Biber: Missa Salisburgensis (at the Organs Of The Ballarat Goldfields Festival)

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Published: 7th January, 2018
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The Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival is another of the festivals that Classic Melbourne is pleased to highlight in January, relieving as it does the dearth of good concerts nightly, as Melbourne often enjoys throughout the year.  As a highlight of our coverage of the festival, and to introduce it, regular reviewer John Weretka spoke to Gary Ekkel about Heinrich Biber’s titanic Missa Salisburgensis, which will be performed for the first time in Australia on period instruments as part of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on Sunday 21 January at 8pm. . Gary Ekkel is the Director of the Choir of Newman College at the University of Melbourne and will direct the performance. John Weretka is the Master of the Choir of Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne and will be playing viola da gamba I in Choir II in the performance.

JW: If people know about Heinrich Biber at all, it’s probably for his extraordinary string music, including the Rosary sonatas for scordatura violin. Biber was also a reasonably important composer of sacred music, though. Can you tell us something about the history of the Missa Salisburgensis?

GE: Heinrich Biber has a well-deserved reputation as a composer for the violin and I think his Rosary sonatas are breathtaking. Biber pushed violin technique beyond anything that had been written up till then with his use of scordatura tuning, multiple stopping, and passage-work which extended to the sixth- and seventh-positions on violin. His reputation as a violin composer, however, has obscured some of his wonderful choral writing, which is every bit as adventurous as his violin writing.

Missa Salisburgensis (or the ‘Salzburg Mass’) was written by Biber to celebrate the (supposed) 1100th anniversary of the city of Salzburg. According to Austrian legend, Salzburg was founded by Saint Rupert, the first bishop of Salzburg, in 582AD. It’s now clear that Rupert lived a century and a half later, but the important thing is that the city of Salzburg believed in 1682 that they were celebrating a major anniversary. For the Archbishopric of Salzburg, it gave the city the opportunity to demonstrate its claim as a major centre of culture in Europe. The Salzburg leadership was able to use the anniversary to demonstrate to the world its leadership in music. Indeed, there was much to celebrate in its long history: both the Cathedral, founded in 774, and St Peter’s Abbey had longstanding medieval choir schools, while the Archbishop’s court also had its own set of musicians. In the instrumental realm, Salzburg was one of Europe’s main centres for instrument makers, organ builders and bellfounders. It was similarly an important centre for musical theatre: medieval musical plays regularly performed in the Christmas and Easter seasons, a tradition continued until the times of Michael Haydn in the 18th century; and Salzburg was one of the first Transalpine cities to take up the fashion for Italian opera, already staging a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1614, only fourteen years after its composition.

To express the magnitude of the 1100th anniversary of the Archbishopric in Salzburg’s Cathedral, the Cathedral’s Kapellmeister, Heinrich Biber, composed a work beyond the proportions of any piece of music written to that time of history. The Mass and the accompanying motet, Plaudite tympana, consist of fifty-three different parts which requires upwards of seventy musicians to perform. The 53-part Mass is organised into five choirs, two ‘loci’ or bands and a large basso continuo section. Choirs 1 and 4 are two eight-part choirs (SSAATTBB), with each vocal part consisting of a soloist and one or more ripieno (chorus) singers; Choirs 2 and 5 are two choirs of string instruments, each made up two violins and four viols; Choir 3, the largest, incorporates two smaller ensembles: a recorder and oboe consort and a brass ensemble with two ‘clarini’ trumpets (trumpets played mostly in their high register), two cornetti and three trombones. A fascinating addition to this orchestra is not just one, but two, trumpet and drum bands to play fanfares and tuttis in the work. It is likely that these trumpeters and timpanists were drawn from the court- and field-trumpeters, led by the Oberstallmeister. Beneath this agglomeration of instruments, there are three basso continuo parts possibly played on as many as five organs, supporting each of the choirs. The work is a tour de force in the skilful exploitation of an army of instruments.

To ensure that not only those present were aware of the magnificence of the event, the city commissioned the engraver Melchior Küsel to record the event for perpetuity in a famous etching. There could not have been any doubt to the rest of the world about Salzburg’s symbolic position at the heart of European culture and history.

JW: The Missa Salisburgensis is famous for being one of the largest-scale works ever written in the seventeenth century, but it’s not entirely alone in the field, is it? What is the bigger tradition of massive sacred and secular music of this kind?

GE: Already in the Renaissance there was a string of works for large numbers of voices, among them Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias for 36 voices, Striggio’s Ecce beatam and Tallis’s Spem in alium for 40 voices. Towards the end of the Renaissance, Venetian composers explored the dramatic possibilities of polychoral music with composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli, Andrea Gabrieli and Monteverdi employing two, three or four choirs of voices and/or instruments. This Venetian polychoral style was exported throughout Europe and is a direct influence on the music of Heinrich Biber.

There seem to be a number of reasons that composers wrote for large forces: sometimes, a rivalry between composers, cathedrals or cities; sometimes, as a show of independence and prosperity, as in Venice; sometimes for dramatic reasons, making the most of the interplay between the various choirs; sometimes to exploit the acoustics or properties of a building (for example, the four organ galleries encircling the central dome of Salzburg Cathedral) and sometimes symbolically: a large number of voices and instruments can depict vast choruses of angels praising God or the new Jerusalem (the kingdom of God).

JW: What have been the particular challenges in bringing such a large-scale work to life?

GE: Our intention from the beginning was to perform the Missa Salisburgensis with period instruments, so that we could appreciate the clarity, articulation, dynamics, balance and beauty of the instruments that Biber composed for. The decision whether to use period or modern instruments is particularly important with the brass instruments in this work, as there are parts for ten trumpets, two cornetti and three sackbuts. Baroque brass instruments generally speak more softly and with greater articulation than their modern counterparts. If these parts were to be played by modern instruments not only would the distinctive sound of the cornetti be lost but the brass ensemble would potentially overwhelm the rest of the orchestra and choir. While Australia is particularly fortunate to have an active early music scene with an increasing number of expert musicians (how many countries in the world could boast ten natural trumpeters and eight viola da gamba players of outstanding quality?), it has been challenging to source such an array of musicians in the middle of Australia’s summer holidays. Luckily, there has been substantial good will and great enthusiasm to perform this rarely-heard Baroque masterpiece, so nearly all the musicians that we have approached have made themselves available for the concert.

A second challenge has been to work out the positioning of all the musicians. Each cathedral has its own acoustics and spatial idiosyncrasies. St Patrick’s Ballarat Cathedral is a world away from Salzburg Cathedral with its dome and four raised organ galleries. Ballarat Cathedral does, however, have the virtue of a raised altar area and we will be making full use of the steps and various rises in this exquisite building. Our plan is also to have the singers at the front of the texture – a placement more common in the Baroque period – directly communicating with the audience.

Finally, there was no published performing edition available of this extensive Mass. It has been a time-intensive task to prepare the full score and the fifty-three parts. I am particularly thankful for the work of the Editorial Committee, Catherine Cowie, David Howell and John Weretka, with whom I have worked to transcribe the work, iron out inconsistencies and mistakes, and produce legible, practical parts which can be used easily in a performance of this size.

John Wereteka concludes: Despite these challenges, it is a great privilege to be able to perform the Missa Salisburgensis and I am very grateful to the Organ of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival to have the foresight, courage and enthusiasm to produce this rarely heard work.

Classlc Melbourne thanks John Weretka and Gary Ekkel for completing this comprehensive interview, centred on what is surely the highlight of this year’s Festival. See the Festival website  for further information and tickets.