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.


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.


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

HIF 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.

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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.


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

More on scordatura
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Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Notes and Commentary

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist. He is regarded as one of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument.

“In the 17th century, the violin consolidated its position as expressively the most wide-ranging of non-keyboard instruments. This was an age of outstanding performers, like Corelli. Italy was the center of instrumental prowess, but the finest of all virtuosos was Heinrich Biber. A composer as well as a performer, Biber was fascinated by the doctrine of the affections: the belief that emotional states such as tenderness, fear, and anger could be given direct musical expression. Many Baroque composers pursued this idea but none did so with such a degree of quirkiness, flair, and sheer experimental verve as Biber. Above all else in his violin sonatas, he reveals an astonishing combination of profound feeling and technical wizardry that suggests a brilliant improviser at work.”—The Rough Guide to Classical Music (2001, 3rd ed.) 

Biber’s technique allowed him to easily reach the 6th and 7th positions, employ multiple stops in intricate polyphonic passages, and explore the various possibilities of scordatura tuning. He also wrote one of the earliest known pieces for solo violin, the monumental passacaglia of the Mystery Sonatas. During Biber’s lifetime, his music was known and imitated throughout Europe. In the late 18th century he was named the best violin composer of the 17th century by music historian Charles Burney. In the late 20th century Biber’s music, especially the Mystery Sonatas, enjoyed a renaissance. Today, it is widely performed and recorded. He lived from August 12, 1644, to May 3, 1704.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber Books and Music
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Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Books and Music

Selected Books
Hintergrunde zu den Rosenkranz-Sonaten
GRIN Verlag, 2007
Thomas Grasse
$67.57 on Amazon


16 Violin Sonatas
Alfred Music, 1985
$20.53 on Amazon

Violin Sonatas

Selected Music

Harmonia Harmonia Artificiosa (2004), 2-CD set

Mystery The Mystery Sonatas (2002), 2-CD set

Biber Mensa Mensa Sonora (1995), 1 CD

Biber: Mensa Sonora (Goebel)

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