In case you ever needed an excuse, today is a particularly fitting day to find time to listen to the complete Rosary Sonatas (or Mystery Sonatas) of Heinrich Biber, the Bohemian and Austrian composer who died in 1704. Biber composed the sonatas in the mid-1670s and dedicated them to then Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolf von Kuenberg.
The first Sunday of the month of October is known in many places as Rosary Sunday, in part marking the victory of the Holy League over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pope Saint Pius V attributed this success to the many prayers offered through the rosary, and instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories as a result.
Biber’s fifteen sonatas trace the mysteries of the rosary, which themselves help us to focus more profoundly on the life of Christ – a pilgrimage through a little “liturgical year,” marking the mysteries of the Lord’s life. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us:
The Holy Rosary is not a pious practice banished to the past, like prayers of other times thought of with nostalgia … In the current world, so dispersive, this prayer helps to put Christ at the centre, as the Virgin did, who meditated within all that was said about her Son, and also what he did and said. When reciting the Rosary, the important and meaningful moments of salvation history are relived. The various steps of Christ’s mission are traced. With Mary the heart is oriented toward the mystery of Jesus. Christ is put at the centre of our life, of our time, of our city, through the contemplation and meditation of his holy mysteries of joy, light, sorrow and glory.
In the original score of Biber’s work each sonata is accompanied by a small depiction of the mystery of the rosary which the music represents. A final sixteenth movement, also included in the original score, is a passacaglia for solo violin. Above this is an image, not of a mystery of the rosary, but of a small child with his guardian angel (see above). The English musicologist Peter Holman has noted that the bass line of the passacaglia is based on the opening phrase of a popular German hymn to the guardian angels, Einen Engel Gott mir geben.
Today, apart from being Rosary Sunday, is also 2 October and thus traditionally the feast of the guardian angels. These angels pray for us, protect and guide us, and offer our prayers, good works and desires to God. Perhaps this is a little opportunity for grace today: finding God anew in the beauty of sacred music, asking once more for the prayers of his blessed Mother, and receiving again the reassurance of his protection.
You can listen to a complete recording of the Rosary Sonatas here: