Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was a Bohemian-born Baroque composer and violinist who spent the larger part of his working life at the Salzburg court. He composed operas, sacred choral works, and ensemble pieces, but is best known today for his violin compositions (in particular the Sonatas for Violin and Continuo (1681) and the Mystery Sonatas (c.1676)) and the attributed Missa Salisburgensis. Biber's work places extraordinary technical demands on performers, and is notable for its experimental verve, eccentricity and improvisatory nature.

Biber was celebrated as both a composer and violinist during his lifetime. He was considered amongst the finest violin virtuosi of the 17th century. Musicologist Paul Henry Lang described Biber as "a violin virtuoso and composer admired as was only Paganini." His work was largely forgotten in the centuries after his death: in the 18th century German-speaking violinists abandoned his style in favor of the more formal and fully tonal Corellian school. Sir John Hawkins' "General History of the Science and Practice of Music" (1776) did not mention Biber, although Charles Burney, the English music historian and composer, wrote in 1789 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 most fanciful of any I have seen of the period." Paul Hindemith regarded Biber as the most remarkable composer before Bach.

In the latter half of the 20th century, with the emergence of the period performance movement, Biber's work has undergone a revival in popularity. Since the 1990s, a number of outstanding period musicians have turned their attention to Biber's work. As a result, he is increasingly gaining recognition as one of history's great violin composers.

Biber in Context

In 17th century, the violin's status was elevated by the establishment of a solo violin repertory. The violin's role moved increasingly from dance music accompaniment to church music and court ensembles. This shift began with the Italian violin school, which tended to concentrate on musical qualities, often with relatively modest technical demands. Arcangelo Corelli's work epitomizes this style. In contrast, the extravagant and often bizarre demands of the stylus phantasticus reached a peak around the late 1600s in the music of the German-Austrian-Bohemian violin school. Biber's oeuvre marks the highest achievement of this school, balancing profound expressiveness, technical mastery and virtuoso showmanship. Sehnal summarizes Biber's achievement in The New Grove Dictionary of Music:

[of the Sonatae violino solo] It was in the free preludes, in equally free and elaborate finales, in brilliant passage-work over ostinato basses and in polyphonic passages (in which multiple stops seem never to have been a problem) that Biber was able to give full rein to a formidable violin technique. In range he was able to reach the 6th and 7th positions and return from them with an ease and abandon which set him apart even from his only peer, Johann Jakob Walther. (In both left-hand technique and bowing these two men from the north far outstripped their Italian contemporaries.)

A Note on Biber's Dedications

Biber prefaced his works with dedications that abound in puns, wordplay, alliteration, rhymes and associations. The rhetorical figures in these prefaces reflect Biber's interest in the doctrine of affections—the use of musical motifs and compositional devices to evoke specific emotional states in the listener.

The Latin dedication of his 1681 sonatas for violin and basso continuo links the terms solum (foundation, lowest part), solatio (comfort), sol (sun), and solus (unique): Et Sola interdum solatio esse possunt: imò et Soli major virtus est, quia soli ("Even low things may at times prove to be a comfort—even the nethermost sun has strength because it is unique"). Later, the dedication puns on the dual meaning of fides (loyalty, strings) and plays on violino and violare (violin and violent). Biber proclaims his intention to serve his patron diversis modis, et modulis servire ("in diverse ways and with diverse lays").

The Mystery Sonatas' dedication to Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph is also written in ornate Latin, replete with wordplay and rhetorical figures. Biber consecrates his music to the sun of justice and the immaculate moon—metaphors for Christ and the Virgin Mary—and places Maximilian Gandolph in a threefold unity with Christ and Mary.

These dedications—erudite, showy, playful, ambiguous and inventive—perfectly capture the spirit of Biber's music.


The following notes draw heavily from "The Church Music of Heinrich Biber", by Eric Thomas Chafe. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. 1987.

1644 - 1668
Biber was born in the town of Wartenberg (now Stráž pod Ralskem) in Northern Bohemia on August 12, 1644. His father was probably a gamekeeper on the estate of the local overlord, Count Christoph Paul von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn. Biber was a master of both violin and viola da gamba by the early to mid-1660s. The most likely person with the means to provide for Biber's education was Count Maximilian von Lichtenstein-Kastelkorn, who inherited the local estate in 1648. It was common for youths to enter into the employ of nobles at the time, and such a circumstance would account for Biber's later patronage by both the count's son Christoph Philipp and brother Karl, the Prince-Bishop of Olomouc.

No documentary evidence exists to establish where and with whom Biber studied: Prague, Dresden and Vienna have all been suggested as places, and Antonio Bertali, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, the organist Wiegard Knöffee and the Kroměříž Kapellmeister Pavel Josef Vejvanovský have been suggested as teachers.

Biber was in contact with Vejvanovský and other Jesuit-trained musicians by 1663, leading to speculation that he may have studied at the Jesuit Gymnasium at Opava in Silesia. The Sonata Representativa (1669; formerly attributed to Biber but now thought to be written by Schmelzer) takes its programmatic elements note for note from Jesuit-trained polymath Athanasius Kircher's work of musicology the Musurgia Universalis. Futher evidence for Biber's association with Jesuits lies in the fact that Biber's two middle names were not on his birth certificate; he started using them by about 1676. He took the names of the two most important founding members of the Jesuits: Ignatius of Loyola and Franz Xavier.

Biber worked before 1668 for Prince Johann Seyfried Eggenberg at Graz in Styria. Early work during this period displays evidence for Biber's musical association with Schmelzer and Johann Jakob Prinner, whom he had known from Styria; both composers are of central importance to his early development. Much of what is most enduring in Biber's later work was drawn from this provincial upbringing—the scordatura, folk, programmatic and virtuoso elements.

Biber was employed by Count Maximilian's brother, Prince-Bishop Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, at the Kroměříž chapel from around 1668 to 1670. The Prince-Bishop's tenure gave the chapel the most significant part of its muscial holdings, now called the Liechtenstein Collection in his honor. Biber's official position was chamber servant, the duties of which may have been nominal. Biber was popular among the courtiers and valued as a violin virtuoso.

The chapel's leader was Pavel Vejvanovský, the region's greatest trumpet virtuoso. Under Vejvenovský's teaching, Bishop Karl's trumpeters played to a very high standard; their impact on Biber is evident in his compositons for trumpet, such as the Sonata á 7 (1668) and the Sonata S. Polycarpi (1673).

Biber made the acqaintance of the great violin maker Jakob Stainer while at Kroměříž. Stainer described Biber in 1670 as "der vortreffliche Virtuos"—the formidable virtuoso. In October 1669 Biber apparently had a near-death experience involving either illness or accident. The following year, when sent to pick up an order from Stainer for nine instruments, Biber abandoned the Bishop's service without leave, and entered the service of the Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khüenburg at Salzburg in Autumn of 1670.

Career ambitions and financial considerations may have played a role in Biber's decision to abscond: Salzburg was a more active musical centre than Kroměříž. Biber might also have found Bishop Liechtenstein-Kastekorn's musical tastes—which lent towards external technical devices—too restrictive. After his arrival in Salzburg, Biber continued to send manuscripts back to Kroměříž to regain his old employer's goodwill. Bishop Karl at last formally released Biber from his service in 1676.

Initially, Biber was officially a chamber servant at the archiepiscopal court, the same post he had held at Kroměříž. In May 30, 1672, he married Maria Weiss, the daughter of a wealthy Salzburg merchant. By the early 1670s, Biber had secured a postion of importance in a vibrant musical center and married into a wealthy family; now he began to advertise his talents in earnest.

Biber's works from his first decade at Salzburg attest to a desire to demonstrate his ability. During this time he carried certain tendencies of his early work to their fullest development. The hallmarks of the 17th century Baroque never fade from Biber's work; however, after the 1670s, his highly individualistic style of scordatura and programmatic devices was supplanted by a newfound concentration on more general technical, rhetorical and formal features of violin playing. Biber would return to this style in his final published instrumental work, the Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa.

Biber's extensions of the programmatic, scordatura and folk traditions in 17th century string playing were more than a compositional curiosity. Biber's Mystery Sonatas (also called the Rosary Sonatas) is the finest example of such violin writing. The work consists of fifteen sonatas dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary and a concluding passacaglia for solo violin. The violin imitates trumpets, the mind of Pentecost, and chorale singing in octaves. Fourteen different scordatura tunings are used, giving each sonata a unique sonority intended to evoke the mood of its corresponding mystery, and allowing multiple stops (playing more than one string at a time) not obtainable with a conventionally tuned violin.The work's emphasis on imaginative involvement in sacred domains is characteristic of the Catholic Reformation and Jesuit devotion, where the spiritual is evoked by sensory engagement. The work's closing passacaglia is a worthy precursor to Bach's chaconne.

Other pieces from this period exhibit several features inherited from works such as Carlo Farina's Capriccio Stravagante. The Battalia à 10 includes a quodlibet that imitates "the dissolute horde of musketeers" by simultaneously sounding eight popular songs in several keys; the movement includes the instruction "here it is dissonant everywhere, for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs." Other movements include pizzicato to imitate cannon shots by letting strings hit the fingerboard, col legno, and placing paper between violin strings to suggest the rumble of snare drums. One movement is freely adapted from an earlier work by either Biber or Schmelzer, the Musketeer's March of the Sonata Representativa. The Sonata pro Tabula also contains folk elements, now assimilated into a sonata with suite-like elements.

In his first few years at Salzburg, Biber took over direction of the court music, produced a number of works for important services, compiled the Mystery Sonatas as a private gift to Maximilian Gandolph, and was appointed teacher of figural music upon the Choirboys Institute's rebuilding and reorganization in 1677. Biber was promoted to Vice-Kapellmeister in 1679. These facts, combined with the court's purchase of string instruments from Stainer and the increase in the number of court musicians during Biber's Salzburg years, suggest that Biber's industry actively spurred the Archbishop's interest in music. In 1677 or 1678, Maximilian Gandolph hired another of Europe's greatest musicians, the Alsatian organist Georg Muffat. The relationship between Biber and Muffat was apparently not friendly.

Biber performed some of his sonatas before the Emperor Leopold at Luxemburg in 1677, and was rewarded with a gold chain and medallion bearing the emperor's likeness. He is shown wearing the chain in the engraving that prefaces his Sonatae Violino Solo (1681).

In the early 1680s, Biber published three collections of instrumental music: the Mensa Sonora (1680), the Sonatae Violino Solo (1681), and the Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum (1682-83). These works differ from those of the preceding decade: the sonatas for solo violin make far less use of scordatura than the Mystery Sonatas, and are considerably more advanced in technique and conception. The suites of the Mensa Sonora and sonatas of the Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum are much less involved with elaborate violin writing and programmatic devices than earlier works. On the strength of his renown and a second presentation of his works before Emperor Leopold, Biber unsuccessfully petitioned the emperor for knighthood in 1681 (Emperor Leopold was a music lover and a talented composer, and had already so honored Schmeltzer).

1682 marks one of the greatest celebrations in the history of Salzburg: the 1100 year anniversary of the founding of the archdiocese by St Rupert. Biber is now believed to have produced for these festivities the Missa Salisburgensis and the identically scored Hymn to Saint Rupert, Plaudite tympana, that were formerly attributed to Orazio Benevoli.

Biber was made Kapellmeister after the death of the Kapellmeister Andreas Hofer in 1684. In the same year he became head of the Choirboys Institute, and lived in the Kapellhaus. Biber's duties now increased in the areas of cathedral music and administrative responsibility. This change in duties is probably one of the reasons he ceased to publish instrumental work between the early 1680s and 1696. From 1684 to 1699 he produced music for at least two operas, Alessandro in Pietra and Chi la dura la vince, a three-act cantata, and thirteen school dramas, some of which were on the scale of operas. Chi la dura la vince is the only 17th century Salzburg opera whose music has survived. In light of occasional aria-like solos in Biber's later music, and his closer attention to key structure and extension, the experience of opera seems to have made a lasting impact on his style.

Maximilian Gandalph died in 1687, three months after becoming cardinal. His successor was the unmusical Johann Ernst Graf von Thun-Hohenstein. Chamber music was much less cultivated under the new archbishop. The branches least affected by Johann Ernst's accession were church music and school dramas. Biber apparently continued on good terms with his new master, unlike Muffat, who departed Salzburg in 1690.

In 1690 Biber petitioned Emperor Leopold a second time for knighthood. In his letter he wrote, without exaggeration: "I have also come so far, by means of my slight application in music, that my name is known at many great courts." This second petition was granted and made public in Salzburg on December 5, 1690; Biber as given the title Biber von Bibern. In spite of his fame, there is little evidence that Biber toured—he was known for his music rather than concert appearances.

In 1690 Biber visited his birthplace of Wartenburg, where his wife stood as godmother at his nephew's baptism. The same year, he was noted by music historian Wolfgang Caspar Printz in 1690 among the "newer and more famous composers of the century." In 1695, stadtmusiker Daniel Merck noted him as a renowned violinist.

Biber's status at the archiepiscopal court reached its culmination when he was made Lord High Steward in 1692. In 1693 Biber published his largest collection, the Vesperae Longiones ave Breviores, consisting of 29 psalms and a set of Litaniae Lauretanae.

In the last decade of his life, Biber sought to avoid hindrances in his compositional and teaching activity. Along with the increasing material benefits and social status he enjoyed by the early 1690s, Biber must have desired more time for himself and the musical upbringing of his children. By the mid 1690s, his three younger children were in their teens. All three were musically gifted and each of them later held musical positions at Salzburg. Biber's knighthood meant that his daughters were now eligible to enter convents reserved for daughters of the nobility.

In 1695 Biber succesfully petitioned the court for the construction of a summer house and garden after two decades of fighting for a peaceful place to work. In the same year, Biber entered his name first in a new book donated by Johann Ernst to the Holy Cross at the Bürgerspitalskirche, a brotherhood founded in 1683 by Maximilian Gandolph that later numbered Mozart among its members. The brotherhood was founded to enable those accustomed to attending mass daily to make special devotions, feasts and meditations on the passion of Christ.

From February 6 to 10 1697, the archbishop was visited by Emperor Leopold's son, the future Emperor Joseph I, and Joseph's wife Wilhelmina Amalia, Duchess of Braunschweig-Lüneberg. The festivities were the most elaborate since 1682. Biber's last stage work, Trattenimento Musicale, was performed for this occasion. The work does not survive, but a brief description refers to over a hundred musicians costumed for the entertainment. The Missa Bruxellensis, formerly thought to be by Orazio Benevoli and now attributed to Biber, may also have been heard.

By this time, Biber enjoyed the peak of his success. The one surviving instrumental collection from this period, the Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa, returns to the scordatura tuning Biber had largely abandoned after the 1670s. The virtuosic, improvisational elements of earlier compositions are still present, but with a higher incidence of planned patterns and a tighter control of the intellectual over the sensual. Of particular note is the chaconne for two violins in canon concluding the work's third partita. The piece, reminiscent of Pachelbel's Canon, conveys in its exuberance a final flowering of the 17th century Baroque.

Very little is known of Biber' last years. Johann Ernst was engaged in giving the city a monumental baroque character; the architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach built some of his most imposing early works in Salzburg during the last decade of Biber's life.

The War of the Spanish Succession had an adverse effect on public activities in Salzburg. Salzburg stood directly between warring Bavarian and Austrian forces. City fortifications were strengthened, provisions laid up in case of siege, and sharpshooters were billeted out in private houses. All dances and masked balls were forbidden. The attack on Salzburg never came, and with the victory of Prince Eugène of Savoy at Blenheim in August 1704 all danger to the city was over. During the night of May 2 - 3, 1704, Biber died after four days of illness.

Biber's Legacy

Biber and Maria Weiss had eleven children, only four of whom survived childhood. All were musically gifted.

  • Maria Cäcilia (b 1674) was a nun in the convent of Santa Clara in Merano.
  • Maria Anna Magdalena Biber (1677 - 1742) took the name Maria Rosa Henrica for her religious life. She was invested as a nun in 1697; Biber composed the Missa Sancti Henrici for the occasion. Maria held the positions of choir director and Kapell-Meisterin at the Benedictine convent of Nonnberg for thirteen years. She was a composer and alto singer, and played violin, viola d'amore and kettle drums.
  • Anton Heinrich Biber (1679 - 1742) was a court musician in Salzburg from 1710 to 1727.
  • Karl Heinrich Biber (1681 - 1749) was a chamber servant at Salzburg. He was promoted to Vice-Kapellmeister in 1714, made teacher in the Choirboys Institute from 1726 to 1744, promoted again to Kapellmeister in 1743 and made Lord High Steward in 1746. Many of Karl Biber's compositions are preserved in the Salzburg Cathedral archives.
    Some of Biber's descendants were musically gifted and active in Salzburg in and beyond the time of Mozart.
The appearance of themes from Biber's Missa Sancti Henrici in the Credo Mass, Jupiter Symphony, and The Magic Flute of Mozart indicate a tradition that was not forgotten while Mozart was growing up in Salzburg. However, Biber's music was virtually unknown to cataloguers of the Cathedral archive by the late 18th century. Biber was rediscovered by modern scholarship after a gap of almost two centuries, and his work popularized by the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) movement.

Biber spent most of his creative life in the static hierarchy of the Salzburg court, yet, from a provincial upbringing, he died as a member of the nobility. Biber broadened the language of music by cutting across class and nationalities. His music synthesized dominant Baroque styles and traditional folk elements.


Chafe, Eric. The Church Music of Heinrich Biber. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. 1987.
Elias Dann and Jiří Sehnal: 'Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 31 March, 2003), <http://80-www.grovemusic.com.info.lbr.auckland.ac.nz>
Liner notes to various cds (see recommended recordings list below).

Recommended recordings

Mystery Sonatas
This is the most recorded of Biber's works, and a number of quality releases are available. General critical consensus holds the recordings by John Holloway, Davitt Moroney and Tragicomedia on Virgin Veritas and Reinhard Geobel with Musica Antiqua Köln on Archiv as the best available. Holloway's playing is introspective and meditative; Goebel's playing is quicker and more fiery in character.

Violin Sonatas
Violin Sonatas, by Romanesca (Andrew Manze|Manze], North, Toll), on Harmonia Mundi: A key recording in establishing Biber's current status. Manze perfectly captures the virtuosic nature of the sonatas.
Unam Ceylum, performed by Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen, on ECM: For those who find Manze's tone too bright and lively, Holloway offers a more resonant, austere approach.
Violin Sonatas, 1681 / Nisi Dominus, performed by Monica Huggett, Sonnerie, and Thomas Guthrie, on ASV: An elegant and refined reading of selected sonatas. More temperate than Manze, and lacking the magisterial weight of Holloway.

Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa
There are three available recordings of the work, by the Rare Fruits Council, the Purcell Quartet, and Tafelmusik. The Rare Fruits Council's exaggerated, energetic performance is perhaps truest to the work's spirit.

Missa Salisburgensis
Quality recordings have been made by Musica Antiqua Köln and Gabrieli Consort & Players on Archiv and Ton Koopman on Erato.

Battalia á 10
Recommended recordings available on the following cds:
Biber: Requiem & Chamber Works by the New London Consort, on L'Oiseau-Lyre.
Biber - Battalia / Matthew Locke - The Tempest by Il Giardino Armonico, on Teldec.
Battlia á 10; Requiem á 15 by Jordi Savall, on Alia Vox.

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