Biber Passagalia

Edited: June 10, 2020, 8:46 PM · I dearly, deeply, love Biber's Passagalia from the Mystery/Rosary Sonatas. I fully intend on learning it at the appropriate time - even if I wind up only playing it for two people. I KNOW it is much too advanced for me right now - I'm only finishing up Suzuki 3 (and am very thankful that Suzuki 4 has NO Gavottes, hah!).

I am curious where this piece stands in the rep. There are other pieces I love that are also beautiful, but for me, there is something quite different about this piece. I honestly don't care how long it takes me to learn it once my teacher "gives me the nod" that it's time to start learning it.

Replies (28)

June 10, 2020, 9:33 PM · It really is a wonderful piece! I think it stands up very well to the rest of the repertoire. The Guardian Angel sonata may or may not have been written at the same time as the Mysteries even though it appears in the same set. Some have suggested it was written earlier and added to the set as a bookend. Either way, it’s a masterful piece.

The 1681 sonatas are excellent as well.

June 10, 2020, 9:54 PM · Very interesting! My teacher has requested the music, trying not to delude myself that I'm ready for it :)

I will check out the 1681 Sonatas, thanks!

June 11, 2020, 1:41 AM · There is a very fine edition of the Passacaile on imslp for free by Werner Icking, also transcribed for viola.
Edited: June 11, 2020, 4:48 AM · Does anyone play the Rosary sonatas in scordatura? It's fun but goodness knows what it does to the strings.
June 11, 2020, 6:52 AM · Catherine you are still having orchestra rehearsals where you are living? Just curious given the corona situation...
June 11, 2020, 6:54 AM · " (and am very thankful that Suzuki 4 has NO Gavottes, hah!)"

I know! I really dislike it in Suzuki 3. I can totally relate. I was so happy when my teacher said "let's move on"

I love Biber's Passagalia too but I'm very very long way off from the level to play it.


Edited: June 11, 2020, 11:44 AM · Jean - this is a very limited series of 4 rehearsals for a 6 person string ensemble + director for a wedding we're playing at the end of June. The bride is our resident flautist :-)

We are wearing masks during rehearsal (ugh), seated at least 6 feet apart. The bride-to-be WAS practicing with us before the March lock-down but currently our director is only allowing strings. Wind instruments are more problematic. That was also a requirement of the church where we rent rehearsal space.

The size of our group is dynamic - but we 6 are the only ones who will play/rehearse for the wedding. I think it would be challenging if it were a larger group but that's just my assumption. This is my first time playing with others for 40+ years!

June 11, 2020, 7:49 AM · Catherine - so am I! I suspect my teacher will pull excerpts from it as we continue the Suzuki work as he knows this is my real goal piece. Even if it's just one line at time, I don't care ;-)
Edited: June 11, 2020, 7:51 AM · Thanks Bruce! I've looked and can't seem to find a way to locate that particular edition on IMSLP. Perhaps I've not yet learned all of the "ins and outs". I have the one published by Johan Tufvesson, revision 1.5.

Is there a better way to find that specific edition?

Edited: June 11, 2020, 8:29 AM · I suspect you're talking of the same edition. IMSLP has two from the Werner Icking Collection, not edited by Icking but by Jean Michel Delabre and Johan Tufvessen https://imslp.org/wiki/Mystery_(Rosary)_Sonatas_(Biber%2C_Heinrich_ Ignaz_Franz_von)
June 11, 2020, 8:58 AM · Thanks for the confirmation Steve! The blurb on Google search did reference Icking but could not find that text when I clicked through, so I assumed they were the same.
June 11, 2020, 12:46 PM · I think you really need to have the violin(s) in scordatura for the Mystery Sonatas. The tunings have a major impact on the tonal palette of each sonata. It is a strain on the instrument to retune so much, which is why it’s best to use a minimum of three violins to minimize slippage. It’s especially challenging with natural gut strings.
All professional recordings I’ve heard were in scordatura.

I have performed the sonatas, and I used six violins.

June 11, 2020, 6:36 PM · Steve - I finally had a chance to check and it IS the same one. Thanks!
June 12, 2020, 5:30 PM · Of the 16 Mystery Sonatas only the 1st and the last (Passacaglia) use G-D-A-E tuning; the others use a variety of scordatura tunings which are essential for the chordings.
June 12, 2020, 6:25 PM · I am very glad to hear that Trevor, thank you! I'm sure whenever my teacher decides I can start learning the Passacaglia it will be very challenging without different tunings!
Edited: June 12, 2020, 8:51 PM · The Passacaglia is a great piece indeed. It is a bit too far from Suzuki 3, though. You need to be comfortable with higher positions, shifting, and some tricky double stops to tackle it. I'm sure if you tell your teacher you want to play that, they can lead you in that direction!
Edited: June 13, 2020, 6:57 AM · I already know that Bruno, there is no doubt it's beyond me for now. My teacher has known for some time that I want, deeply, to do this. He has also asked me to give him the music :-)
June 13, 2020, 1:45 AM · Rich - Can you recommend any particular brand of string that will allow the A and D strings to be tuned up to C and F comfortably? My approach is to start by tuning everything down a semitone, on my cheapest fiddle. It's a weird enough sensation for me, but I wonder how anyone with absolute pitch copes with notation in which what you see is absolutely not what you get!
June 13, 2020, 2:46 PM · For (easy!) reference here are the scordatura tunings for all 16 sonatas:
1. G-D-A-E
2. A-E-A-E
3. B-F#-B-D
4. A-D-A-D
5. A-E-A-C#
6. Ab-Eb-G-D
7. C-F-A-C
8. D-F-Bb-D
9. C-E-A-E
10. E-D-A-D
11. G-D-G-D
12. C-E-G-C
13. A-E-C#-E
14. A-E-A-D
15. G-C-G-D
16. G-D-A-E

Sonatas 1-15 all have keyboard accompaniment, which, given the movement titles, implying performance in a church at the time, would have been an organ. Sonata 16, the Passacaglia, alone is unaccompanied.

I would recommend working first on sonata 1 (easier than 16 - just!) so as to get accustomed to the idiom of the time and its technical problems.


June 14, 2020, 1:40 AM · Sampling the 6 or so recordings accessible from IMSLP, all except one use harpsichord and plucked strings for continuo rather than organ, which I guess proves nothing. In spite of their coherence it seems rather hard to believe that the whole set would have been performed in conjunction with ritual Rosary processions. Also I gather there is evidence that the sonatas were composed at different times, so thinking of Bach's B minor Mass maybe they were gathered together as an example of Biber's skill - a bit of a humble brag!
June 14, 2020, 8:09 AM · I love the Biber Passacaglia as well, I like Sinkovsky’s interpretation a lot. My teacher recently assigned it to me and I was/am thrilled.

If I’m reading your question correctly... I’m also working on the Prokofiev Solo Sonata (am polishing the first movement, and am working on the 2nd), and the Brahms Hungarian Dance No5. It’s taken me over three years as a returner with two technical rebuilds to get to this place (due to teacher changes, and thankfully my current teacher demoted my repertoire in an effort to give me the time and space to do all of the foundational building I did not receive as a kid, but I digress). When I returned I started with Suzuki book 3, then moved into book 4 shortly thereafter.

Hope this helps?

Edited: June 14, 2020, 11:43 AM · Pamela - yes it does, thank you! I'm moving into Suz 4 in a couple of weeks, and while I'm sure we won't start on this piece for quite some time as it is currently so far beyond me, I can see him giving me the occasional excerpt as an encouragement.
Edited: June 16, 2020, 4:46 AM · @Trevor (and anyone else who wants to try scordatura) - I think Sonata IV, the Ciacona, is a good one to start with, technically very easy and sounding wonderful I think with the violin tuned A-D-A-D. Of course you have to look out for the key signature which looks like G major/E minor although the true key is actually D minor. But how is one supposed to play the last note of the second variation which requires the open D string and open E string (also tuned to D) to sound simultaneously without also sounding the A string? Putting the third finger down on the A string feels like cheating!
June 16, 2020, 10:15 AM · Returning to the Passcaglia, Tufvesson's edition is rather confusing in places. For example Bar 9 doesn't add up unless you play the semiquavers in the lower line as demisemiquavers (32nd notes) as most players seem to do. Bar 45 is made a nonsense by the semiquaver rest. In fact the whole piece would be easier to read if you took out most of the rests
June 16, 2020, 10:36 AM · For those who want to try scordatura, I think there's a piece by Saint-Saens that uses it.
June 24, 2020, 9:36 AM · Steve - agreed. That's the edition that I am using and it is incredibly frustrating. I've crossed out a lot of those rests to make my life a lot easier!
June 24, 2020, 9:47 AM · For scordatura, cellists have as their main options Bach's 5th Cello Suite in C minor (A tuned down to G), and Kodaly's monumental solo sonata Op 8 in B minor (up there with the Bach Chaconne, imo), the C and G being tuned down to B and F# respectively, generating a wonderful B minor resonance for the instrument.

There is a supposition that Bach's 5th suite was originally written for the lute, but some cellists can play it without scordatura, perhaps needing to use the thumb position to compensate.

June 24, 2020, 5:16 PM · @Catherine K

I love this piece too, it's one of my favourites!

In my view it's on the same level as some of the (relatively) easier pieces of unaccompanied Bach. Plenty of double-stopping, and also (unlike Bach) some very fast notes as high as 6th position.

I would suggest that you ask your teacher about the Handel sonatas (which are in the Suzuki books), the Telemann Sonatinas, the easier Corelli sonatas, and the Telemann Fantasias as things to look at on your way.

You also need to be comfortable with thirds, sixths and octaves.


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