Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Biber Fever


Heinrich Biber

No, I’m not talking about Justin.  I’m talking about a composer whose music has been widely praised for centuries.  The one whose works have posed challenges for generations of musicians.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) was a composer and violinist whose innovations in violin technique opened new inroads to the exploration of the possibilities of the instrument.

Biber developed fingering and bowing techniques that made it possible to make more extensive use of the neck and use multiple stops so that polyphony could be played.  Here is a brilliant example, Biber’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in E Minor.

Biber also made ample use of alternate tunings (scordatura) in his compositions.  In his Mystery Sonatas (also called the Rosary Sonatas or Copper-Engraving Sonatas*) each sonata requires a different tuning for the violin (!).  Biber’s passacaglia at the end of the Mystery Sonatas has been recognized as one of the earliest known solo violin works, and may well have influenced Bach in the composition of his ChaconneHere is Biber’s beautiful passacaglia.

In addition to his violin music, Biber also wrote a large number of vocal works, including masses, requiems, and motets.  He also wrote at least one opera.  A performance of Biber’s Requiem may be seen here.

While many of his vocal works featured large choirs and large orchestras (the Missa Salsburgensis calls for several choirs, with a total of 53 vocal parts; here’s an excerpt), he was also adept at writing for more modest ensembles.  His Stabat Mater is for just four voices.

An unusual and noteworthy piece is Battalia, Biber’s musical representation of a battle and its aftermath.  Biber incorporates dissonance, uses the cello to represent a drum, and in short, creates a piece of music that does not sound like it was written in 1673.  A detailed description can be found here.

Be sure to check out the Heinrich Biber Homepage for a discography, list of recordings, and detailed articles on the composer and his works.  Biber scores may be found here.

Biber was well known and imitated in his lifetime and was acclaimed as a composer well into the 18th century.  Thereafter, Biber’s music fell out of favor, but there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his music, leading to a number of performances and new recordings.

Looks like Biber is making a comeback.

[Postscript:  Indeed!  Hours after posting this I found out a recording of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas had won Gramophone’s 2016 Baroque Instrumental Award.]


*The sonatas were dedicated to and presented to the Archbishop of Salzburg in a score that included copper engravings at the head of each sonata.  You can see the copper engravings at the bottom of the linked page.


  5. Gilman, Kurt Ardee, The Importance of Scordatura in the Mystery Sonatas of Heinrich Biber,


Image attribution: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, 1681, engraving by Paulus Seel, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Biber Fever

  1. ooh la la, that Chaconne . . . . .


  2. WooHoo! We love Biber!


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