What to Listen for in the “Passacaglia” by Heinrich Franz Ignatz Biber (no Relation to Justin)

Learn why this often overlooked masterpiece became one of the greatest of its time.

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In 1676, German composer Heinrich Franz Ignatz Biber completed his Passacaglia for solo violin that would not only revolutionize the violin repertoire but become a standard for any professional violinist for years to come. But what makes it so special?

Many fans of Classical Music know and enjoy Bach’s “Chaconne” for solo violin but did you know that Bach was likely inspired by Bibers Passacaglia? It was THE piece for solo violin for nearly 50 years before Bach came along. Bach then did the thing he always did – one-up the last guy to write in this style. 

Who was Heinrich Franz Ignatz Biber?

Heinrich Biber was a good composer, but not the extra level genius that Bach was to become. He got steady work as a musician though, becoming the Vice Kappelmeister for the Salzburg Court. This was one of the main centers for music in those days. He was even the supervisor for Leopold Mozart – Wolfgang’s daddy! 

The 15th Sonata is the Passacaglia, is a full 10 minutes long, and meant to not only sum everything up,
but also to celebrate the
Feast of the Guardian Angel.

What is the Passacaglia about?

Biber wrote many works for the church, and the set the Passacaglia is taken from are called the “Rosary Sonatas”. Sonatas were not the 3 or 4 movement works that Beethoven and Brahms were going to write. They were short pieces that lasted maybe 3 or 4 minutes. Biber wrote these 15 sonatas to be performed while the congregants prayed with their Rosary beads (giving them their name). They went around the church with their beads meditating on the 14 stations of the cross. The 15th Sonata is the Passacaglia, which is a full 10 minutes long. It was meant to  sum everything up and also to celebrate the Feast of the Guardian Angel.

Why is it Important?

The Passacaglia quickly became famous because it was truly revolutionary for its time. It was one of those works that expanded the expectations of what people thought the instrument was even capable of. Violinists around the world saw it as the ultimate challenge: you weren’t great until you could perform this piece. Bach probably knew about this work, and it’s clear that there is a relationship between the Chaconne and the Passacaglia. But that is a topic for another post.

3 Things to Listen for

  1. A Passacaglia is a ground bass line that is repeated over variations for the entire work, and this one is pretty simple and strict. The first four notes are the bass line, and Biber does not deviate for the majority of the work. Pachelbel’s Canon has eight notes in the bass line! Listen for the bass line, and see if you can catch the one section where changes it slightly!
  2. Biber stretched the capabilities of violinists by making this piece a completely solo work. There are other instruments to fill out the variations above this bassline. He did it using specific techniques to make it sound like there is more than one or two instruments playing at the same time. Listen for the different lines he put in there to simulate more than one player.
  3. Toward the end of the piece, Biber uses the technique called “Jete” or “throwing the bow” to simulate castanets in a Spanish dance – a truly exotic moment in this piece written in Germany!  

Tips on Performing the Passacaglia

Performing the chords in this piece is an obvious technical challenge, but maybe not in the way you think. While it is difficult to get your hand into the various positions to be in tune, the real issue is getting these chords to sound well in the bow hand.

Every chord presents a new problem in style, coordination, and agility, and you can’t really treat one chord like the last one.

The best way to solve this is to make a specific plan to break each chord, to roll, or not break at all, so that when you practice you can see what is coming.

Have You Ever Played The Biber Passacaglia?

I love performing on my violin and would love to know what your favorite piece is so that it can be featured on an upcoming concert.  Please share your thoughts about the Biber Passacaglia in the comments below and share your stories about learning it or listening to it.

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