Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Musical Arts




De Souza, Jonathan G.

2nd Supervisor

Wiebe, Thomas



This monograph examines musical signification in Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas (ca. 1678), a set of sixteen pieces for violin and continuo. The sonatas are mostly known for their striking use of scordatura (altered tuning) and the copper-engraved illustrations in the original manuscript that reference the Mysteries of the Rosary, a meditative Marian practice that originated in the Middle Ages. Musical signification and meaning in the Rosary Sonatas have been widely discussed in recent years. The sonatas have been studied in terms of programmaticism and rhetoric, and scholars have proposed the application of broader analytical views that encompass aspects of Biber’s spiritual affiliations as a Bohemian-Austrian baroque Kapellmeister in Salzburg, who was closely related to Rosary confraternities (Gilles 2018, Strand-Polyak 2013). Building on this earlier work, I apply Robert Hatten’s theory of virtual agency to the Rosary Sonatas (Hatten 2018). This theory grants agency to diverse elements of music through perspectives such as gesture, movement, and embodiment, among others. It is divided into four levels of agency: Actants, Agents, Actors, and Subjectivity. Hatten also includes an appendix level called Performance where an analyst/performer can offer practical, performative suggestions that sustain the analytical findings of the previous levels.

Through the application of the theory of virtual agency, I produce interpretative results that greatly enhanced my relationship with and understanding of two Rosary Sonatas, The Annunciation and The Agony. In both cases, the results are subjective and personal but still grounded in Biber’s music. They have practical significance for an analyst/performer as I offer applications to articulation, bowing, choices about dynamic contrast, pacing, among others. Ultimately, the theory of virtual agency not only helped to interpret Biber’s sonatas but to further manifest their connection with the Mysteries of the Rosary.

Summary for Lay Audience

This monograph examines a set of sixteen pieces for violin and accompaniment composed in the baroque era by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). These pieces are called the Rosary Sonatas, because illustrations in the original manuscript reference the Mysteries of the Rosary. (The Rosary is a Catholic meditative practice that originated in the Middle Ages, and its Mysteries are significant events in the life of Jesus and Mary.) Through the lens of Robert Hatten’s theory of virtual agency, I explore musical meaning in two of the sonatas: “The Annunciation” and “The Agony”. Hatten’s theory grants agency (i.e., the capacity to act) to diverse musical elements. By analyzing musical gestures, I identify such elements and imagine them as virtual characters within a musical narrative or environment. Finally, I present a subjective interpretation of the sonatas, supported by my analysis, along with performance suggestions for violinists. This monograph is one of the first studies to apply Hatten’s theory and shows how it enhances the interpretation and understanding of music. The monograph also discusses Biber’s biography, background information on Hatten’s theory, and the manuscript for the Rosary Sonatas, including a novel interpretation of its ending ornaments.

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