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Early Music Day Concert – Heinrich Biber: Sorrowful Mysteries

Online from the Goldie Chapel, Nano Nagle Place Sunday 21st March, 4:15pm View on East Cork Early Music’s Youtube channel
Caitríona O’Mahony, baroque violin James Taylor, organ
For the European Day of Early Music 2021, East Cork Early Music Festival and Nano Nagle Place continue the journey through some of the most iconic and emotive works in the seventeenth-century repertoire – Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. Biber’s writing, with the violin in array of different scordatura tunings, is an evocative and visceral depiction of an intensely human story. Click on the video to watch on Youtube from 4:15pm on Sunday 21st March. Visit and subscribe to our Youtube channel to see all of East Cork Early Music’s online events. East Cork Early Music Festival is grateful to the Arts Council for their support of this work through the Irish Early Music Network’s Capacity Building Scheme work. We are ever grateful to Nano Nagle Place for their partnership, support and generous hosting of our work. While we can’t enjoy the centre in person at the moment, check out their app for virtual tours, podcasts, and much more https://nanonagleplace.ie Thanks to Max le Cain & Chris Hurley of Cork Film Centre, and sound engineer Joe Cusack for their hard work on creating this online concert for you to enjoy from home.

Programme Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) – Joyful Mysteries from the Mystery Sonatas

The most famous programmatic works for violin before Vivaldi’s Seasons, Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas survive in a beautiful display copy, presented to his patron, Maximilian Gandolph, Archbishop of Salzburg. The engravings which accompany each sonata give them the titles now commonly used. They were possibly used in Rosary prayer and may have been linked with the Salzburg devotional confraternities of the seventeenth century . The engravings were used in printed material of the Confraternity of the Rosary, and they are similar to the paintings which line the walls of the Grosse Aula of Salzburg University, where the Confraternity of the Assumption of the Virgin prayed their regular Rosary devotions. Both groups came under the protection of Archbishop Maximilian, and Biber may even have been a member. Like Corelli, Biber’s fame seems to have lasted beyond his lifetime, with Charles Burney writing in the eighteenth century, ‘Of 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 music I have seen of the same period.’  His particular style of sonata-writing unites an earlier style of stylus fantasticus writing with more regular dance sections, his frequent use of ground basses providing more harmonic unity to writing than common in the early Italian sonata.
Sonata VI ‘The Agony in the Garden’ Lamento – Presto – Adagio The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary opens with Christ on the Mount of Olives with his disciples unable to stay awake with him. In the music, the sonata is marked ‘Lamento’ – a much more evocative indication than the relatively simple ‘Sonata’ he uses elsewhere. Sighing, falling motifs are used frequently throughout the sonata, along with pulsing anxious heartbeat in repeated tremolo. Unusually for the Rosary sonatas, the scordatura in this sonata does include two open 5ths, but in such a way that the sound of the violin is completely deadened – a 5th Ab to Eb on the two lower strings and G to D on the two upper strings leave very little resonance, dulling the sound of the instrument for a gloomy night scene.
Sonata VII ‘The Scourging’ Allemanda – Variatio – Sarabande – Variatio  While the image accompanying the Scourging is clearly a violent one for this point in the story, the work opens with an Allemande surprisingly sweet and reflective in tone. A clue may be found in the paintings of the Grosse Aula in the University of Salzburg – the meeting place of the Confraternity of the Assumption of the Virgin, and a room with which Biber would certainly have been familiar. Like these sonatas, the hall contains a series of images on the Mysteries of the Rosary, and in the painting of the scourging, the Marian focus is very clear. The Virgin Mary is placed in the foreground in a moment of prayer, while Christ and the soldiers with their whips recede into the background. The moment of prayer offers a reminder that the salvation of humanity is also at hand – this is not simply a story about human cruelty and intense suffering. Even the engraving troubles to clearly emphasis the halo around Christ’s head. 
Sonata VIII ‘The Crowning with Thorns’ Sonata Adagio – Presto – Gigue – Double Presto – Double 2 Using the most strained tuning of the entire set, the Crowning with Thorns demands that the violin’s lowest string be tuned up to a D, a 5th above its normal point of G below middle C. The violin’s open strings frame an octave D to D, and there is a sense of the stillness when tension has almost reached breaking point. Like the Scourging however, it encourages the listener to pause and reflect with a spiritual Adagio opening. The overstrung tuning later allows for harsh onomatopoeic mocking sounds suggesting a jeering crowd. The inappropriate bounce of the Gigue reinforces a sense of increasingly manic mob energy.
Sonata IX ‘The Carrying of the Cross’ Sonata – Courente – Double – Finale Biber uses Courantes sparingly in this work in comparison to other types of dances. With a sense of forward motion, its use correlates with major journeys in the life of Christ – the first is the Nativity, perhaps reflecting the journey to Bethlehem in his mother’s womb, or the flight to Egypt. The second comes here in the journey to Calvary, while the final Courante of the set is kept for the Ascension. Comparable to The Annunciation, this sonata also has a finale separated out – in both cases the finale seems to set the stage for something to come – here, the journey of the courente has ended, we have arrived at Golgotha and can see the shadow of the crucifixion which is about to happen. 
Sonata X ‘The Crucifixion’ Praludium – Aria & Variatio – Adagio  The Crucifixion is one of the most evocative of the Rosary Sonatas, filled with intense musical imagery which is clearly evident right from its opening prelude, with the first 4 notes creating a musical sign of the cross. The section continues with a persistent rhythmic figure suggesting nails being violently hammered into the cross. The two aria sections provide a delicate contrast, perhaps an internal prayer or monologue, with moments of heart-wrenching sighing and pleading motifs. These are also broken up with violent sections, suggesting the veil of the temple ripping in two. In the last part of this sonata, the earth begins to tremble increasingly violently, with wild string crossings in the violin, until the piece finally comes crashing to a close. This Sonata also has elements of flashback to the works of the first 5 (Joyful) Mysteries. It uses almost verbatim quotes from The Nativity reflecting on Christ’s birth, and The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (an occasion when a sacrifice would have been made by his parents) – a mirror image of his death and his sacrifice for humanity. 
In October 2020, in place of our usual autumn festival, East Cork Early Music Festival partnered with Nano Nagle Place to broadcast an online concert of the first 5 sonatas in Biber’s set – corresponding to the Joyful Mysteries. You can revisit or find these for the first time on our Youtube channel.
For Early Music Day, our friends in the Irish Early Music Network are also hosting some fantastic events celebrating early music in Ireland. Check out the first edition of the Limerick Early Music Festival, presented by HIPSTER Ireland, with events taking place online all weekend on their Facebook and Youtube. Our friends at Galway Early Music are presenting online concert and Renaissance music workshops for recorder players and mixed ensemble. You can also explore events going on all over the world in celebration on the Early Music Day website, co-ordinated by REMA.

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