Masques is a Montreal-based early music ensemble founded in 1998, performing vocal and instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The name of the ensemble is inspired by the masques of the [...]
Mensa Sonora: Biber and his contemporaries
They spoke about it
Mensa Sonora, sonorous table; this concept was quite in vogue during the Baroque period. Biber himself used it more than once: his Sonata pro tabula was written for ten voices. One finds comfort in the idea one has, more often than not, of what a court musician should be: a simple provider of easily listening circumstantial music, usually to be heard in the background. In entertaining such an idea, we underestimate the true symbolic worth of the meal, as well as of the music itself.
When Biber, in his dedication of the work to the Archbishop of Salzburg, says that his Mensa Sonora is “a noble jewel of Harmony”, he is not simply referring to his refined compositional work. In fact, in the great humanistic tradition, to listen to music while partaking of a meal facilitates the reunion of body and soul, fosters better understanding between guests, develops new partnerships, and expands conversational skills modelled on the subtle dialogue of the instrumental voicing. Harmony in diversity: that is the ideal that underlies the title Sonorous table. An ideal represented by the pomegranate, whose numerous inlaid seeds are indeed symbolic. The Italian Cesare Ripa, author of a compendium of emblems long considered to be the authority on the subject, attributes this fruit to be the allegorical representation of Concord.
Talking of his Mensa Sonora, written for four voices, Biber adds that it offers no “eccentric dishes”. The work was probably destined as an accompaniment to the daily meals and entertainments of his benefactor, Maximilian, a great lover of music. To the latter, a few years previously, Biber had offered a more ambitious compendium, containing 12 sonatas “for the altar or the court” (tam aris quam aulis servientes), written for five, six, or eight voices, some of them requiring the addition of trumpets. The two Sonatas with five string parts from this Opus, recorded here, differ from the Mensa Sonora inasmuch as their character is more Italianate, and the fact that their various parts are linked dramatically.
This music accompanies a royal feast as well as a Holy Table (the altar), where its role was to illustrate divine harmony. Such versatility is not surprising, especially at the court of an Archbishop Prince! That one and the same work may be heard in the palace and the church only goes to reinforce the union between spiritual and temporal power, and is a reminder as well that the lushness of princely tables are not opposed to the Christian ethic. Do not several paintings representing The Marriage at Cana show Christ himself making merry among the many richly-robed guests, to the accompaniment of music?
For the Tam aris quam aulis collection, Biber was probably inspired by a similar publication of Heinrich Schmelzer, the Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, destined, as its name indicates, to a double usage. The first non Italian to occupy the position of composer in Vienna, and to publish violin sonatas, Schmelzer exercised great influence in Austria. He probably also counted Biber among his students, as the latter evidently imitated the former’s compositional techniques, especially his manner of rapidly threading together very short contrasting sections, albeit subtly linked.
Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin belongs to the Rosary Sonatas compendium, to which it serves as appendix. The original manuscript includes an ink drawing representing a guardian angel. With that in mind, one can now examine the virtuoso playing of the soloist, who repeats a tetrachord (G, F, E-flat, D) 65 times, embellished with sparkling arabesques, and in doing so, illustrates the constant presence and hovering of the angel. But in addition to this allegorical reading of the work, it is the bass tones and formal perfection of the composition that invite one to contemplation. To the polyphonic science is added, paradoxically, the charm of spontaneity, as the work, during its execution, gives the impression of an improvisation along the ostinato bass lines of the tetrachord.
The Sonatina for viola da gamba, attributed to Augustinus Kertzinger, though seemingly improvised, produces quite a different effect here. With its many rhythm changes we are in presence of the declamatory verve of the stylus phantasticus, which Biber also favoured. Viola da gamba player when the mood took him, Biber even possibly performed this piece, which was found in the collection of Bishop Karl Liechtenstein, his first benefactor.
One of Biber’s colleagues in Salzburg was the organist Georg Muffat, whose compendium Armonico tributo (1682), a mixture of Italianate movements and stylized French dances, brings to mind the Mensa Sonora published two years previously. Furthermore, in a later edition of the score, Muffat explains that his music is not adequate for the church, containing as it does ballet music, adding that his score is “very suitable […] to the magnificence of feasts, serenades, and in concerts performed for learnèd and amateurs.” As opposed to Biber, Muffat was well travelled throughout Europe, had studied in Paris in his youth when Lully was the rage, later travelling to Italy where he met Corelli. This double influence is notable in the Sonata: from the very first notes in the bass, we are seemingly transported into the realm of a Corelli Concerto Grosso, while the borea, for example, is very similar to the bourrée from the Mariage forcé, a comedic-ballet by Lully that Muffat probably saw in 1664. Here again, one finds yet another form of harmony in diversity, and Muffat becomes a true European humanist. “When I mix French, German, and Italian airs,” he wrote, “I do so not to create a war, but to foster harmony between nations, an easy peace.” It is therefore quite ironic that warring factions would destroy Muffat’s ideals.
He died too young, at 51, probably the result of deprivations suffered at the siege of Passau, during the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War).
Like Muffat’s works, the Sonata for three bass violas by Johann Michael Nicolai, court composer in Stuttgart, is the result of French, German, and Italian influences, and gives equal time, in a closely meshed texture, to the various instruments. A joyous rediscovery that favours, as do the other selections on this disc, the urgency of the dialogue between present and past cultures.