ClassicsOnline Home » WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 4 (Barto) - Nos. 21, 37, 46
By Frank Hilberg
Sonatas for Lute Volume 4
No.46 in A major * No.21 in F minor * No.37 in C major
Silvius Leopold Weiss, whose compositions for his instrument are at last beginning to receive the recognition they deserve, was acknowledged by many writers as the outstanding lute player of his era. His powers of improvisation, in particular, were extraordinary; he was said to rival the skill in extempore composition of his exact contemporary, J.S. Bach. Weisss biography is the subject of recent musicological detective work, especially in Germany, Poland and Italy, and some details, such as a revised year of birth, are only becoming clear for the first time as this note is being written. Significant results of this study will be reported in the notes to the next CD in this series, but meanwhile the reader is referred to the notes to volumes 1 to 3, which include a summary of his life and achievements. The music recorded here probably all originated in his mature years, while he was employed at the Dresden court (1717-50). It demonstrates the wide emotional range that the master improviser exploited within the self-imposed restrictions of his large-scale suites or partitas, which he himself called sonatas.
Sonata No. 46 in A major opens with an imposing overture of the French variety. The so-called French overture was developed by Lully for the Parisian court ballets and operas of the mid-seventeenth century, and was consistently used by French composers until the middle of the eighteenth. Although it was not adopted in Italy (even though Handel frequently made use of it for his Italian operas), non-French composers, especially in Germany, composed them throughout the period, the most famous German exponents being Weisss contemporaries J.S. Bach and G.P. Telemann. While it was principally an orchestral genre, many overtures were composed for solo instruments such as the harpsichord or lute. The overall plan consists of two stately outer sections, often based on the same or closely-related musical ideas, framing a central faster section in fugal style in which the instruments introduce the same theme in turn, alternating with episodes of more freely-composed music. Sometimes, as in this example by Weiss, the final return to the style and mood of the opening is omitted, and the overture ends at the culmination of the fast fugal section. In fact, according to a Breitkopf thematic catalogue of 1769, this section of the overture also existed as a self-standing fugue in a Partita Grande that has otherwise unfortunately not survived. Weiss opens several of his sonatas with overtures, and invariably omits the allemande from the ensuing suite of dance-based movements, suggesting that for him the overture was in some sense a formal substitute for the normal prelude, usually improvised, and allemande. Actually, this overtures opening is more allemande-like than usual; as we will hear, exactly the same melodic idea is used at the beginning of the Allemande of Sonata No.37 in C major. The manuscript of this sonata is in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, and was one of a large number that were badly damaged by water from fire hoses during the devastating bombing of the city in 1945. Some pages of the work have had the ink almost entirely washed out, and the music is only just legible to the naked eye at best. Fortunately, an edition of this sonata by the pioneering lutenist and musicologist, Hans Neeman, was published in 1939, and it can be seen from the latter, more legible movements that his text is on the whole reliable.
After the energetic Courante of considerable length Weiss gives us a taste of his musical wit with a quirky Bourrée which, unusually, begins in D major. This leads to a lyrical Sarabande in F sharp minor, a deceptively simple-seeming movement which exploits Weisss legendary gift for cantabile playing. The melodic line, which frequently is woven into an inner voice, is only occasionally presented in unadorned form; in particular the highly idiomatic technique of arpeggiation is used to elaborate the texture in a way quite unlike in any other composers music., except, perhaps, that of J.S. Bach. Like many Weiss minuets, the one in this sonata is far from conventional. He was fond of unusual phrase-lengths in such movements; where other composers, even Bach himself, usually stuck to the normal four-bar phrase, possibly reflecting the traditional choreography of the minuet, Weiss often inserts or removes a bar, giving frequent three- and five-bar phrases. His harmonic logic and sense of purpose, however, never fails to carry the listener over such irregularities. The opening ten bars of this minuet are treated to what sounds at first like a conventional repeat with written-out variation until, seven bars in, Weiss stops the variation, inserting instead four bars of a dominant pedal to end the first half of the minuet. The identical four bars are again inserted into the second half of the minuet, this time to be followed by a kind of coda, with its own unusual internal repetition. This almost experimental attitude to phrase-lengths in Weisss minuets is especially characteristic of his mature sonatas, after around 1720, as is the substitution in this sonata of a virtuosic and invigorating Presto for the final Gigue of the normal suite.
The contrast between the extrovert optimism of the A major sonata and the melancholic Sonata No.21 in F minor could hardly be more marked. In this tragic key, only a couple of steps away from the extremes of his two great tombeaux in B flat minor and E flat minor, we have only this sonata and an isolated allemande in similar vein from Weisss pen. It has a particularly affective resonance on the baroque lute, the basic strings of which were tuned to a D minor chord; the bright sound of open strings is thus rarely heard here. The Allemande opens with a mournful tolling over a repeated F in the bass, which then sinks to the dominant, C, by way of a descending tetrachord (F, E flat, D flat, C), a potent musical symbol of lament throughout the baroque period. This movement is, on the other hand, remarkable for its delicacy and, as so often in Weiss, the skilful use of arpeggiation as an expressive device. The sonata was composed in the fruitful year of 1719, according to a note in the London copy, at a time when Weiss was still perfecting the art of composing for the thirteen-course lute, apparently his own invention, and he uses the newly-available low notes with much discretion here. The version of the sonata recorded here comes from the Dresden manuscript, where the music seems to have been recast, probably by the composer, for the later form of thirteen-course lute with an extended neck like a theorbo, the lower bass strings of which could not be stopped by the players left hand. The sombre quality of the Allemande is present in the following Courante, and lingers throughout the sonata, as does an unusually insistent, almost stubborn quality. In the intense Sarabande, marked Adagio, Weiss maintains three contrapuntal voices consistently throughout, in the manner of a trio-sonata movement. Just as in the Suite No.27 in C minor (Naxos 8.554350), the Minuet hardly comes as light relief; this is a deeply serious movement in keeping with the sonatas melancholy tone. Light relief, of a sort, comes with the lively figuration of the concluding Gigue, although the repeated notes of the main thematic motif give the movement a strangely obsessive and unsettling quality.
No such shadows darken the unruffled surface of Sonata No.37 in C major, the autograph of which is in the Dresden manuscript, and which was probably composed not very much later than the Sonata in F minor. Close in style and in its modest technical demands to a popular Sonata No.34 in D minor, which the original owner noted was the first I learned with Mr Weiss, it, too, was probably composed for a pupil making some good progress, but it well repays the attention of a master player, being a gem of taut construction, with just enough in the way of technical challenge to reward serious attention and practice. Although Weiss rarely provided written-out preludes to his sonatas, the Prelude here is clearly intended as an integral part of the sonata, and thoroughly introduces the player and his or her audience to the character of the sunny key of C major. The Allemande, as so often in Weiss, encourages a less-experienced player to explore the singing qualities of the baroque lute, something for which Weiss was especially renowned in his own playing. The opening idea is virtually identical to that of the first section of the overture of Sonata No.46 in A major. The Courante, too, opens with an idea that Weiss used elsewhere, a broken-chord motif that is identical to the opening of an otherwise entirely different courante found in a later manuscript; such things give rise to frequent confusion for cataloguers of his music. The Bourrée is a characteristically earthy evocation of a folk-dance, another Weiss speciality, while the Sarabande is a restrained, almost miniature, example of the genre, with a typically Weissian reprise of the opening towards the middle of the second half of the dance. Then follow Minuets in C major and minor, paired in the manner of the minuet and trio of the later eighteenth century; Weiss borrowed these from a larger-scale sonata (No. 24) which otherwise would not be so suitable for a player of modest attainment. The final movement is a short Presto, which, apart from its tempo-marking, provides a not too challenging way to impress the doting family of a proud young pupil. This gem of a sonata shows that Weiss could excel in the high art of composing easy music as well as in extending the technical limits of his instrument in his own playing, a skill which he shared with a few contemporaries, above all, the far better-known G.P. Telemann; but unlike Telemann, who composed prolifically for every conceivable combination of voices and instruments, Weiss wrote only for the lute, thus ensuring the long period of obscurity from which he is at last beginning to emerge.