Johann Schmelzer: the Most Underrated Baroque Composer?

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber is widely considered one of the most important composers for the violin in the Baroque era, with his innovations in tuning and fingering. It’s hard not to listen to his work without appreciating his virtuosity. But his Austrian contemporary, SchmelzerJohann Heinrich Schmelzer, with whom some scholars think Biber studied, certainly gives him a run for the money. And yet Schmelzer is hardly known even among Baroque music aficianados. It’s a mystery as mysterious as, well, Biber’s “Mystery Sonata.”

Before Biber came to prominence, Schmelzer helped establish the violin sonata outside of Italy. Arguably his most important work is the “Sonatae unarum fidium” of 1664. It was the first collection of sonatas for violin and basso continuo published outside of Italy and showcases some of Schmelzer’s finest work. The English violinist John Holloway has a lively and fresh take on the collection in a 2000 recording. The CD also contains an almost jazzy version of “Chiacona in A” by Antonio Bertali.

Holloway

Some random impressions of Schmelzer’s music pulled from Amazon: 

“Some of the most lyrical and beautiful writing that I have come across.  You can hear through Schmelzer’s music the basis on which much of Biber is founded.”—Anonymous

“Most melodious violin sonatas I have ever heard.”—Y. Dai “abubblingegg”

“Beautiful, lyrical, haunting,”—Karen G.

violin-1664

“Schmelzer is revealed as a major composer, his violin sonatas exquisite gems.”—Victor Rodriguez Viera

“Intricate, somewhat experimental, and highly emotive expression.”—Alan Lekan

“Great virtuosity, with hauntingly sweet, slow passages.”—Anonymous

“Picks up where Biber left off, giving the sonata a fun and exhilerating Turkish concept.”—dolcissima2780

“Pulls you into the smooth waves of an ocean. . . . Exciting, fresh, poised.”—Dirkk

Some suggested listening:

“Sonata Quarta in D Major from Sonatae Unarum Fidium”

“Sonata III in G minor”

“Polish Bagpipes”

“Sonata IV a sei”

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Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: Notes and Commentary

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was one of the most important violinists of the Baroque period, and an important influence on later German and Austrian composers for violin. He made substantial contributions to the development of violin technique and promoted the use and development of sonata and suite forms in Austria and South Germany. He attained a high reputation in a field (violin playing and violin composition) which at the time was dominated by Italians; indeed, one traveler referred to him in 1660 as “nearly the most eminent violinist in all of Europe.” Schmelzer’s Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664 was the first collection of sonatas for violin and basso continuo to be published by a German-speaking composer. It contains the brilliant virtuosity, sectional structure, and lengthy ground-bass variations typical of the mid-Baroque violin sonata. Austrian violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) is believed to have been one of Schmelzer’s students. He lived from 1620-1623 to 1680.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

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Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: Complete Works

Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinando III
Duodena selactarum sonatarum
Sacroprofanus Concentus
Sonatae unarum fidium seu a violino solo
Die musikalische Fechtschul

Sacred Music
Ad cocentus o mortales ad triumphos
Compieta
Currite, accurrite
Die Stärke der Liebe
Hodie lux tua, sancti fulgebit
Inquietum est cor meum
Le memorie dolorose
Missa Dei patris benedicte
Missa Jesu crusifixi
Missa Mater purissima
Missa Natalis
Missa Peregrina in honorem Sancti Rochi
Missa pro defunctis
Missa Sancti Joannis
Missa Sancti Spiritus
Missa Sancti Stanislai
Missa Tarde venientium in honorem Sancti Wenceslai
Nos autem gloriari
O Jesu summa charitas
Sileat misericordiam tuam
Terra triumphans jubila
Vesperae brivissimae de beatissimae virgine et de apostolis

150 suites, vocal works, and Christian music

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Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, 1623-1680

Schmelzer

Selected Recordings

Sonatas

Chamber works

Polnische Sackpfeiffen (Polish Bagpipes)

Selected Sheet Music

Harmonia a 5

harmonia5

Source: IMSLP.org

Showcase Piece

Sonata III in G minor

Notes and Commentary

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was one of the most important violinists of the Baroque period, and an important influence on later German and Austrian composers for violin. He made substantial contributions to the development of violin technique and promoted the use and development of sonata and suite forms in Austria and South Germany. He attained a high reputation in a field (violin playing and violin composition) which at the time was dominated by Italians; indeed, one traveler referred to him in 1660 as “nearly the most eminent violinist in all of Europe.” Schmelzer’s Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664 was the first collection of sonatas for violin and basso continuo to be published by a German-speaking composer. It contains the brilliant virtuosity, sectional structure, and lengthy ground-bass variations typical of the mid-Baroque violin sonata. Austrian violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) is believed to have been one of Schmelzer’s students. He lived from 1620-1623 to 1680.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

Books and Music

Selected Books

The Instrumental Music of Schmeltzer, Biber, Muffat and Their Contemporaries
Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011
Charles Brewer
$83.91 on Amazon

Brewer

Before the Chinrest
Indiana University Press, 2012
Stanley Ritchie
$23.46 on Amazon

Ritchie

“He writes in an elegant, easy to follow style, using terms which a modern violinist can easily relate to”—Stringendo on Amazon

Selected Music

sch-solos Solo Violin Sonatas (2007), 1 CD

sch-sonatas Violin Sonatas (1996), 1 CD

sch-ball Sonatas – Balletti Francesi – Ciaconna (1993), 1 CD

More Johann Heinrich Schmelzer Music

Complete Works

Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinando III
Duodena selactarum sonatarum
Sacroprofanus Concentus
Sonatae unarum fidium seu a violino solo
Die musikalische Fechtschul

Sacred Music
Ad cocentus o mortales ad triumphos
Compieta
Currite, accurrite
Die Stärke der Liebe
Hodie lux tua, sancti fulgebit
Inquietum est cor meum
Le memorie dolorose
Missa Dei patris benedicte
Missa Jesu crusifixi
Missa Mater purissima
Missa Natalis
Missa Peregrina in honorem Sancti Rochi
Missa pro defunctis
Missa Sancti Joannis
Missa Sancti Spiritus
Missa Sancti Stanislai
Missa Tarde venientium in honorem Sancti Wenceslai
Nos autem gloriari
O Jesu summa charitas
Sileat misericordiam tuam
Terra triumphans jubila
Vesperae brivissimae de beatissimae virgine et de apostolis

150 suites, vocal works, and Christian music

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Keith Richards, Ben Mink, and Franz Biber’s Partia No. 1

HIF Biber

Biber

The highly regarded songwriter and producer Ben Mink once said of music writing that all you need is a good six minutes. He was referring to jamming but I think more broadly he was referring to inspiration. Mink is probably best know for his work with k.d. lang but he’s also worked with some of the biggest names in rock, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Geddy Lee of Rush, his friend and occasional collaborator.

Screen shot 2013-06-30 at 6.10.29 AM

Partia No. 1 excerpt

I think of Mink’s remark a lot when I listen to music, whether it’s contemporary music or Baroque, and it was the first thing I thought of when I heard Franz Biber’s Harmonia artificioso-arios for the first time. What really caught my attention was Partia No. 1, which, after the introductory part, goes into a modern-sounding sequence in which the harmony and melody play off each other in a dramatic way. To my ears, if ever there was a good six minutes (or, in this case, a good two minutes) this was it. An inspired bit of writing to be sure.

scordatura

A cross-tuned violin. Note how the two middle strings are crossed at the bridge and tailpiece

Biber is widely regarded by musicologists and music theorists as one of the most important composers for the violin ever, and I’m guessing part of the reason for that is his use of cross-tuning, a technique called scordatura. I believe one of the reasons Partia No. 1 is so riveting is because of the cross-tuning while the melody and harmony play off each other in the dramatic fashion that they do. And, again, it’s so modern sounding.

One of the points made about Biber’s violin work is that his cross-tuning technique enables him to comfortably play otherwise difficult positions on the fingerboard, like the sixth and seventh positions, and to use multiple stops in “intricate polyphonic passages,” as it’s put on the Biber page on Wikipedia.

It’s interesting that Keith Richards, in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir, Life, couldn’t 41hBlPrGyfL._SY346_ say enough about how important alternative tuning is to his work. He says he spent years mastering alternative tunings, the results of which you can hear on some of the Rolling Stones’ biggest numbers like “Start Me Up” and “Street Fighting Man.” In fact, if I remember correctly what Richards said in his book, two of the Stones’ biggest hits, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” are in many respects the same song but with different tuning.

In the two-minute video clip below, you’ll hear the part of Partia No. 1 that caught my attention for its drama and modern sensibility. It shows that good music never dates itself, and I think that’s something even Keith Richards would attest to.—Nabob, On Baroque

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Jean-Féry Rebel: Notes and Commentary

Jean-Féry Rebel was an innovative French Baroque composer and violinist. He was considered a child prodigy on the violin and later studied under Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was one of the first French musicians to compose sonatas in the Italian style. Many of his compositions are marked by striking originality that include complex counter-rhythms and audacious harmonies that were not fully appreciated by listeners of his time. His Les caractères de la danse combined music with dance, and presented innovative metrical inventions. The work was popular and by some accounts was performed in London in 1725 under the baton of George Frideric Handel. In honor of his teacher, Rebel composed Le tombeau de M. Lully (literally, “The Tomb of Monsieur Lully”; figuratively, “A Tribute to Lully”).

Some of his compositions are described as choreographed “symphonies.” Among his boldest original compositions is Les élémens (“The Elements”) which describes the creation of the world. He lived from April 18, 1666, to January 2, 1747.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

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