on a different Mystery of the Rosary. The violin is tuned differently than normal for 14 of the sonatas, giving each a distinct and symbolic sonic character. This is different than merely playing the music in a different key.

Here is another of Biber’s works I’ve found that seems to incorporate acoustic symbolism, although more hidden and implicit than the Mystery Sonatas. At the end of a collection of instrumental ensemble pieces entitled, Sonatæ, Tam Aris, quam Aulis servientes, published in 1676, there are twelve short fanfares for two trumpets. The fourth one here is striking and, I think, meaningful for Epiphany. It’s played here on two “natural” or “Baroque” trumpets, which are essentialy folded brass tubes about 8 feet long, fitted with bells and mouthpieces.

The notes that these instruments can play are given by the overtone or harmonic series, the basic acoustic material of all music. The lower notes are the same as bugle notes. But things get interesting when you get to the top of the bugle range. An entire octave (and more) of something like a major scale, with a few sharps and flats, is possible via the higher harmonics on these clever and subtle instruments. But the harmonics that produce a useable scale lie in a very high range, hence the brilliant, high notes in so many Baroque compositions that include trumpet. 17th and 18th century players had a scale to work with if they screeched high enough. The only problem is, the “scale” has some out-of-tune patches compared to an ordinary tempered scale. These may have been used to make a point, as here, or avoided, if possible and apprppriate.


Biber’s piece consists of three repeated sections, each of six bars. The first two sections begin with variants of a “happy” or celebratory  dotted figure, played mostly in thirds, as befits a fanfare. The first of these “happy” few bars consist of an ascending figure, the second has similar music descending. These initial two sections then each conclude with the same slow three bars that I think are symbolic of the Cross: The two parts are intertwined in a 4-3 suspension, representing the crossbeam, and a descent of the lower trumpet to G, ending on an open G-D fifth, symbolic of the upright.

(An aside about pitch: Music for natural brass instruments is notated as if in C major, irrespective of the actual key of the music. The sounding key depends on the length and therefore the pitch of the trumpet or horn. The pitch of the trumpets used here seems to be C at about A=440 Hz, or more likely, D at A=392 Hz, a more plausable historical pitch. Most trumpets in the 17th and 18th centuries were pitched in the key of D, but pitch standards were generally flatter than today’s, at least in the last half of the 17th century through the 18th century. A trumpet pitched in D at A=392 Hz, close to the lowest pitch used at the time, would be the same as an instrument in C at our modern pitch of A=440 Hz. This should be confusing enough.)

The last section, fast again, begins with a three-note figure, rising to the third degree of the scale. It also incorporates written F#’s for the fourth degree. This note is the lynchpin. On a natural (valveless) brass instrument, the written F is the 11th harmonic, and is noticeably out-of-tune. It is  somewhere between the F and F# of a tempered scale. It is unclear how much it was possible to correct this and other tuning discrepencies on natural trumpets of the past.  There is some scant evidence of small holes (much used today) cut into the tube, that the player could open and close to improve intonation. There is also evidence of clever mouthpiece and bell design, thin and thick sections of brass tubing to be squeezed by the player to correct certain notes, etc. Also, a strong player with good intonation can go a long way personally to play the intstrument tolerably in-tune to a conventional scale. So, the question remains, how much, in fact, did Baroque trumpeters “let it all hang out,” and how much did they, and could they, correct their intonation? Did they even want to?

I think the answer varied a lot, and that may help explain Biber’s ambiguous use of F and F#. In any event, the players here don’t make much of an effort. They’re content to play the notes God intended, which I think is the point. The strange, “neutral” third and momentary out-of-tune fourth are jarring, but they’re manifestations of God’s Creation, construed in Nature by the simple tube of a trumpet. Man’s art is revealed in turning Nature to his ends through an instrument of such noble simplicity.

This “cross-like” musical gesture is a pale, artistic reminder of the actual cross, and the real, grisly, bloody death Jesus suffered. But because its notes are intrinsic, real, out-of-tune, and created by God (if played by Man), it is a reminder that suffering (or at least unpleasantness) is also intrinsic to existence. Unpleasantness here can be an artistic stand-in for suffering. A deeper question is why we find certain musical notes pleasant or unpleasant, and what does that mean about our relationship with other pleasant and unpleasant sensations? This is an obvious nexus of Buddhist and Christian thought, but I’m writing a little musicological bagatelle here, and leave that question to more profound philosophers.

So, the last section of our piece concludes with the ringing, haunting harmonies of the untrammeled overtone series. A perceptive YouTube commenter says it is “simultaneously so brilliant and so somber. Right inside you and yet far away.”  I  think it symbolizes man’s reconciliation with God. There is no obvious dissonance, as in the earlier “Cross” figure, but it is strange and brilliant, made only of the unaltered sounds in God’s Creation—the Holy Spirit made manifest, but by Man’s imperfect means—right inside you and yet so far away.

The Cross was never far from Christmas in traditional Christian art. The Cross is the pre-ordained fate of the Babe in the Manger. A Cross is often tucked into corners of Renaissance and Baroque Nativity scenes, and Bach used the well-known Easter chorale, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as the concluding piece of his Christmas Oratorio. I’ve read this Biber piece may have been intended for Christmas, and so it was half-celebratory and half-reminiscent of the Cross.

I may be getting far afield with the next bit of speculation, but there are 159 notes total in the piece. The number 318—significant from Genesis 14:14 as the number of Abram’s servants in pursuit of his captive brother—was interpreted By St. Clement of Alexandria, among others, as a foreshadowing of the Cross (T, tau, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18). 159 is half of 318, and it could be that, because this piece is only half about the Cross, and half about the Nativity of our Lord, such a number was chosen. My son says this sounds like a conspiracy theory. When I was a student, a pianist friend used to call these kinds of musicological notions “wiggy.”  But if you’ve ever delved into the numerological coding in J.S. Bach, for example—a torture commonly inflicted on musicology students—you will appreciate how such wiggy ideas were common currency in the days of those musical gentlemen with too much hair, fake or real as it may have been.


  1. mockturtle said,

    While the musicology/numerology is ‘way over my head, as an ardent Barocophile, I found the fanfare joyously pristine–regardless of where in the F it was played. ;-) Thank you–it’s a keeper!

  2. karen said,

    :0)- even though it is so early, yet– i can honestly say-
    you’ve made my day. The brilliance of the trumpets- blare-
    w/out any shyness, that’s what made me listen to this recording 3x in a row and brought tears because the dissonance in certain areas is so sharply contrasted by the perfect pitch harmony in others.

    I never listen to music like this– just haven’t gotten in the habit, but i love it and it always reminds me of the arm-up pieces from band when i played clarinet. To this day i have dreams of forgetting my mouthpiece and having our director(a Navy man who played in the Navy band- trombone)spitting mad at me. All the kids looking at me…

    I sing in a little group of 4(my mom makes the 4th) and yesterday @Mass we sang ~As With Gladness Men of Old~ in 3 parts. I sing tenor. Love it.

  3. mockturtle said,

    And, yes, the cross is pivotal—the very purpose of Christ’s incarnation.

  4. mockturtle said,

    Tim: If you read this, please, could you recommend a really good recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor? Thank you. :-)

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