The Rosary Sonatas of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644–1704) for solo violin were likely composed in the late 1670s, and were dedicated to the composer’s patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg Maximilian Gandolph von Kuenburg. The sonatas in this remarkable set of fifteen are preceded by copperplate engravings, each depicting one of the mysteries of the rosary. The pieces display Biber’s extensive use of scordatura, an unusual “discordant” tuning, notated with a semi-tablature in which the visual contours of the notation on the page are at odds with the audible contours of the phrases. Biber’s sonatas are intentionally enigmatic, revealing underlying connections to the sensual yet deliberately mysterious nature of Catholic art and culture of his day. The combination of the tactile, visual and aural is a defining characteristic of the extra-liturgical Catholic devotional practices, notably the rosary, which were widespread in mid-seventeenth-century Austria. This paper examines Biber’s violin pieces as ritual expressions synonymous with the rosary devotions practised by the Catholic confraternities in Salzburg. The cryptic nature of Biber’s sonatas not only reveals a close connection to the sensual visual art associated with rosary confraternities, it makes the performance of the pieces a devotional act in itself.

Author Biography

Roseen Giles is Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University as well as curator of DUMIC (Duke University Musical Instrument Collections). She taught previously at Colby College, and was a Fellow of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto in 2017. Her primary area of research is musical culture in early modern Italy, wherein she examines the aesthetic, professional, and personal relationships between poets and musicians of the seventeenth century.

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