Off the Beaten Path in Baroque Land

As one journeys through the vast land of Baroque music, it is all too easy to get waylaid by the unmistakable charms of Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi in familiar territory and happily forget about the off-the-beaten-path delights of unusual and often esoteric 17th and 18th century composers. Bohemian composer and violinist Heinrich Biber is certainly one of these—thankfully, a concert in Oak Ridge last weekend pushed him back into my Baroque consciousness.

The 18th century English writer Charles Burney reported that Biber was perhaps the most noteworthy violin virtuoso of his day and praised his compositions. One of Biber’s particular focuses was the programmatic or musical representation of emotions and events with Baroque attention to accuracy. Biber also experimented with tone colors from unusual string tunings and the use of objects placed in the strings to create percussion effects. Battalia (for strings and performed last weekend by the Oak Ridge Symphony in a program that also included Vivaldi’s Gloria and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres) certainly makes use of the latter; the work is a depiction in short movements of an army’s dissolution, from optimistic march to drunken revelry to lament for the dead and wounded.

What is amazing about Biber is that his musical forms foreshadow some 20th Century works. Ives certainly comes to mind in the second movement of Battalia, the cacophonous “Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor.”

Recent years have seen increasing interest in Biber’s works and they are now widely available on some wonderful recordings.

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