The Five Joyful Mysteries

Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (b. 1644 - d. 1704)
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Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (b. 1644 - d. 1704)

Performance date: 27/06/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1676

Duration: 00:46:18

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: vn, hpd

Instrumentation Category:Baroque Ensemble

Artists: Ariadne Daskalakis - [Violin]
Jadran Duncumb - [Lute]
Michael Borgstede - [Harpsicord]
Rainer Zipperling - [Gamba]
Ruth Padel - [Poet]

Mystery Sonatas [1676]

The Five Joyful Mysteries


1. The Annunciation

2. The Visitation

3. The Nativity

4. The Presentation 

5. The Finding in the Temple

At the end of the nineteenth century, a unique manuscript containing fifteen sonatas for solo violin with basso continuo accompaniment, plus a final Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin was re-discovered. It had been hidden away for over 300 years. This extraordinary work was immediately acknowledged as one of the highest peaks of Baroque music and reconfirmed the importance of Biber as a composer.  

The work takes its name from the dedication to the Prince-Archbishop I have consecrated the whole to the honour of the XV Sacred Mysteries which you promote so strongly – a reference to the rosary devotion encouraged by Biber’s patron, thus it is customary to refer to the works as the Mystery or Rosary Sonatas. The fifteen sonatas are divided into three parts: the Joyful; the Sorrowful and the Glorious. 

The technical demands of this work are outstanding and indeed unique in the whole violin repertoire. Biber uses scordatura for most of the sonatas. The use of scordatura is not simply to display technical gymnastics, but rather to give each sonata a different colour. Biber uses fifteen different tunings in the complete work with only the first sonata and the Passacaglia using normal tuning. The score however is written throughout as if the tuning was normal, one can barely imagine the mental gymnastics involved. Given the need to re-tune between Sonatas, the Festival commissioned the poet, Ruth Padel, to write short poems to cover the re-tuning intervals.

Passacaglia (G, D, A, E)

Normally the Passacaglia, considered to be the greatest composition for solo unaccompanied violin before Bach, is played after the fifteen Sonatas, but it is also a wonderfully effective prelude. The descending tetrachord that haunts this music was also associated with the hymn to the Guardian Angel, whose feast day was the same week as the Rosary celebrations. The Passacaglia involves sixty-five variations of the bass pattern, but for the listener the music falls naturaly into five sections, each headed by the hypnotic repetition of the four bass notes.

1. The Annunciation (G, D, A, E)

The Annunciation is an aria with a set of  variations over a repeating bass line, preceded by a free Praeludium and followed by a heavenly Finale.In the Praeludium the swirling lines that open the piece invoke the rustling of wings as the angel Gabriel descends to give his unearthly message to Mary. The Aria and variations are announced by a bass theme of ten notes before the violin enters with the increasingly agitated theme reflecting Mary’s struggle to comprehend the angel’s news. In the Adagio variation, rich with double and triple stops we hear Mary’s acquiescence. The Finale returns us to the angels rustling wings with swirling lines reminiscent of the Praeludium, a final phrase is heard with three thirds descending, a symbolic reference to the Trinity descending and overshadowing Mary concluding with a high shivering trill, Biber’s depiction of the immaculate conception.

2. The Visitation (A, E, A, E)

The Visitation is in A major and opens with a bright and rapid fugue followed by a cheerful Allamande for the blessing by Elisabeth. It concludes with a lively presto Magnificat. The text of the last section is that of the Magnificat. Biber announces a theme in the bass, seemingly derived  from the traditional Magnificat plainchant, above this the violin’s skips and runs joyfully.

3. The Nativity (B, F-sharp, B, D)

This is a suprisingly intimate movement in the unexpected key of  B minor. It opens peacefully with a short Prelude and presto leading to the central Courente. This is followed by a Double (or varieation on the Courente) The closing Adagio returns to the intimacy of the opening, with such melancholy that it may be difficult to detect the joy of birth.

4. The Presentation in the Temple (A, D, A, D)

This brilliant sonata in D minor is a single Ciacona or chaconne movement. The melody is introduced over a ground bass followed by an increasingly dramatic set of variations, each becoming more and more lively before finally returning to the  original melody.

5. The Finding in the Temple  (A, E, A, C-sharp)

This sonata opens with a trumpet-like fanfare, as though royalty has arrived. This Praeludium and Presto is followed by a fugal Allamanda, a delightful Guigue, a beautiful Sarabande illuminating Mary’s love for her son, followed by her son’s firm rebuke in the  Double.

Norah O’Leary