Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
Born in the year 1644 in Wartenburg, a Bohemian town which is now in the present day Czech Republic, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is best known as a Baroque violinist and composer. Little is known about his early life other than the fact that he came from very humble beginnings. For the majority of his years he held positions as cubicularius, which means chamber servant, in varying court chapels. The two most prominent places of his employment were first under the bishop in Kroměříž and then in Salzburg where he served the Archbishop Max Gandolf from 1670 until his death in 1704 .
Biber left Kroměříž in 1670 in exchange for what he deemed to be better work and pay in Salzburg, but he abandoned his post without permission. However, relations between the bishop of Kroměříž and Biber were not completely destroyed as it is noted that many of his compositions during his Salzburg years were carried back to Kroměříž to be performed and enjoyed. It was in Salzburg that he also married his wife, Maria Weiss, a woman of higher social position than he which granted him even greater financial advancement.
However, it was more than his strategic marriage that elevated his social standing. His brilliant compositional style was noted by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. It is a style that is reflective of the needs of the court, yet standard guidelines that accompanied sacred music were often manipulated in favor of instrumental experimentation. This pioneering spirit was so admired by Emperor Leopold, that Biber was knighted in the year 1690.
Biber perhaps felt great compositional freedom to experiment with instruments’ capabilities as he composed in the early developmental years of many instruments. His resulting repertoire surprises us with musical devices more akin to those of Charles Ives and other contemporary composers. Much of his work implements scordatura, an alternate tuning of stringed instruments which provides a particular effect. His music also calls for prepared instruments and other extended techniques long before they were ever popular.
Biber’s appeal does not lie in his honest originality as much as it lies in the original way that he often borrowed direct quotations from existing compositions and folk tunes, mimicked sounds that were a part of his everyday soundscape, and pushed the physical limits of the instruments for which he wrote.
While he served first as chamber servant and then Kapellmeister in the court chapel of Salzburg, much of his compositional output was of course sacred, but he is most known for his numerous chamber works and sonatas for solo violin. To quote author E.T. Chafe, the secular pieces he composed held an “obvious entertainment value” that gave them an “aura of immediacy,” or accessibility.
His Battalia à 10, in D major is a perfect example of his progressive genius. Composed in 1673, it is a ten minute piece with eight movements that push performers and listeners to move beyond their aural comfort zones.
In the seventh movement, Die Schlacht (The Battle), Biber instructs the players to imitate cannon shots by using a percussive pizzicato. A technique called Col legno, is also used, where the stick of the bow strikes the string. To mimic the sounds of a snare drum used in battle during the movement called Der Mars (The god of war), the bass player is asked to place paper between the strings in order for them to buzz, while the violin sings like a military fife above the rhythmic line. During the second movement, whose title translates to “the lusty society of all types of humor,” many German and Slovak folk songs are forced together in a way that creates polytonality.
So it quickly becomes apparent that in the true spirit of the Counter-Reformation, the music of Biber’s time was meant to evoke spirituality through direct sensuality. This trend was in retaliation to the Protestant claim that church culture was inaccessible to the “common man.” Therefore, with jovial folk tunes, charismatic and innovative techniques, as well as deeply expressive movements in the minor mode, Biber’s Battalia à 10 debunks this claim quite clearly as does the majority of his astounding work.