Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Biber's Mystery Sonatas

The talented Christina Day Martinson.

We're so accustomed these days to what is essentially an academic approach to sacred music that we almost seem to have forgotten a central question about it: how intrinsic is the spiritual context of such music to its artistic content?

That issue seemed to almost loom, however, over last weekend's performances of Heinrich Biber's Mystery Sonatas, by Christina Day Martinson and Boston Baroque.  For this remarkable collection of pieces - by perhaps the greatest violinist of the seventeenth century - is clearly meant to embody a certain strand of the Catholic mystical tradition - in short, its focus on the achievement of transcendence through physical torment (an obsession of too many Catholic saints to count).  That artistic goal is so apparent, in fact, that mimicking Biber's effects in a secular environment seems - well, hardly sacrilegious, but at times almost hopelessly opaque.  These sonatas are meant to conjure something like an artistic analogue to the tenets of Catholic gnosis - but frankly, without a grounding in that tradition, I'm afraid these "mysteries" just seem mysterious, even in an often-dazzling performance like this one.

I imagine I should explain a bit further, because the case of the "Mystery" Sonatas is practically unique in the literature.  The works are sometimes called the "Rosary" Sonatas, because there are fifteen of them - as there are fifteen "decades" of prayer beads in a Catholic rosary - and what's more, they are forever associated with the "Mysteries of the Rosary" (which are to be contemplated during that ritual) due to their earliest extant edition, which illustrated each work with an image depicting the Annunciation, the Nativity, etc. (image below).

But Biber clearly didn't intend his sonatas as mere Marian fetishes (even if they were dedicated to an obsessive Marianist, the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph), for their climax focuses not on Mary, but on the Passion of her Son - indeed, Biber obviously (obviously) intends the violin itself as a concrete analogue for Christ's body (perhaps even for the Host).  How do we know that?  Well, the composer explicitly instructs the violinist to tune his strings differently for each piece, so that no two sonatas are tuned to the same set of notes (the technique is known as scordatura).  And these variances grow more painful for the instrument as the sonatas progress; indeed, the stress in some cases - such as during "The Agony in the Garden" and "The Crowning with Thorns" - is enough to make its strings occasionally snap, as Martinson attested to from the stage.  Indeed, in one tuning, the strings are re-strung so they actually cross - the symbolism couldn't be balder.

And once crucified, as it were, the instrument does shiver with strange new sonorities; indeed, the performer quickly discovers that the sounds coming out of his or her violin are not actually the ones written down in the score!  These new resonances, floating free from their earthly frame, are a clear metaphor for the grace many Catholics once believed came only from the mortification of the flesh; yet oddly, when Biber is most obviously torturing his instrument, his writing is often at its lightest; indeed, "The Crowning of Jesus with Thorns" actually includes a gigue (that's a jig in the vernacular of the peasantry).

This is because another key tenet of Catholic gnosis is that physical torment releases its own form of joy in the victim's appreciation of his closeness to God -as in the case of the penitents on the seven terraces of Dante's Purgatorio, who sing and dance even while they're being burdened with stones, or their eyes are being sewn shut.  They know the pain of their purgation is only bringing them closer to the Godhead at the glowing core of Dante's Multifoliate Rose.

The famous illustrated edition of the Mystery Sonatas.

Okay - that's a lot, and I only know it all because I'm a lapsed Catholic.  But without all that background, I'm afraid Biber's sonatas can often be quite mystifying - they sometimes seem like merely sad dances in funny keys.  And yet even with all that background, how can a non-believer truly enter into Biber's artistic world?   I'm not quite sure - although I'm certain some sort of secular analogue is possible; after all, what is the current obsession with body piercing but a variant of Christ's trial on the cross?  Pain as a means of transcendence is a force in almost every spiritual tradition (it simply reached a particularly ripe bloom in Catholicism), and as a general mode of initiation it is all but universal.

But here's the other rub - Christina Day Martinson is certainly a wonderful violinist, but she's not really a mystic - much less an ecstatic!  Indeed, she rarely projects what you'd call an outsized musical personality; Martinson is instead a brilliant, if earnest, craftsman (or woman) who has attained the highest order of skill.  That level of craft is what made her a natural for Biber's fiendish technical challenges, and Martinson certainly brought off the pieces, and then some - her brisk passagework in particular remains a dashing wonder - but the overall arc of the concert simply seemed to be missing; the performer herself didn't always appear sure, really, what these pieces were about, except in their moments of obvious scene-painting, such as the lamentations of "The Agony in the Garden" or the terrible severity of "The Crucifixion" (in which you can practically hear the nails going in).

The original body piercing (from the Isenheim altarpiece).
Here Martinson gripped us, of course, and there were other exquisite moments scattered throughout her performance - the mournfully sweet Ciacona of "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," or the elegant Sarabande of "The Finding of Jesus in the Temple."  But there were other odd hesitancies here and there, too, along with a few squeaks and scratches in such early sonatas as "The Visitation," in which Martinson was first settling into the new tunings.

I had a few more caveats - the accompaniment (cello, theorbo, harpsichord and organ) wasn't always balanced, for instance (the organ tended to dominate early on); but the mix seemed to improve as the performance progressed, and I admit the concert grew on me.  In some ways this may have only amounted to the successful execution of a fascinating technical challenge, of the kind that's catnip to academic musicians; but is that so wrong?  And the performance did at least hint, I suppose, at some sort of "spiritual" vision that the program illustrated as a holy light streaming through a church window.  Hmmmm.  I'm afraid a detail or two from the Isenheim altarpiece (above) would have been more appropriate, but somehow I got the impression that unashamed grappling with the Catholic content of these pieces was a kind of unspoken taboo for Boston Baroque (even though, yes, they dutifully mentioned the Mysteries of the Rosary in the program notes).  They're talking about coming back with the rest of the 15 (we only got nine this time around); but I'm not sure they'll penetrate Biber's musical mystery until something in that attitude changes.


  1. Last night, I heard Part II of Boston Baroque's presentation of Heinrich Biber's Mystery Sonatas.

    It was a fabulous performance. All I can comment on was how it sounded and was presented. This is not taking into account the difficulty of the pieces.

    K. Sorensen

  2. I would have liked to have been there, alas, I had promised myself to another concert.