Violinist Tekla Cunningham performs the Five Joyful Mysteries from H.I.F. von Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. Each sonata calls for a differing scordatura tuning of the violin, accentuating the character of each piece. The performance is one of three Cunningham will perform in Seattle-area venues, to complete the full cycle of 15 sonatas in the spring of 2023. With Henry Lebedinsky, organ and harpsichord; and David Morris, viola da gamba.
The Joyful Mysteries
1. The Annunciation (Standard Tuning) ( G3—D4—A4—E5)
2. The Visitation (A3—E4—A4—E5)
3. The Nativity (B3—F#4—B4—D5)
4. The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple (A3—D4—A4—D5)
5. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple (A3—E4—A4—C#5)
The Mystery Sonatas
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Rosary Sonatas
A soulful journey into the heart of the Baroque
The leading violin virtuoso of the 17th century, Biber composed music ranging from intimate sonatas for violin and continuo to the Missa Salisburgensis (Salzburg Mass), a massive work in the Colossal Baroque style scored for 53 separate voices arranged in 7 choirs for the ultimate in surround sound experience. Also known as the Rosary Sonatas, these three sets of 5 sonatas for violin and continuo (plus a concluding Passacaglia for solo violin) were completed around 1676. Dedicated to the Archbishop Gandolph in Salzburg, these sonatas are as compelling, affecting and moving as they were when they were written almost 350 years ago. Scored for a single violin supported by continuo, Biber employs a different tuning for each sonata. Only the first sonata (the Annunciation) and the final Passacaglia share the standard G-D-A-E tuning. This technique of mistuning the violin, called scordatura, gives a tremendous range of affects and emotions to this music. Retuning brings the violin into different key areas and creates a kaleidoscope of overtones and sonic effects, helping Biber to create specific feelings or affects in the listener.
The Joyful Mysteries explore the early life of Jesus. In the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel brings the news of Jesus’ conception and birth to a bewildered Mary. The Visitation tells the story of Mary’s visit to a pregnant Elizabeth (whose son went on to be John the Baptist). The Nativity shows the baby Jesus born in a manger and the celebration that would become Christmas. The Presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple describes Mary’s purification after childbirth, and a sacrificial offering of a pair of turtledoves, a pair of rituals proscribed in the Torah 40 days after birth. Most children get a little bit lost at some point and wander off chasing grocery carts or butterflies. When Mary and Joseph lost track of their 12-year-old son Jesus on a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they found him days later still in Temple, deep in discussion with the elders. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple is the last of the Joyful Mysteries.
A fascinating and unique feature of these sonatas are the copper-plate engravings printed at the beginning of each sonata depicting the story of the sonata. Humans have printed art, maps, words, music on various materials for millennia. In recent years I have been baking springerle cookies during the holiday season. While pressing cookies last year and looking at Biber’s copper-plate engravings I began to consider how these two very different printing technologies might have been used to tell the same stories at a time when literacy rates were much lower than today. To make springerle, wooden carved molds are pressed into a simple dough leavened by beaten egg whites and hartshorn (baker’s ammonia, originally made from ground stag antlers). Designs range from simple flowers or animals to highly ornate, vividly detailed molds. Replica molds are readily available, and for this first set of “Joyful Mysteries” I have located a replica Nativity Mold from 1654. Enjoying a springerle cookie pressed with the Nativity scene is the ultimate in embodiment!
While these sonatas spring from a specific tradition of Marian devotion, the music is accessible to all. You do not need to belong to any faith tradition to experience awe, joy, and comfort in these pieces. A fundamental experience that we as humans share is our incarnation in human bodies. One way or another, we were all born. Tracing the life of Jesus asks us to trace and reflect on trajectory of our own lives. From birth to death and beyond, we are invited to live along with Jesus’ life, and to share the joys and sorrows of Mary, his mother. These sonatas reach for the heavens from a very rooted place on earth and build a cathedral of sound. The great American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan describes this process so beautifully –
“But so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it.”
—Notes by Tekla Cunningham
Henry Lebedinsky, organ, harpsichord
Hailed by The Miami Herald for his “superb continuo… brilliantly improvised and ornamented,” GRAMMY-nominated historical keyboardist, composer, and conductor Henry Lebedinsky has performed with the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, Seraphic Fire, Sonoma Bach, and the Cantata Collective, among others. Recent conducting engagements include the Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Sonoma Bach’s Live Oak Baroque Orchestra. As part of a career built on collaboration, he serves as co-Artistic Director of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks and the San Francisco Bay Area’s AGAVE. With countertenor Reginald L. Mobley, he has spent the past dozen years introducing listeners near and far to music by Black composers from the past two and a half centuries, including recent appearances at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and Festival Printemps Musical des Alizés in Morocco.
In 2014, he founded Seattle’s Early Music Underground, which brought Baroque music to brewpubs, wineries, and other places where people gather, and presenting it in multimedia contexts which both entertain and educate. In the middle of the pandemic, he launched his newest venture, Classical Uncorked, (http://classicaluncorked.com) an artist-driven music cooperative that blends music, wine, spirits, and good company while seeking to center both performers and repertoire from historically excluded populations. More importantly, it is dedicated to modeling an alternative to the rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal and often systemically racist governance and funding models that still dominate many arts organizations.
An avid composer of music for choir and organ, his sacred music is published by Paraclete Press, Carus-Verlag Stuttgart, and CanticaNOVA. Mr. Lebedinsky is a former music critic for FANFARE Magazine and blogs about single malt whiskey at www.Scotchology.com. Mr. Lebedinsky holds degrees from Bowdoin College and the Longy School of Music, where he earned a Master of Music in historical organ performance as a student of Peter Sykes. A church musician for the past 28 years, he currently serves as Organist and Choirmaster at Seattle’s historic Christ Episcopal Church.
David Morris, viola de gamba
David Morris is a member of The King’s Noyse, the Galax Quartet, Quicksilver and NYS Baroque. He has performed with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Tragicomedia, Tafelmusik, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Musica Pacifica, American Bach Soloists, Musica Angelica, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, the Mark Morris Dance Company, and Seattle’s Pacific Musicworks. He was the founder and musical director of the Bay Area baroque opera ensemble Teatro Bacchino, and has produced operas for the Berkeley Early Music Festival and the San Francisco Early Music Society series.
David received his B.A. and M.A. in Music from U.C. Berkeley, and has been a guest instructor in early music performance-practice at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mills College, Oberlin College, the Madison Early Music Festival and Cornell University. He has recorded for Harmonia Mundi, New Albion, Dorian, New World Records, Drag City Records (with Joanna Newsom) and New Line Cinema.
Tekla Cunningham, baroque violin, viola and viola d'amore, enjoys a varied and active musical life. At home in Seattle, she is concertmaster of Stephen Stubbs' Pacific MusicWorks, principal second violin with Seattle Baroque Orchestra & Soloists, and plays regularly as concertmaster and principal player with the American Bach Soloists in California. She directs the Whidbey Island Music Festival, a summer concert series presenting vibrant period-instrument performances of repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Beethoven.
She has appeared as concertmaster/leader or soloist with the American Bach Soloists, Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and Musica Angelica (Los Angeles). She has also played with Apollo’s Fire, Los Angeles Opera, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and at the Carmel Bach Festival, San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, Indianapolis Early Music Festival, Savannah Music Festival and the Bloomington Early Music Festival. She has worked with many leading directors including Rinaldo Alessandrini, Giovanni Antonini, Harry Bicket, Paul Goodwin, Martin Haselböck, Monica Huggett, Nic McGegan, Rachel Podger, Jordi Savall, Stephen Stubbs, Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Bruno Weil.
An avid chamber musician, Tekla enjoys exploring the string quartet repertoire of the 18th and early 19th century with the period-instrument Novello Quartet, whose abiding interest is the music of Haydn. She is also a member of La Monica, an ensemble dedicated to music of the 17th century, whose concerts have been reviewed as “sizzling”, and praised for their “irrepressible energy and pitch-perfect timing”. With Jillon Dupree, harpsichord, and Vicki Boeckman, recorders, she plays in Ensemble Electra, known for its inventive programs and energetic performances.
She can be heard on recordings with the American Bach Soloists, Apollo’s Fire, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco Bach Choir, various movie soundtracks including Disney’s Casanova, La Monica’s recent release The Amorous Lyre, a recording of repertoire of Merula and his contemporaries and the Novello Quartet’s recording of Haydn’s Op. 50 string quartets. This summer she recorded Mozart’s Flute Quartets with Janet See, Laurie Wells and Tanya Tomkins.
Tekla received her musical training at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory (where she studied History and German Literature in addition to violin), Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, in Vienna, Austria, and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she completed a Master’s degree with Ian Swenson. She teaches Suzuki violin in both German and English and is on the early music faculty of Cornish College for the Arts.