Rosary Sonatas

A previously unknown collection of sixteen violin sonatas by the Salzburg Hofkapellmeister [court music director] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was published in 1905 as volume 25 of the series Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich [Monuments of Music in Austria]. The particular occasion for this edition was the discovery of a beautiful manuscript acquired by the Bavarian State Library a few years earlier from the estate of the Munich scientist, Karl Franz Emil Schafhäutl (1803–1890), in which the compositions are illustrated with pictures – small copperplate engravings of religious scenes. The editor, Erwin Luntz, found it difficult to form an aesthetic judgment of the cycle, since its obviously programmatic character did not appear to fit the image of Biber developed at that time by the still young field of musicology. The new edition of the works was justified "not as much by their musical merits as the historical interest that these sonatas might hold as early examples of programmatic compositions." Only gradually did scholars and practitioners gain an understanding of the practice of scordatura, which Biber used so imaginatively in his sonata cycle. They recognized that the series of engravings represented the fifteen mysteries of the rosary and the cult of the guardian angel closely associated with them, and they acquired an appreciation of the composer's unconventional musical idiom. Today the sonata cycle on the mysteries of the rosary is regarded as one of the most important documents of Baroque violin music, and its composer unquestionably ranks with the leading masters of the 17th century. This change of opinion should not obscure the fact that concrete knowledge about the origin and intended use of the enigmatic collection is still extremely limited.