Biber began his career as a lowly, violin-playing valet de chambre in a provincial castle in Moravia and ended up as Kapellmeister of one of the Hapsburg courts, Salzburg. The secrets of his success were his compelling charisma as a performer and his ability to write music of great ingenuity. This is the man who convincingly set to music a battle, a nightwatchman, and a bunch of peasants strolling to church, as well as dogs, cats, frogs, and birds. Even his more abstract music often has colorful titles, such as Mensa Sonora (the sonorous table) and Fidicinium sacro-profanum (sacred and profane fiddle noise).
Soon after Biber’s death, three hundred years ago, fickle musical taste quickly moved on to the new Italians, Corelli and Vivaldi. The man and his music were forgotten: we do not know where Biber was buried, and his music gathered dust in the cathedral library. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that Salzburg’s most famous son, Mozart, may have nosed through the cathedral archives, picking up ideas and perhaps even melodies from his great forebear. Then a century ago, Austrian musicologists started realizing Biber’s worth. On seeing their new editions, Paul Hindemith declared Biber to be the greatest composer before Johann Sebastian Bach, influenced perhaps by Biber’s fondness for Hindemith’s own instrument, the viola. A few baroque devotees then started playing the sonatas – Yehudi Menuhin used to fiddle through them in private – and in the 1950s and ’60s the Leonhardt Consort and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien played Biber on their newfangled ‘period instruments.’ Ten years ago it was still only the more intrepid violinists who performed Biber. Now, all his known music has been performed, and most of it recorded. Musicians and audiences are increasingly in awe of his mastery of timing, sonority, profundity, and wit, making Biberphilia one of the fastest growing enthusiasms in baroque music today.
© Andrew Manze