During our recent lockdown – a period that at least initially I found in some ways peaceful, reflective and quiet – I had a kind of serendipitous experience. One of the concerts I had been due to play that had been cancelled was a complete set of Henrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, with three concerts spread out over a few weeks around Easter. Within my 2km radius, I turned one day down the Lee Road for my daily walk – not normally a route I’d take with fast-moving traffic. In its new quiet state it’s a pleasure, and along the way, I found a set of large engraved stone tablets – each depicting a mystery of the Rosary, with titles in English and in Irish – placed at intervals along the road as far as the grotto. A serious coincidence and some serious blindness on my part for never having seen them before despite living so close for so long, but I found them an inspiration to return to practicing the music, and more determined than ever to see the project of completing them through.

Although I’m not particularly religious, I had found a persistent fascination with Biber’s Mystery Sonatas since very early on in my baroque violin career. A few years ago I gained a new prism for looking at the works in an unexpected place – the art of Caravaggio. Although they worked in different times (Caravaggio died 34 years before Biber was born), and different countries, in my mind they had a very similar effect on the viewer or listener. During my masters studies in the Royal Irish Academy of Music I was lucky to work on a series which the early music department undertook in collaboration with the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland. During this time, curator Adrian Le Harivel took us on a personal tour around the exhibition, and pointed things out about Caravaggio’s approach that have stuck with me ever since. One of the things which stood out for me in Adrian’s very informative tour were the closeness with Caravaggio treats his religious subjects – they are not at a respectful distance and deified to the point of being inhuman, but up close, personal, and very very human.

We performed in front of Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’ – a still work of art that’s buzzing with movement – violence from the soldiers, corded muscles standing out from arms, desperation on faces. You are in the scene, not safely outside. When I played The Crucifixion, Biber’s music did the same, hammering, intense, repeated figures, violent flurries of notes evoking ripping the veil of the temple from side to side. And then, there’s a subtlety to Christ’s expression of quiet sorrow, in which I read the same feelings as the Biber’s more introverted Adagios. 

For me, although I know very little about art, there are also parallels in feeling in the extreme light and shade of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro and the extreme moods of Biber’s music – the lightness of dances against brooding and intense ‘stylus phantasticus’ free sections. While many more-educated baroque specialists will be able to tell you much more exactly how Biber’s works and aesthetics relate to the contemporary art, this paralleling with Caravaggio – although only in my head – completely fired my imagination, and perhaps started an idea that made this project inevitable.

The difficulty of performing these works in a modern concert is considerable, principally because of the different scordatura tunings involved – how can you retune the violin quickly enough for a modern audience, and will it hold its tuning? It occurred to me at some point that if these sonatas were to be performed as part of a Rosary – would the actual prayers of the Rosary be said around them? Could that be an answer to the tuning? If a full decade of the Rosary was said in between each sonata, that would certainly leave 5 minutes or so to tune and let the instrument settle a little. While a decade of the Rosary might not be ideal in a concert for an audience in this day and age, the possibility of some kind of reflection, reading or prayer stuck with me. 

Fortunately East Cork Early Music have a wonderful partner in Nano Nagle Place, who were ideally placed to help me with both the musical and theological elements of this behemoth of a project. With programme manager Danielle O’Donovan and two of the Presentation Sisters who are at the heart of Nano Nagle Place, we conceived of three meditative, reflective concert experience – breaking the set into the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. James and I providing the music while Sister Bride and Sister Emma came up with readings and reflections which would go between. Our original plan was to have these concerts fittingly around Easter – Joyful Mysteries on Palm Sunday, Sorrowful Mysteries on Good Friday and Glorious Mysteries on Easter Sunday. However, as mentioned, these couldn’t take place live, and we were delighted that Nano Nagle Place were also willing to undertake the effort and cost of recording the project for online broadcast.

I was very lucky to have a musician like James Taylor to work with on this project – both for his incredible playing and musicality, and for his patience, inspiring ideas, and generosity with his time. As soon as we safely could do so, we put a lot of hours into this work in the chapel – socially-distanced visitors on their self-guided tours were very liable to catch  a lot of our process if in Nano Nagle Place of a weekend morning. I hadn’t played solo sonatas with organ very often, as we often use harpsichord, and the registrations, colours and textures – besides the usual question of chords and realisations – gave us a whole new field of possibilities for musicality. Later I realised that – having been first introduced to the concept of historically-informed performance in James’ Performance Practice class in my first year of undergraduate studies in Cork School of Music – I had actually written a set of programme notes on these sonatas as an assignment for James almost ten years ago. Foreshadowing comes into my own experience as well as Biber’s music. 

We like to speak about rhetoric in in early music, and as James and I got to know these sonatas better and better, we learned how finely constructed they were rhetorically. They often strike almost cinematically – bringing strong images and atmosphere to mind in an instant. The changes in mood or ‘affect’ seemed similarly ‘cinematic’ to me – there could be a gentle fade in to a new ‘scene’, or a quick cut, and where a visual medium might use the lighting and set to completely change the atmosphere, we found ways to turn on a hair into new colours and sound-worlds.

As many baroque violinists will have, I had touched on these sonatas relatively early in my baroque journey, sticking to the ones in more ‘normal’ tuning – The Annunciation, and the final Passacaglia, both in standard tuning, and The Crucifixion, with only one string a tone down. Playing the entire set is one entirely different experience from playing a sonata in isolation. The different scordatura each have their own character, and some feel grossly uncomfortable to start with. The most extreme for the violin come in the Sorrowful mysteries – the G string tuning up to a 4th or 5th from its normal pitch, an almost unbearable amount of tension. For me as a violinist, it seemed as if notes moved under my fingers from piece to piece, and the way in which the bow pulled sound from the string shifted drastically in each one. I learned over the course of our exploration that a counter-intuitive lack of effort was required. Rather than struggling to produce a decent sound from an intensely over-strung bottom string, I had just to allow the high-tension strings to blare, the low-tension strings to speak as slowly as they ‘wanted’ to, and to let these sounds shape my phrasing of the music. 

People often describe the notation of the sonatas (in a type of transposition with everything written as if your strings were in normal tuning, meaning the written bears no relation to the sounding) as a ‘leap of faith’ for the player. For me the true leap of faith was in relinquishing my sense of ‘wrongness’ feeding back from my instrument – to play and let the strings do what they would.

I hope you enjoy our performance, and we hope to share the rest of the work with you when the world allows.

Caitríona

You can find Programme Notes for the concert at this link.

* A disclaimer in that none of the points I suggest above are any kind of real musicological or aesthetic analysis. I don’t suggest that any of the parallels I draw are actually present in the works, but just that they inform my experience and interpretation of them.

Some references which I found useful when studying the works were:
James Clements, ‘Aspects of the Ars Rhetorica in the violin music of Heinrich Biber (1644-1704)’

Daniel John Edgar, ’The Encoding of Faith: Scordatura in Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas’

Roseen Giles, ‘Physicality and Devotion in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Rosary Sonatas’

Katia Strieck, ‘The Mystery of the Mystery Sonatas: a musical Rosary picture book’

And some recordings I found inspiring included: 

Maya Homburger & Camerata Kilkenny

Arparla (Davide Monti & Maria Christina Cleary)

John Holloway

Rachel Podger