Catholics who love the rosary may be unaware of an extraordinary aid to their prayer: the Rosary Sonatas, by the Bohemian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.
Biber was employed in the Austrian and Moravian towns of Graz and Kroměříž before entering his service in Salzburg, where he would compose the grand and glorious Missa Salisburgensis on the occasion of the 1,100th anniversary of the Salzburgian archbishopric in 1682. The great 18th-century musicologist Charles Burney wrote that “of all the violin players of the last century Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period”. And Burney didn’t even know the Rosary Sonatas for solo violin and continuo, which are yet more intricate works than the “Sonatæ violino solo” on which the Englishman based his judgment.
These “15 Mysteries on the Life of Christ and the Virgin Mary” are likely a personal offering to Salzburg’s Archbishop Max Gandolf von Küenburg. The dedication reads: “I have consecrated the whole to the honour of the XV Sacred Mysteries which you promote so strongly” – which is why they are known as the Rosary or Mystery sonatas. A notable aspect of these sonatas is Biber’s use of scordatura – the re-tuning of the violin. This helps to play chords that might otherwise lie awkwardly, but it also changes the sonority of the instrument (on purpose). In accordance with the rosary consisting of three sets of five “decades”, each devoted to a meditation on one of the mysteries of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the sonatas can be divided into three sets: bright and sonorous for the “Joyful Mysteries” (sonatas 1-5), discordant and muted for the “Sorrowful Mysteries” (sonatas 6-10), and sonorous again for the “Glorious Mysteries” (sonatas 11-15).
Each mystery, except the last two and the concluding passacaglia for solo violin, itself intimating the sacred hymn Einen Engel Gott mir geben, has a specific passage of Scripture associated with it. While they can be consumed in themselves as joyful music, it is unlikely that they were intended to be that alone. They are an extension of faith, meant to enhance the meditation on the Sacred Mysteries. We can assume that Biber would have been surprised to find his work consumed without that context.
Whether you listen to this as absolute music or as the background to deliberate contemplation, you have a choice of some excellent recordings. Foremost among them are those of the brilliant Andrew Manze (with Richard Eggar’s continuo on keyboard instruments; Harmonia Mundi) and the more introspective Rachel Podger (who adds the delicate lute playing of David Miller to Marcin Świątkiewicz’s keyboard continuo performance; Channel Classics).