November 2007

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De profundis: Music from Salzburg

Biber De profundis
Biber Magnificat
M Haydn Requiem in C minor

Hans Ignatius Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was the outstanding virtuoso violinist of the seventeenth century and a first-rate composer, being equally at ease with sacred and secular, instrumental and vocal music.  His fame rests mainly on his violin sonatas including those for scordatura (unconventionally tuned strings) which lend an amazing energy and vitality to the music; the 18th century English music scholar and traveller Dr Charles Burney describing them as ‘the most difficult an fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period’.  Biber’s sacred music consists of huge concerted works for solo and ripieno voices with large orchestra  – the Missa Alleluia à 36 and the 53-part Missa Salzburgiensis being fine examples – but he wrote delightful chamber music as well. He had a gift for melody and was a master at counterpoint.  De profundis dates from 1693 and is from the composer’s first setting of psalm 147.  It begins in a solemn but lilting 3-time and is scored mainly for four soloists, singing both individually and together.  The final tutti ‘Et in saecula saeculorum’ is a moving statement full of hope that seems to speak from the heart.  The Magnificat starts as a relatively fast three in a bar, with the strings engaged in a lively fugue-like introduction before being answered by the call of the chorus.  Biber sets interesting rhythms which follow the stresses of the words rather than the conventional 3-time and which add an edge of tension and interest to the choral writing.  There is a short second section in common time, introduced by the baritone and soprano soloists, before a return to an energetic ‘dispersit superbos’ and a more contemplative section for solo voices.  The piece ends with a lively 3/2 Amen.

Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806), younger brother of the illustrious Josef, was court composer and concertmaster to two archbishops of Salzburg.  He was first summoned there in 1763 by Prince-Archbishop Sigismund Graf Schattenbach, who became his friend and patron.  The appointment clearly suited the younger Haydn, who found it congenial and stimulating, and he immediately set forth composing a number of works which secured his place in the musical establishment, receiving the approbation of his colleagues and the high regard of his patron and led in turn to international esteem.  This, along with his close personal ties and, no doubt, a less ambitious nature than that of his brother (or of Mozart) kept him there until his death 43 years later.  He married in 1768 and his only child, Aloysia Antonia, was born two years later.  She lived for less than a year and the devastated Haydn never fully recovered from his grief.  A year later Archbishop Sigismund himself died and the composer immediately began to write a Requiem Mass in his memory. It was completed in two weeks, and his rapid outpouring of grief must have reflected also his emotions at the loss of his daughter and inspired the passionate intensity that permeates so much of this work.  Scholars have drawn parallels between it and Mozart’s unfinished work of nearly 20 years later and it is certainly hard to ignore some striking musical similarities.  In Haydn’s work the prevailing mood is one of sombre and magisterial intensity, although there is also florid and lyrical string writing, a remarkable sense of sonority in the predominantly dark key of C minor, an expressively operatic Sequenz, a Sanctus of some grandeur, a lightly flowing Benedictus and an especially fine Hosanna.  The final mood is one of solemn optimism.  In 1809, three years after Michael’s death, it formed the musical centrepiece for the funeral of his older brother Josef.  It is, simply, an astonishing masterpiece that never fails to delight.