Biber: Missa Bruxellensis

Script of the talk given by Dr James Clements to a pre-concert audience at the Albert Hall, London, 2004.08.10 18:00

1. Introduction

When I was first asked to talk about the Missa Bruxellensis or Brussels Mass here at the PROMS I was naturally very excited, but also puzzled, puzzled as to why the Academy of Ancient Music had chosen to play this particular mass to celebrate three-hundred years since the death of Heinrich Biber in Salzburg in 1704. I was puzzled because this mass poses so many problems, not least of which is the fact that we don't actually know that Biber composed it! If Biber did compose it, why does the only manuscript source for this mass, now held in the Royal Library in Belgium, bear an ascription to the early 17th-century Italian composer Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672)? Why did musicologists long consider this mass to be by Benevoli, and believe that this manuscript was one of his autograph manuscripts, and why was a 'modern' edition of it published as recently as 1970 in the series of Benevoli's complete works? Where does the work's title come from, and does that give us any clues to answer any of these questions? Furthermore, why was the mass composed, and where would it have been performed originally? I think that anniversaries such as Biber's tercentenary that we're celebrating this year are in fact excellent opportunities to think about 'difficult' works such as the Missa Bruxellensis, however, and today I will be addressing all these questions relating to the mass. Before we can think about where or how the mass may have been performed originally, or indeed how the Academy of Ancient Music are going to perform it today, we need to deal with the rather 'thorny' question of authorship.

2. Authorship: is it Biber?

In order to understand who wrote the Missa Bruxellensis, we need to consider it in connection with another mass with which it is closely linked, the so-called Missa Salisburgensis or Salzburg Mass, which is in no less than 53 separate parts, and written on enormous sheets of paper which make Tallis's Spem in alium seem rather small by comparison. The Missa Salisburgensis, like the Missa Bruxellensis, is also now thought to be by Biber for reasons I shall come to shortly. In order to understand the connection between the two works we need to go back over a hundred years to late-nineteenth-century Salzburg. Here we find the then choirmaster of Salzburg Cathedral visiting his local grocer to buy his weekly supply of vegetables when he discovers to his horror, the grocer about to use the high quality and massive sheets of paper of the Missa Salisburgensis for, and I quote 'his own purposes', whatever they might have been! Fortunately for us, however, the choirmaster rescued the mass from the hands of the grocer, and we now have an excellent piece of music to play and listen to.

The Missa Salisburgensis—for reasons we don't now know—was thought by the musicologists who first wrote about it to have been written by Benevoli for the service to consecrate Salzburg Cathedral in 1628, and an ascription to Benevoli was written on the title page and on the folder in which the manuscript was placed in the Salzburg Carolino Augusteum Museum where it was housed (and remains today). An edition of the manuscript was published in 1903, and the work was accepted as an autograph manuscript of Orazio Benevoli.

At this point in the story things went quiet. It was not for almost another 70 years-and indeed almost one hundred years since the Missa Salisburgensis was first discovered-that it was published in a facsimile edition in Salzburg in 1969. At this time the Italian musicologist Laurence Feininger was busy researching the music of Benevoli and editing his music for the series of complete works of Benevoli which I mentioned earlier. As part of this work Feininger was actively looking for compositions by Benevoli in libraries throughout Europe. It was at this time that he discovered a 23-part mass in the Royal Library in Belgium which had a comment written on the title page sometime during the 18th or 19th century to the effect that the handwriting and layout of the manuscript of this mass is identical to the manuscript score of the Missa Salisburgensis. Feininger therefore accepted that this manuscript in Belgium must also be an autograph score of Benevoli's, and he prepared an edition and published it under the title Missa Bruxellensis in the series of Benevoli's complete works in 1970.

So, by 1970, these two masses—the Missa Salisburgensis in Salzburg and the Missa Bruxellensis in Brussels—had been discovered, edited and published as works by Orazio Benevoli. It was at this point in the story that things really began to get interesting, when the Salzburg-based musicologist, Ernst Hintermaier, examined the two manuscripts. Hintermaier's PhD research had been about the Salzburg court in the 17th and 18th centuries, so he was familiar with the manuscript sources for music in Salzburg. Not only did he agree that the Missa Salisburgensis and Missa Bruxellensis were written by the same scribe or copyist, but he also recognised the hand-writing of the copyist in question. Hintermaier's discovery was that the scribe who copied these two masses was the so-called anonymous 'Copyist no. III' as he was known in the Salzburg archives, who was responsible for copying the performance parts for almost all the works by Heinrich Biber which are held in the Salzburg Cathedral archives and composed by Biber between 1670 and 1701. Hintermaier realised that as Copyist no. III was active in Salzburg during the last third of the seventeenth century he could not possibly have prepared the copy of the Missa Salisburgensis as early as 1628, some forty years earlier. Given that the Missa Bruxellensis was written by the same copyist, it too must have been written during the last third of the seventeenth century.

Hintermaier did not stop his detective work there, however, but continued with an examination of the watermarks used in the paper on which the two masses are written. Watermark evidence is often used in musicology to date compositions, as we often have enough documentary information about paper mills to know in which years paper mills were using particular watermarks in the paper they produced. This, in turn, allows us to date composers' compositions when we don't have any other documentary evidence about the dates of compositions, such as letters, payments or receipts, for example. Hintermaier discovered that both of the masses in question were written on paper produced at the paper mill at Lengfelden, near to Salzburg. We know quite a lot about the Lengfelden paper mill, and in particular are able to date their watermarks fairly precisely. We know that they used a watermark depicting a 'wild man' within a coat of arms from about 1650 to 1800, and that the initials of the owner of the mill at a particular time were added to the watermark thus making it more distinctive. The watermark used in the paper of the Missa Salisburgensis bears the initials 'F.W.' which relate to one Franz Wörz who used this watermark at the mill from 1666 until 1696, whilst the watermark used in the paper of the Missa Bruxellensis bears the initals 'I.W' which relate to Joseph Wörz, the son of Franz, which was in use from 1696 to 1702. You can see both of these watermarks on your handout [1 (17kb)]. Hintermaier had successfully shown then that the manuscript of the Missa Salisburgensis could not have been written before 1666—and certainly not as early as 1628 as had previously been thought—as the copyist wasn't active until much later, and the paper on which he copied the music wasn't made until 1666 at the very earliest. As far as the Missa Bruxellensis is concerned, however, the manuscript in Brussels wasn't written until after 1696 according to the watermark, so it couldn't possibly be an autograph by Benevoli who died over thirty years earlier in 1672 in Rome. Hintermaier then compared the music of these two masses to composers who were active in Salzburg in the last third of the seventeenth century, and, on the basis of music style similarities, concluded that the most likely composer who could have written both works is Heinrich Biber. Hintermaier published his findings in the mid 1970s.

3. The original performance context: Salzburg Cathedral?

If we accept that the Missa Bruxellensis was composed by Biber towards the end of the seventeenth century in Salzburg, there are still certain questions to answer. Did he compose it for any special occasion? If so, when, where and how might it have been performed? Hintermaier proposed that the Missa Salisburgensis was written for the celebrations in Salzburg in 1682 marking the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the archdiocese of Salzburg, which is very plausible. Likewise, he suggests that the Missa Bruxellensis was written for the founding of the 'Order of the Knights of St Rupert' by the archbishop in 1701. We know that this event involved celebration of mass with great pomp in the Cathedral at which the Archbishop was present. The 'Order of the Knights of St Rupert' was a military order, which might account for the prominence given to the group of four trumpets in the mass and the fanfare-style music in which they engage. Indeed, we know that Biber often wrote music for services in the Cathedral or elsewhere for particular groups or societies. For example, during the early 1670s Salzburg Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg was actively promoting rosary devotion in Salzburg and Biber probably wrote his most famous compositions—the so-called Mystery or Rosary Sonatas—for the confraternity of the rosary which was established at this time.

The Missa Bruxellensis is scored for two four-part vocal choirs—two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses—as well as 2 violins, 3 violas, 4 trumpets, tympani, 2 cornetti, 3 trombones and basso continuo. We know, however, that a work such as this mass wouldn't have been performed with only this group of just over twenty players, particularly at an event of such importance as this at the Cathedral. We know that the Salzburg archbishop's were particularly fond of services in the cathedral at which all of the available musicians took part. Indeed, there were a large number of musicians available to the Archbishop, and there were several institutions in Salzburg responsible for training musicians. The most notable of these were attached to the Cathedral, one in particular, the Choirboys' Institute, housed the choirboys who sang in the Cathedral. There were usually sixteen choirboys who were housed, fed, educated and clothed at the expense of the court, and they were taught plainchant, instrumental tuition and concerted music by court musicians, including Biber for a time. According to payment records, the court and cathedral musicians numbered about seventy-five to eighty in total throughout most of the seventeenth century, and of these, it seems that about fifty were capable of performing regularly in concerted vocal music, such as the Missa Bruxellensis.

The Missa Bruxellensis only survives in score format, but it is possible to get some idea about the number of instrumentalists and singers who might have been used in a performance in Salzburg Cathedral by looking at the manuscript parts for Biber's other vocal works which survive. Apart from writing numerous instrumental sonatas and suites for which Biber is most famous today, he also wrote eight settings of the mass, and two requiem masses, and numerous other vocal church compositions. Manuscript parts survive for most of these compositions, many in Salzburg Cathedral. The manuscript parts of Biber's works in Salzburg contain second copies of the chorus or 'ripieno' parts in addition to the parts for the soloists. This suggests that performances included more than one singer to a part, and that a four-part choir might be made up of eight or twelve singers. It indicates a clear distinction between solo and ripieno sections, and suggests that the works were not performed 'one to a part' as is sometimes favoured in the music of J. S. Bach. In the preface of one of his music publications in 1677, the Salzburg composer and Kappellmeister Andreas Hofer, under whom Biber served until Hofer's death in 1684, wrote that 'the letter S [meaning solo] characterises single voices, in contrast to which, R [meaning ripieno] designates a fuller vocal choir, if there is a sufficiently large number of musicians to permit this; anyone who suffers from a lack of singers must do without it'. This suggests, then, that the norm for such performances in Salzburg at this time was more than one-per-part in the chorus, although concerted works could be performed one-to-a-part if there were not sufficient performers available.

In this evening's performance, the Academy of Ancient Music will be attempting to preserve certain aspects of performance practice from late-seventeenth-century Salburg. For example, there will be more than one singer per part in each of the choirs—in addition to the soloists—and there will be more than one string player per part in the performance. In addition, the number of trumpets will be doubled from four to eight, and there will be four cornetti rather than the two indicated in the score. This will mean that in the ripieno sections—those involving the whole ensemble—the trumpets and cornetti will be doubled, but not in the solo sections.

We can glean clues about performance practices in Salzburg Cathedral from other sources, such as contemporary engravings. There is one particularly famous engraving, prepared by Melchior Küsel in 1682, which shows a service—probably mass—taking place in the Cathedral in which numerous instrumentalists and vocalists were involved. You can see this engraving reproduced on your handout [3 (75kb)]. Whilst this engraving may not represent a specific service at the Cathedral, it probably gives a good idea of the general layout of performers in the Cathedral at important services. In the engraving you can see vocalists and instrumentalists positioned in various places around the building, namely, at ground level in the 'choir'—on both sides of the cathedral—and also on the four organ galleries which are to be seen on the four pillars of the Cathedral's main intersection. We know that these four organ galleries were in place during most, if not all of Biber's time in Salzburg, and although they were subsequently removed, they were rebuilt in the early 1980s, so it is now possible to reconstruct to some extent a performance of a mass in Salzburg Cathedral with the performers positioned around the building in the way that they may have been during the seventeenth century. The result is, if you like, a form of seventeenth century quadraphonic sound.

Close analysis of this engraving gives us some idea about how the performers required for the Missa Bruxellensis might have been positioned in the Cathedral for a performance. If you look at the descriptive diagram of this on your handout, on the opposite side to the engraving, I shall explain how the performers may have been positioned [2 (5.5kb). The mass is scored for five main groups of singers or instrumentalists. There are two vocal choirs (chorus I and chorus II) as well as vocal soloists, a group of four trumpets, a group consisting of two cornetti and three trombones, and a string group (two violins and three violas). In Salzburg Cathedral in the seventeenth century the two vocal choirs (Chorus I and Chorus II) would have been positioned on the ground in the 'Choir' area of the Cathedral. The strings might have been on the front right gallery and the group of cornetti and trombones on the front left gallery, and the trumpets may have been split, with two in each of the rear galleries left and right. The vocal soloists would probably have been distributed between the four organ galleries. This is the distribution of performers which is suggested by Küsel's engraving, but it also suits the musical style of the Missa Bruxellensis. For example, whilst much of the mass is made up of duets or trios for vocal or instrumental soloists, when all of the ensemble plays together the strings often double chorus I so it makes sense to have them positioned on the same side of the building. The same is true of chorus II and the cornetti and trombones. Also, the strings often play themes or motives which are then answered by the group consisting of cornetti and trombones, or vice versa. The same is true of the two vocal choruses. This device, known as antiphony, when one group of instruments or voices plays or sings a theme or motive which is then answered by another is maximised when the groups are positioned on opposite sides of the building. Also, the vocal soloists often engage in this question and answer dialogue, so it would make sense to have them positioned on opposite sides of the building.

The Academy of Ancient Music is attempting to reconstruct this aspect of performance practice from late-seventeenth-century Salzburg cathedral to some extent this evening here in the Royal Albert Hall. Obviously, it is not possible to replicate conditions in Salzburg Cathedral exactly, as the Albert Hall is a considerably different building—not least in shape—to Salzburg Cathedral. The aim then, is to spread the performers out as much as possible, using a layout which replicates what might have happened in Salzburg Cathedral, but also one which works in the Albert Hall, and at the same time gives the audience a true sense of the antiphonal aspects of the music. This evening the trumpet group will be positioned at the top of the choir stalls on the left-hand side (that is, your left-hand side as you face the stage) and the cornetti and trombones will be positioned on the top right-hand side. Choir I will be below the trumpets on the left, and Choir II on the right below the Cornetti. Each choir will have its own supporting organ as it would have had in Salzburg Cathedral. The string ensemble and continuo—comprising organ, three lutes, 'cello, 2 bassoons and timpani—will all be positioned on the stage. The soloists for choir I will be positioned at the front of the stage on the left-hand side, and the soloists for choir II on the right hand side.

Before we end, I'd like to play you an extract from the 'Credo' of Biber's Missa Christi resurgentis, a mass which he wrote in 1673 or 74, some twenty or twenty five years before the Missa Bruxellensis. In the Missa Christi resurgentis one finds many seeds of a compositional style which Biber was to use in his other masses. This work demonstrates the use and importance of antiphony in Biber's works written for Salzburg Cathedral, and the constant regrouping of the ensemble to form various trios and duets (instrumental and vocal) which are such a feature of the Missa Bruxellensis. You will also notice the prominence of the trumpets and the bass soloists, which are also both important features of the Missa Bruxellensis. Note also the chromatic harmonies at the text 'Crucifixus etiam pro nobis' (meaning 'and was crucified also for us') and the descending melody for the text 'et descendit di coelis' (meaning 'and descended from heaven'), both of which have parallels in the Missa Bruxellensis.

This is a recording of a live performance of the Missa Christi resurgentis, performed here by the English Concert directed from the violin by Andrew Manze.

[Music example played, but permission not sought to add here.]

For those of you who haven't heard any of Biber's vocal music before, you now have something to compare the Missa Bruxellensis with, when you hear it this evening. If anyone manages to confirm for certain who wrote the Missa Bruxellensis, please do let me know!

(c) Dr James Clements