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ClassicsOnline Home » WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Barto) - Nos. 11, 42, 49
Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750)
Sonatas for Lute, Vol. 1
By the end of the seventeenth century the lute had lost much of its traditional high esteem in the musical life of France, Italy and England. French lutenists had largely led the way in lute playing since around 1600, and had developed special tunings and a famous precieux style of performance which was highly admired throughout Europe. Many young amateur and professional lutenists from Austria, Silesia, Bohemia and Germany actually studied with, or at least were greatly influenced by, the great French luthistes such as the Gaultiers, Ennemond le vieux and Denis, François Dufault, Charles Mouton and Jacques Gallot. To the conventional French Suite form, in which a sequence of dances, often preceded by a quasi-improvised prelude, was performed in a more-or-less fixed order, they added certain aspects of local colour and of course their own compositional character. Freed from the restraints of Parisian conventional bon gout, lute music evolved steadily in the East of Europe, while in France it suffered a severe decline to the point where the instrument was hardly to be heard at all in Paris during the 1720s.
Mention of amateur lutenists as pupils of the great French players should not imply that these dilettantes were not sometime players of great distinction. They had in common, however, one important social distinction: almost without exception they were members of the aristocracy. Playing the lute or another instrument, along with fencing, horsemanship, dancing and etiquette, still formed an essential part of many a young nobleman's education. The principal, and most expensive, musical diversion for the German aristocracy was, of course, Italian opera, which, as always, consumed vast resources, but at the same time provided employment for hundreds of Italian composers, poets, singers, dancers and stage designers. The musical effect on lute music was to shift the emphasis of composition and performance away from the restrained and microscopically subtle exploitation of the harmonic effect of small melodic motifs (the style precieux) towards a legato cantabile line over a clearly-defined bass, in an instrumental evocation of Italian bel canto.
A true cantabile is not easy to achieve on a plucked-string instrument, whereas it is very natural to the violin, for example. Certain technical features of the lute of the time — especially the sympathetic resonance of its many bass strings — were especially exploited to this effect by German lutenists during the early eighteenth century. The greatest of these, especially praised for his cantabile playing, was Silvius Leopold Weiss, born in Breslau, capital of Silesia, (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1686. He studied lute playing with his father from the age of ten, and within the next decade was in the service of the local Prince-Bishop as a lutenist. Soon he moved to Düsseldorf where he was engaged by the Palatine Court, as were his father and his brother, both of them fine lutenists. In 1708 he was appointed one of a number of musicians accompanying Prince Aleksander Sobieski, the son of the deposed Queen of Poland, who went to join his mother in exile in Rome. Weiss stayed in Italy until 1714, when Prince Aleksander died after a long consumptive illness.
Doubtless the first-hand experience of Italian musical life, in particular performances by Corelli and the Scarlattis, Alessandro and his son Domenico, had a profound effect on the music of Weiss himself. A handful of pieces has survived from prior to the Italian period, and we have a few more probably composed there; both suggest that his compositional technique was already remarkably sound, as was that of the young Handel when he had arrived in Italy a few years before. It is not known who taught Weiss composition, but his oeuvre of over six hundred solo pieces and many works for the lute and various chamber ensembles (all tragically incomplete) show that in this respect he towers above all the other lutenists of his age. Indeed, but for the fact that he never worked in any genre than those idiomatic to the lute (as far as we know), he would probably be regarded as a significant German composer to be ranked not far below J. S. Bach himself.
After a few years in service at Cassel and then as a traveling virtuoso, Weiss obtained a lucrative post in 1718 at the magnificent Dresden court, where the Elector, August "the Strong" (also, ironically, King of Poland, and thus the direct rival to his former employers, the Sobieskis), had established the leading orchestra in Europe. Weiss stayed at Dresden until his death in 1750, performing for the Elector, his family and for visiting dignitaries, and taking his place in the opera orchestra as one of the principal accompanists. Such was the value attached to his playing (and, we might suppose, to his compositions) that he eventually became the highest-paid instrumentalist at Dresden ; not even the considerable financial inducements offered by the Viennese court could tempt him away.
All the music in this recital comes from a manuscript collection now at Dresden 's Sächsisches Landesbibliothek. It contains 34 Sonatas (Weiss's preferred term) or Suites for solo lute and a number of lute parts for ensemble works whose other instrumental parts have been lost. Five Sonatas are in Weiss's own hand, and much of the music, including the D minor Sonata, can also be found in another large collection now at the British Library in London. The special distinction of the Dresden collection is that it contains the unique copies of much of Weiss's finest late works for solo lute. This music, composed in his full maturity, was closely guarded by the composer during his lifetime, according to contemporary reports.
Sonata No. 11 in D minor * opens with a Fantasie that is found in two other manuscripts entitled prelude. The confusion of titles is characteristic of lute genres. The lute was very much a vehicle for improvisation throughout its three-hundred-year history, and Weiss's skill in this regard was more than once compared with that of J.S. Bach. Pieces of this sort, whose rhythm is not notated fully, leaving the details of performance largely up to the player, survive from all periods. Weiss clearly expected his pupils (for whom his music was probably written down) to improvise their preludes. Most of his sonatas have none, but they have sometimes been added later to the manuscript, in a few cases by Weiss himself.
The sonata seems to be from the 1720s. The movements are of moderate length and difficulty, but show good examples of expansive Italianate cantabile writing, especially in the Allemande and Sarabande, while the lively Gavotte (whose rhythmic style owes more to the folksy bourrée than to the stately French gavotte) and the exciting Giga depend rather more on Weiss's legendary virtuosity, which always bubbles to the surface in faster movements.
The B flat sonata, No. 49, starts at once with a pensive Allemande, and is a somewhat weightier piece. It comes from later in the decade; in fact its last movement was published in 1728 by Georg Philip Telemann in his periodical, Der getreue Musikmeister, in an extremely accurate version which suggests that Weiss himself sent a copy of the music to Telemann in Hamburg. Sadly, this was the only music by Weiss to be published before our own century. The Sarabande, in G minor, is especially deeply felt, with parallel sixths reminiscent of two voices singing in duet. The Presto is a perpetuum mobile of a type Weiss seems to have enjoyed, although it is so idiomatically conceived as to present relatively few serious technical challenges to Telemann's amateur audience.
The A minor Sonata, No. 42, must be a late work which could have been composed in the late 1730s, although we have precious little evidence to help with dating any of Weiss's mature music. On the evidence of the musical style alone, it seems rather similar to the Sonata in A major, No. 47, which, it has recently been discovered, was actually arranged by J.S. Bach for violin and harpsichord (BWV 1025). Both works may have been played in 1739 when Weiss and a pupil visited Bach in Leipzig, a time when the Bach household resounded to "extra-special music", as reported by a junior member of the family. This is speculation, however; what is beyond dispute is the quality of the music, which is among Weiss's finest achievements, each movement — even the menuet — unfolding in an unbroken succession of marvelously inventive ideas. It is conceived on the grandest scale, and yet composed with the great performer's feel for what works best on the instrument.
In this late sonata all the movements are more extended than in earlier works; at its heart are an Allegro and a Bourrée of unusually generous proportions, and the sonata as a whole uses the full range of Weiss's adventurous harmonic palette. This is the work of a composer and player thoroughly at ease with and in total command of his instrument, and confident of an appreciative audience.
The sad truth is that within a decade of Weiss's death that audience had all but disappeared. Dresden lay in ruins under the guns of one of his former royal lute pupils, Frederick the Great. Musical history had now passed the lute by, and without a player of Weiss's stature to sustain it, the instrument gradually all but disappeared. Even though a few players survived into the nineteenth century, the lute has had to wait two centuries for its revival in the hands of today's dedicated players.
* The numbering is derived from that in the complete edition published under the auspices of Das Erbe deutscher Musik : vols 1-4, the London MS, edited by Douglas A. Smith (Peters Edition, Frankfurt 1983-90); Vols 5-8, the Dresden MS, edited by Tim Crawford (Bärenreiter, Kassel, forthcoming)
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