1672: Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes.

February 4, 2013 at 11:21 pm (By Tim)

As someone who is perpetually offended the current date doesn’t include the year, “16–,” I thought I’d share something from that grand siècle, albeit from the other side of the Rhine—all the way to Salzburg, Austria, in fact—from one of my favorite composers, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Pronounced the same as, but no relation to, Justin, they each in their own way sprout too much hair. Our Biber was Mozart’s predecessor by 100 years at the Archiepiscopal court of Salzburg.

The musical world changed a lot from the highly symbolic, rhetorical language of Biber, always ready to proclaim a metaphysical truth with wood and catgut and hand-beaten brass, to the smooth blandishments of Mozart’s Enlightenment, slightly embarrassed by devotion to the Rosary and tuning systems that spoke of Original Sin.

The performance here is on wood, catgut and beaten brass—on instruments of Biber’s day. No valves need apply to this trumpet-playing, only the notes Nature put into 8 feet of hand-rolled brass tube. No chin rests or metal-wound strings for the fiddles, either—woven, Catline strings and bows that curve out are the noisemakers. All this helps a musician feel God’s presence in the plain materials that sprang, with some human art, from their native soil of Europe. You needn’t devote yourself to the Vedas and move to the banks of the Ganges to become spiritual. Something like that has always been possible, even in unfashionable places where people in periwigs wrote music for the Archbishop’s trumpeters to play.


  1. mockturtle said,

    Delightful! Sounds like a precursor to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

  2. TT Burnett said,

    It was, really.

    Biber is of Bach’s father’s generation. Biber and J.S. Bach bookended the German High Baroque—from the time of Louis XIV to that of Fredrick the Great. And despite the fact Biber was very Catholic, and Bach very Protestant, they both were Church composers, and shared an outlook and musical language that was steeped in the mysteries of the Christian religion, deeply symbolic, and elaborately rhetorical in expression.

    Biber’s music is more “chewy” and flamboyant, in the best 17th century manner, while Bach incorporated more sophisticated, later international elements. His output is almost an encyclopedia of European music in the first half of the 18th century. But, fundamentally, Bach was a tour guide of the same mental landscape as Biber. That is not true of Mozart, who was a creature of the Enlightenment, and distinctly a modern person.

    Biber and Bach were both from God’s time—the old European world where there was no obvious end to the Middle Ages, where angels might exist, and personal contentions between Man and the Devil were an expected part of life. Biber wrote a beautiful passacaglia for solo violin, describing a child’s Guardian Angel. And, of course, fighting the Devil was the basic plot line of the weekly mini-operas (“Cantatas”) Bach wrote for several years in Leipzig. They were keyed to the readings in church, and, ideally, helped illustrate the sermon.

    Mozart, Biber’s successor at Salzburg by a century, wrote an opera (The Magic Flute) in 1791 about Enlightenment ending superstition. Had Mozart survived that fatal year and lived a long enough life, he might well have taken a train to Vienna for the performance of his last opera, Der Letzter der Mohikanner—you know the one with the famous ice-skating ballet on a pasteboard frozen river, lit by the first use of electricity in the theater, an electric-arc sunrise that created a sensation throughout Europe.

    Ah, well, that’s from an alternative universe, the one where the Devil didn’t, in fact, get the upper hand.

  3. karen said,

    I love how informed you are and how generously-&lovingly- you share what you know. You and i should go on the road- call ourselves the Moosical duo or something:0).

    I have a friend(he’s our breeder, actually(artificial inseminator(that’s not even a word))who’s daughter is studying music- somewhere in NY- and they bought her a new flute. The old flute was worth about 9000$ and the new flute = 20000$, which i thought was ~ouch~! That’s not even an expensive flute– they(you?) make Platinum flutes, for crying out loud!! She was able to take a Summer internship w/a famous flutist somewhere up in Quebec- and was given a compliment on her sound over a girl w/the more expensive instrument. Not bad for a NEK farm girl.

    Please keep sharing. I keep clicking onto more videos and the Kyrie by Mozart is insanely long- like 2:45 or something. Folks at our Mass don’t even like it when we sing ~extra~ things on special, holy days! They don’t feel included if they don’t want to sing. They probably wouldn’t have like Mass back in the day of these composers.

  4. mockturtle said,

    Tim, I still need your opinion on the best recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Thank you!

  5. mockturtle said,

    Yes, Bach dedicated his music soli Deo gloria. IMO, the Renaissance was the pinnacle of human achievement but the Enlightenment was far from enlightening. :-(

  6. TT Burnett said,

    mockturtle: IMHO, the best recording is by Robert King and the King’s Consort, with the Tolzer Knabenchor. It’s done with a 35-member chorus of men and boys—exactly the size of Bach’s choir at Leipzig—with very nice period instrument accompaniment and excellent organ-playing. This, to my mind, comes the closest to the sound Bach had in mind, and the clarity, musicianship and technical quality is fantastic. I teach in a choir school, and there is nothing like the sound of a boy choir. This crew is the best I’ve ever heard for this music. You can get it from Amazon here. It’s also on iTunes.

  7. mockturtle said,

    Thank you. I’ll check it out.

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