The name of one of music’s most beautiful sets of sonatas is unknown. Written in the 1670s–no one is sure of exactly when–the only manuscript we have of it was donated to a German library in 1890. The title page was missing, so we cannot tell what the composer called it. The dedication page survives, so we do know who composed it, a German (or was he Czech?) musician named Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 – 1704), remembered chiefly for his technically demanding works for the violin.
The music in question is certainly demanding. The set consists of 15 sonatas for violin and bass, all in different tunings of the violin strings, each one representing a sacred event or “mystery” from the Catholic rosary. Thus it is sometimes called “The Mystery Sonatas,” which seems apt given how little we know about it. After the 15 sonatas for the rosary comes a concluding piece for solo violin in standard tuning, representing the guardian angel. It is one of the most ravishing works in the classical repertoire. Listen for yourself to this gorgeous performance by Elicia Silverstein:
The concluding piece is in the form of a passacaglia, about which more later. In the surviving printed version, the piece is proceeded by an engraving of an angel, leading a child by the hand, providing care and counsel. Here is the engraving:
The name “passacaglia” refers to the structure of the composition. It features a melody flowing over a repeated bass part. The bass motif is called an “ostinato,” which is the Italian word for “obstinate,” since it refuses to go away. In this piece the ostinato is also played by the violin since there is no accompaniment. Look at the descending notes in the first bar of the first page of the score and you will see it. Then look at how those notes show up in every succeeding bar, no matter how complex the melody above it becomes. You just can’t leave it behind, which is why the piece is so demanding.
The descending ostinato is called a “lament bass,” because the downward motion is thought to give it a poignant feeling. I don’t hear it as sad so much as delicate and spiritual, like the angel floating down from heaven. There is a four-note version and a six-note version of the lament bass. I prefer the four-note version, which has been used many, many times in musical history, from the baroque to the present. Here is a clear and fun example.
I collect sets and parts of sets of The Mystery Sonatas. They vary widely in how they are realized. The sonatas are sometimes accompanied by one bass instrument, such as a lute, and sometimes by as many as four instruments, such as a harp, archlute, viola da gamba and keyboard–practically an orchestra. Most sets vary the instruments from sonata to sonata to avoid tedium, so for example, a harpsichord in one sonata might be replaced by an organ in another.
I was originally drawn to the versions that had the complex bass accompaniment, looking for a rich sound. Here is a good example by Patrick Bismuth. The sonata has two movements. The second, starting at 2:02, begins with an ostinato that is written to be played once before the violin enters. In Bismuth’s version, it is developed ten times by an increasing number of instruments, until it becomes its own set of variations on a theme, creating great anticipation for the violin. This sonata celebrates the coming of an angel to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she is to be the mother of the Christ.
(Note that the picture accompanying the video shows a gargoyle or some other medieval monster. The Mystery Sonatas were not written in the Middle Ages, but in the seicento, the seventeenth century, after the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and Galileo. As a side note, in the 1500s, Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and something of a physicist himself, laid some of the theoretical foundations for modern music.)
More recently I was drawn to one of the simpler versions of a sonata, with Dmitry Sinkovsky on violin accompanied by Luca Pianca on lute. Watch Sinkovsky play. His body coils and uncoils with the energy of the music and his eyes are gazing off into Heaven.
The Mystery Sonatas, especially the passacaglia of the Guardian Angel, have proven to be an irresistible challenge for contemporary violinists who play baroque music. There are at least two dozen sets available on Amazon. Not as many as of The Four Seasons to be sure, but quite a few for what is sometimes considered “specialty” music. This may be the best classical music most people have never heard of, and it is well worth exploring.
I invite my readers to leave examples of soaringly spiritual music in the comments, and I will add links here at the end of the essay. Don’t leave a long list; just send the one that your guardian angel gave you!