As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Thus, by a coincidence of his shopping schedule, Achleitner happened to rescue the Missa Salisburgensis, or Salzburg Mass, known today to be the largest surviving composition from the Baroque era. It would come to be recognized as one of the most important historical works of music, and it would certainly cement its composer’s place as a master at the forefront of the era…if experts could figure out who wrote it.

Now that it was safely in his hands, Achleitner could see that the work’s expanse was perhaps the least impressive thing about it. The score called for no fewer than 53 parts divided into 7 ensembles. It made heavy use of antiphony, a form of “call and response” between competing sections of the orchestra, and frequently regrouped instruments to create impromptu trios and duets within the larger melodic themes, like eddies in a river. Such complex layering would have been impressively forward-thinking even in Achleitner’s day, and these yellowed pages were clearly much older than that.

A more modern reproduction of a section of the found music (1903)
A more modern reproduction of a section of the found music (1903)

Achleitner carefully delivered the manuscript to the scholars at the Cathedral Music Association and Mozarteum. This institution, often referred to as simply ‘the Mozarteum’, had been established only a few decades earlier by the widow of the famous Wolfgang, in order to preserve the ancient musical history of Salzburg. It boasted some of the most skilled musical archivists in the region, and they confirmed that this was a never-before-seen piece, which they believed to have been written in 1628 by the Italian composer Orazio Benevoli.

Unfortunately, the Salisburgensis then quickly sank back into obscurity even after having been lost for two centuries and narrowly escaping a permanent vegetative state. Without performance, it’s questionable if music even is music, and many ancient works sit relatively unknown in museums around the world⁠—the symphonic equivalent of a tree falling in the forest⁠—waiting for someone to invest in the cost of publication.

Such was the fate of the Salisburgensis for another 100 years, until a young Ph.D. named Ernst Hintermaier stepped in⁠—not to honor Orazio Benevoli, but to prove the Mozarteum wrong.

The Missa Salisburgensis first came to Hintermaier’s attention in 1969, when it was published for the first time as part of a collection of Benevoli’s works. Tucked in among the historical notes was the Mozarteum archivists’ assertion that the original mass was an ‘autograph’⁠—that is, written in the composer’s own hand. As a musicologist whose doctoral research had focused on the Salzburg court, Hintermaier did not especially know the oeuvre of an Italian such as Benevoli, but he was intimately familiar with the manuscript libraries in Salzburg⁠—so familiar, in fact, that he had come to recognize the handwriting of the various composers and scribes whose work was held there, and he knew the Salisburgensis was definitely not written in Benevoli’s hand.

Instead, the handwriting resembled the work of a man identified only as “Copyist no. III,” a scribe who was responsible for many other works in the Salzburg archives. Placed side by side, the match was undeniable. This did not yet call the mass’s provenance into question, since the music may still have flowed from Benevoli’s mind, if not his pen. But Copyist no. III had been professionally active in Salzburg only during the last third of the 17th century, about 50 years after the mass was supposed to have been written. It was still possible, albeit by a slim margin of years, that an elderly Benevoli had hired the copyist to transcribe the Salisburgensis immediately before his death. At the very least, the Mozarteum had missed the origin date by half a century.

The handwriting’s implications did not stop there. A second, unattributed mass named the Missa Bruxellensis had recently been discovered in the Royal Library in Belgium, and it contained the same ordered layout and penmanship as the Missa Salisburgensis. Based on the assumption that the Salisburgensis was in Benevoli’s writing, the academic world had accepted that the somewhat smaller Bruxellensis was his as well. The pieces certainly matched stylistically, with the Bruxellensis again employing antiphony and regrouping, and generally possessing an instrumentation so complex that a modern scientist might compare it to a fractal. Even with the latest revelations about Copyist no. III, it seemed indisputable that the two masses had been composed by the same person, regardless of whether composer and transcriber had been a matched pair instead of a single individual.

Hintermaier went on to examine the Bruxellensis. This time, he didn’t focus on who had put pen to paper, but rather the paper itself. Like branded cattle on a farm, paper mills at the time used watermarks to identify the location and owner of the mill where the paper was produced. Though the Bruxellensis had somehow made its way to Belgium, both masses were printed on paper from the Lengfelden mill near Salzburg. The watermark was a stylized “wild man” escutcheon wearing a loin cloth and helmet, which had been in use from about 1650 to 1800.

An approximation of the watermarks
An approximation of the watermarks

Closer inspection revealed that the Salisburgensis bore the initials F.W. for Franz Wörz, in charge of the mill from 1666 to 1696, while the Bruxellensis watermark read I.W. to indicate Ioseph (Joseph) Wörz⁠—the son of Franz⁠—who ran things from 1696 to 1702. Thus, while the Salisburgensis could have been written as early as 1666 ⁠— still in the last few years of Benevoli’s life ⁠— the Bruxellensis was undeniably from 1696 or later, almost a quarter of a century after his death. If the same person composed both masses, as everyone agreed, then Benevoli didn’t compose either of them. They had been orphaned once again.

With the help of the watermarks, the date range had been firmly established, and the Mozarteum’s attribution successfully refuted on all accounts. Hintermaier’s greatest challenge now lay in proving the true authorship of these remarkable pieces. Despite the Bruxellensis’ sojourn into Brussels, it seemed most likely that the composer had lived and worked in Salzburg. Both the paper mill and the copyist resided there, and had been utilized by the mystery composer over the course of several decades. More generally speaking, the city had been a musical nexus for centuries⁠—home to 18th century greats like Mozart and Haydn, but also modern ones like Christian Doppler and Herbert von Karajan⁠—and there were only so many places in Europe where a piece as large as the Salisburgensis could have amassed enough musicians and singers to perform it at all. After careful analysis of the composers in the area during the time the masses were printed, only two candidates emerged⁠—either Andreas Hofer, or his protegé Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

Both of these men worked for the Prince Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph in the Salzburg court in the latter half of the 17th century. Hofer was made kapellmeister, or director of music, in 1666, and he took an immediate liking to Biber when the younger violinist arrived at court a few years later. Biber was promoted to vice-kapellmeister in 1679, and the two worked even more closely together until Hofer’s death five years later. Both were composing music during the years of the Salisburgensis and the Bruxellensis, both were in a professional position to stage them for performance, and both had the talent⁠—theoretically⁠—to create works of such magnitude.

Hintermaier laid out the evidence for each:

Nothing of Hofer’s was ever lost, whereas it seemed nearly everything Biber ever created was lost for some length of time. A total of nine compositions survive by Hofer, with no contemporary documents (such as library catalogs) indicating the titles of other works that may have been misplaced or destroyed. By comparison Biber was exceedingly prolific, with 145 separate pieces surviving today, both large and small, with evidence of roughly 100 additional lost works. Oddly enough, the simple fact that the Salisburgensis and the Bruxellensis had been lost in the first place was a slight mark in Biber’s favor.

Despite the limited number, all of Hofer’s works were large-scale, and two were masses like the ones Hintermaier was attempting to attribute. Biber’s compositions, on the other hand, ranged practically everywhere, from sonatas and ensembles to cantatas and requiems. But among his large-scale pieces there were no fewer than eight masses, and many of them relied heavily on antiphony and ensemble regrouping⁠—just as the two unlabeled masses did.

The men’s careers matched their respective bodies of work: Hofer’s career was minimalist and straightforward, while Biber’s read on the grand, winding scale of a classic underdog genius.

Biber had been serving as musician and personal valet to a bishop in the Moravian town of Kroměříž when, at the age of 26, his master sent him on a trip across the country to buy instruments from a particular violin-maker. The merchant waited for young Biber to arrive, but he never did. Instead, Biber repurposed his traveling funds to go to Salzburg, where he managed to secure a personal audition with the Prince Archbishop. His Holiness was probably unaware of Biber’s recent abandonment of his post, but given the obvious talent before him, it’s possible that he hired Biber in spite of it.

An example of deliberate mis-tuning (note crossed strings). Source: Wikipedia
An example of deliberate mis-tuning (note crossed strings). Source: Wikipedia

Biber’s ability to innovate showed itself immediately. Within his first few years in Salzburg, he dedicated a collection of sonatas to his employer that would eventually become one of his most famous works⁠—after, of course, it became lost for hundreds of years, and was rediscovered and published in 1905. Meant to symbolize the 15 so-called ‘mysteries of the rosary,’ the Mystery Sonatas feature a technique called scordatura, which calls for a deliberate mis-tuning of the strings in order to play chords that would otherwise be difficult-to-impossible on a given instrument. This creates a cognitive dissonance for the trained musician, as the fingers play one note but the ear hears another.

Of all the musical inventions during the Baroque era, scordatura was perhaps the most revolutionary, and yet Biber was not content to merely keep pace with his contemporaries. He demanded a different tuning for each individual sonata, and in the climactic piece known as The Resurrection (sonata 11), he even required two of the violin’s strings to be crossed above the fingerboard and below the bridge, placing the higher-pitched string below the lower. Modern-day performances, when they are attempted, are usually accomplished by laying out over a dozen pre-tuned violins to be used in quick succession.

It was also during his early years in Salzburg that Biber composed his famed Battalia, in which he once again pushed the boundaries of not only what instruments could play, but how they could be played at all. Biber instructed his musicians to beat the strings with the wooden backs of their bows to evoke gunfire, weave paper among the strings to make a bass sound like a snare drum, and play popular folk songs off key and on top of each other to simulate a crowd of drunkenly singing soldiers. Far beyond what could be called Baroque, these techniques are more usually associated with modernist composers of the 20th century. His Sonata Representativa attempted to imitate the sounds of animals, while his Sonata Sancti Polycarpi was written for eight trumpets plus one timpani ⁠— all at a time when simply allowing an orchestra to play without singers was considered so revolutionary that it could be described as Baroque instead of Renaissance on that basis alone.

Biber’s mentor Hofer, on the other hand, played a supporting role at best within the Baroque movement. His masses, while large enough to be in the same league as the Salisburgensis and Bruxellensis, were otherwise standard compositions for the era.

It was Biber who routinely strained conventions to their limits, and it seemed apparent that the skill and stylistic brashness needed to pull off a piece as complex as the Missa Salisburgensis were his as well.

Hintermaier ultimately left the door open for others to judge, but subsequent scholars have all agreed that both it and the Bruxellensis were composed by Biber, while simultaneously acknowledging for the first time his many musical innovations. It may have taken hundreds of years to rediscover each one’s existence, but often the original inspiration came decades or even centuries before the men generally credited for the idea.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Source: Wikipedia
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Source: Wikipedia

Biber wrote his Passacaglia for solo violin 44 years before Bach’s famous solo violin sonatas, and created the sounds of war with Bartók pizzicato (that is, plucking the string so hard it snaps back against the instrument) nearly 250 years before it was named after Bartók. The 18th century musicologist Charles Burney called Biber’s work the most “difficult and most fanciful” of any Baroque composer, while Paul Hindemith wrote in the early 1900s that Biber was second only to Bach.

Even the violin-maker whom Biber had snubbed in his youth described him later as “the superb virtuoso Herr Biber,” and the bishop of Kroměříž seems to have forgiven him almost immediately for seeking greater fortune. It probably helped that Biber never forgot his humble origins. Much of his work in Salzburg was dedicated to his former master, and sent back to Kroměříž to be preserved in the archives there. As for how so many of his works in Salzburg became lost, or how the Missa Salisburgensis ended up in a grocer’s scrap pile, no one knows, but Kroměříž seems to be the chief location where Biber’s works were not lost after his death.

Sitting quietly among these protected pieces is also the earliest extant opera ever composed in Salzburg, and the only opera of Biber’s that survives, though he is believed to have written many. For one of the Baroque era’s finest composers, who had waited so long to receive due recognition, its title seems oddly prophetic: Chi la Dura la Vince, or “Those Who Endure Will Win.”