Resonance of Salzburg

Salzburg squareWhen we think of Venice, the names most likely come to mind are Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and other composers associated with the great musical establishment of San Marco. For Leipzig it almost certainly would be Bach, and for Salzburg who else but Mozart? Yet each of those cities had histories richer, deeper and more complex than those names might suggest. Salzburg was fertile ground for great composers generations before its most famous son was born. For our next concert, the weekend of March 27–29, SFEMS presents a new ensemble, Artifice (Cynthia Miller Freivogel and Tekla Cunningham, violins & violas d’amore; Elisabeth Reed, cello and viola da gamba; Daniel Zuluaga, lute, guitar & theorbo, and Katherine Heater, harpsichord), who will explore some of the great music produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a trio of Salzburg’s great composers: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644–1704), Johann Joseph Vilsmayr (1663–1722), and Georg Muffat (1653–1704). In the following notes, Cynthia Freivogel discusses the music on their program, with special emphasis on scordatura, the alternate tunings of the violin that produced distinctive patterns of resonance and were especially used to great expressive advantage by H.I.F. Biber.

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My violin is having a birthday. She is turning 300. “Salzburg, 1715” reads the label. A few years ago, in a shop in Switzerland, I came across the Vilsmayr manuscript solo Partitas. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, not only were they the same date and place as the label in my violin, but they were technically advanced and musically interesting pieces. This program was inspired by the idiosyncratic title page which starts with “Artificiosus Concentus Pro Camera, distributus in Sex Partes,” immediately evoking for me the connection to the Harmonia artificioso-ariosa set of works by Biber. In my opinion, scordatura has always been at the heart of understanding performance practice on the violin in the 17th century, and I think the subtle colors and changes in sonority is only really possible to present in live performance. The opportunity to perform Partita VII for two d’amores on the same program only deepens that experience, and in this program there is only one work in standard tuning.

Phoebe Nobes, who has published several volumes of important solo violin music from before 1750 including the Vilsmayr manuscript, writes in her preface to the Vilsmayr that they “combine the Corellian floridity of ornamentation and elegance of French Baroque dance within the virtuoso idiom of the Austro-German school of violinists led by Biber and Schmelzer.” Not much is known about Vilsmayr, except that he took lessons with Biber and was a court violinist in the Salzburg Hofkapelle from 1689–1722. We can not be sure that he ever made a trip to France or Italy, but Muffat was at the Salzburg court until 1690, and Vilsmayr clearly is imitating the compositional ideal of marrying the Roman and Lullian styles of Armonico tributo (1682), hence the appearance of Muffat on tonight’s program. Ultimately, the lyrical little arias and flamboyant opening flourishes never really escape Biber’s spirit. Each partita is in a unique scordatura, exploring the range of possibilities in the sonority of the solo violin.

Compared to the set of Rosary Sonatas by his teacher, Vilsmayr seems to have coopted Biber’s usage of certain specific scordaturas of the violin without quite so much intellectual and theological contemplation. Like Partita V in the Harmonia artificioso-ariosa, Vlismayr’s Partita V requires the violin E string to be tuned down a whole step to D. Biber also uses this tuning in the Crucifixion Sonata from his Rosary set. In this mis-tuning of the violin, the D string is doubled. Essentially, you have created a sympathetic string, so any time D is played it is reinforced by the two strings ringing together. In G minor, it makes both the tonic (g minor chord) and the dominant (D major chord) extremely resonant. Vilsmayr also uses this same tuning for Partita II, which is in Bb major. But in that case, he is doubling the third of the Bb major chord. This is much more problematic for intonation with no particular advantages of which I am yet aware.

I played all of the Rosary Sonatas before I had encountered any real practical experience with the viola d’amore, but, of course, Biber had obviously not. In fact many of his tunings that were more difficult for me became very clear after some experience on the other instrument. Playing some of the Mystery Sonatas is actually sort of like playing on part of a d’amore depending on where the thirds and fourths are prescribed. For example, for the Crown of Thorns Sonata from the Sorrowful Mysteries, the violin is tuned D F Bb D. It had always seemed to me to be the most wrenching on the violin with so much tension having tuned the G string up a whole fifth. And, with a fourth and a third in the middle of the violin the Gigue and Doubles in that sonata are, well, thorny. Suspiciously similar is the experience of playing the gigue in Partita VII from the ariosa set. In a less extreme example, the fourth on the top of the instrument in the first half of the program feels very much like playing on the d’amore where there is often a fourth on the top.

It seems fairly certain that during the 17th century in Germany and Austria the d’amore did not yet have the sympathetic strings that run under the bridge. In any case, the tunings themselves created much of this resonance. If you tune the d’amore in C minor, as Biber indicates very clearly in his tablature, you have three C strings and two G strings with an Eb in the middle. It makes C minor very open and actually loud, and as you go further around the circle of fifths away inevitably, the tone color is much more mysterious.

For the beautiful Ciaccona from the 3rd Partita at the close of the program, the violins are both tuned A E A E. Vilsmayr does not borrow this tuning, which is too bad in my opinion. Although simple, for me it has all of the advantages of playing in a pure temperament like quarter comma mean tone. You can make certain intervals actually perfect and so incredibly resonant and when you move away tonally from where that can happen, the contrast is stunning.

SFEMS presents Artifice on Friday, March 27, 8:00 p.m., at First Lutheran Church of Palo Alto; Saturday, March 28, 7:30 p.m., at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley; and Sunday, March 29, 4:00 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Order tickets online or call the SFEMS box office at 510-528-1725.

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Written by Jonathan Harris
San Francisco Early Music Society