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8.554566 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 7
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Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord Vol. 7

Owing mainly to the tireless efforts of the late Father Samuel Rubio and other editors in making many of his works available in print during the past forty years, Antonio Soler is now justly regarded as the most important composer active in Spain during the second half of the eighteenth century. He was born at Olot, in the province of Gerona in north-eastern Spain in 1729 and baptised on 3rd December. At the age of six he entered the famous choir school at the Monastery of Montserrat where he studied organ and composition. Before that he probably received some tuition from his father, who was a regimental bandsman. In 1744 he was appointed organist at the cathedral in Seo de Urgel and was later ordained as subdeacon there.

At that time the Bishop of Urgel asked him if he knew of a boy who could play the organ and who wished to take holy orders at the Escorial. Soler volunteered himself, saying that he very much wanted to take the vows and retreat from the world, and so on 25th September 1752 he became a monk and entered that famous monastery near Madrid, built by Philip II. He also became master of the Chapel there, probably in 1757 following the death of his predecessor, Gabriel de Moratilla. Soler remained there until his death in 1783.

During the years 1752 to 1757 Soler is reputed to have studied composition with Domenico Scarlatti and many of Soler's sonatas show his influence to a marked degree both in form and musical language. Despite his probable debt to Scarlatti, however, Soler's own personality is very much in evidence in these works. Many of these sonatas, like Scarlatti's, are single movements in binary form, that is, in two sections, each of which is repeated, although Soler also composed a large number of multi-movement sonatas. It is quite possible that he was one of the copyists of some of the manuscript volumes of Scarlatti's sonatas, now housed in Venice and Parma.

Fortunately for posterity Soler's wish for a quiet life did not work out quite as he intended. Apart from his monastic duties he was expected to train the choir, provide choral music for services, and provide the Royal family with secular and instrumental music during their frequent visits to the Escorial. The Spanish court regularly spent the autumn there. Soler's achievement is also astonishing when considering that much of his day would have been taken up with prayer and the routine of the community. Periods of illness often prevented him from working. We learn from the anonymous obituary of Soler, written by a fellow monk on the day he died, that he survived on only four hours sleep most nights, often retiring at midnight or one o'clock in the morning before rising at four or five o'clock to say Mass. Mention is also made of his religious devotion, compassionate nature, scholarly interests and excessive candour. Soler died at the Escorial on 20th December, 1783, from a gradually worsening fever which he had caught the previous month. Soler's huge output runs to nearly 500 individual works, and of his 150 keyboard sonatas, most were intended for harpsichord.

A large number of Soler's instrumental works, including many of the sonatas, were composed for the Infante Don Gabriel (1752-1788), son of Carlos III, whom Soler served as music master from the mid 1760s. As with Scarlatti, Spanish folk-song and dance elements feature prominently in his sonatas. Soler was much influenced by the changing musical fashions of the second half of the eighteenth century and some of the single movement sonatas, as well as the four-movement works dating from the late 1770s and early 1780s approach the Viennese classical school in musical language. There are a large number of slow movements amongst the single-movement works which contain some of his most profound and memorable music.

Recent research has shown that, as in the case of Scarlatti, many of the single movement sonatas were intended to be played as pairs, though this is not always apparent in Rubio's edition, except in the case of Rubio Nos. 1-27, which follows the same numerical sequence of the English edition. Many of Soler's sonatas make use of the full five-octave compass and were probably originally played on a 63-key harpsichord with a compass from F to g′′′ which Diego Fernández built for the Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.

No. 10 in B minor is one of the most stunning and spectacular of all Soler's works. Dashing runs, hand-crossings frequently involving left hand jumps of four octaves, and wide skips in the bass are all used with a breathtaking virtuosity and brilliance which at times goes even beyond Scarlatti's extreme flights of fancy in this sphere. A quotation from the preface to Rubio's edition of the Soler Sonatas describes the second of this pair, Sonata No. 11, as "a truly delightful piece, full of charm and poetry which the divine Mozart himself could have signed". This perhaps eloquently sums up the character of Soler's only keyboard venture into the (for the period) somewhat outlandish key of B major, though whether Mozart would have agreed with that statement is open to speculation.

Despite the varied thematic material and lively rhythms of Sonata No. 39 (in D minor), this rich-­textured and passionate work has a rather dark and sombre character. Virtuoso elements include arpeggios and passages in thirds.

No. 3 in B flat major is a lyrical slow movement whose thematic material is almost entirely governed by the step-wise rise and fall of the opening bars. Towards the end of each section the general mood of calm and tranquillity is momentarily disrupted by some flamboyant arpeggios in the left hand.

Nos. 80, 81 and 82 form an interesting trilogy, the first of which is a fine work whose rhythmic drive and physical energy are powerfully enhanced by the frequent use of octaves in the bass, dotted rhythms and wide leaps. There are also some striking modulations and harmonic progressions. Sonata No. 81 is not in Soler's customary binary form, and the constant alternation of fiery, urgent quick sections with operatic-sounding cantabile passages make this one of the most exciting and individual works among the composer's output. Sonata No. 82 is a charmingly rustic jig-like work in 6/8 time with an abundance of trills and much imitation between the hands. The opening bars are developed in the manner of a three-part invention at the start of the second half, where the listener receives an aural impression of 9/8 time.

The somewhat melancholy Sonata No. 113 in E minor is without doubt one of Soler's most memorable and beautiful slow movements. There are many guitar-­like repeated chords in the left hand accompanying soulful melodies in the right, and some of the modulations are almost romantic in feeling.

The first of the sprightly pair of sonatas which comprises Nos. 112 and 108 in C major is a work full of rhythmic vitality, containing some arresting modulations and harmonic changes, as well as being totally unpredictable in its abundant flow of ideas. The second, subtitled Del Gallo (‘The Cock's Crowing’), is Soler's answer to Rameau's 'La Poule', and a delightfully humorous little work it is too, with its dotted rhythms and frequent acciacaturas. Shortly after the double bar the cuckoo appears to join in for a while!

No. 97 in A major is the first of a set of three four-movement sonatas (Op. 8) dating from 1783. They differ in structure from the Op. 4 set in that the Minuets (which in this case follow the standard Minuet and Trio form of the Viennese Classical Symphony) are placed second, and the third movement is a Rondo in each case. The hand-crossings and easy-going 'Galant' manner of the first movement give way to more vigorous Minuet with a Trio in the minor. The jaunty rhythms of the Rondo are offset by two longer episodes of which the second in particular, in the relative minor, contains passages of virtuosic display. The buoyant, syncopated rhythms heard at the opening of the last movement soon give way to an extended passage of almost Schubertian lyricism, only to be resumed at the end of each half. A sequential passage appearing shortly after the start of the second section leads back to a reprise of the opening theme.

Gilbert Rowland


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