About this Recording
8.572219 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 10 (Barto) - Nos. 28, 40 / Tombeau sur la mort de M. Comte de Logy
English  German 

Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 10

 

In German-speaking countries, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, partly as the result of a general desire to emulate the manners and style of the French court of Louis XIV and the intellectual milieu of the legendary Parisian salons in which the lute had flourished in previous decades, the instrument had acquired a more or less exclusively aristocratic ethos. It was, after all, suited to small, courtly gatherings of a few connoisseurs rather than to public audiences, and required a considerable outlay in terms of time and of cost—buying a good instrument in the first place, and engaging a teacher—that was largely only possible for noble families. While it was commonly taken up by young noblemen during the years of intense education which immediately preceded their coming of age, many tended to drop the pursuit of music in later years, becoming preoccupied with more practical matters, often in the service of their monarch in the complex social hierarchy which governed aristocratic life. For their sisters, however, music, and in particular playing the lute, fairly often became a lifelong occupation, and we know of many excellent female players, almost all from the aristocracy, alongside a few high-ranking men whose passion for lute-playing held a permanent place in their lives.

For tuition on this most demanding of instruments aristocratic families naturally wanted the best teachers they could afford. This sometimes meant hiring privately lutenists who were already engaged by royal courts on terms that allowed them a certain freedom to take on extra work. From the correspondence of the Crown Prince, later King, of Prussia, Frederick the Great, we read that his finest musicians knew that they were in some sense irreplaceable, and thus could to a greater or lesser extent dictate the terms of their employment, unlike most of his other servants. Probably this was also true for Silvius Leopold Weiss, whose appointment at the Dresden court of August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, also King of Poland, in 1718, followed several years in the employment of the highest nobility, including the former Queen of Poland, the Palatine Elector and his brother, the Prince-Bishop of Breslau. Weiss’s post seems to have allowed him enough latitude to undertake from time to time trips to other cities, where he is known to have taken on some private teaching.

With vast estates in Weiss’s native province of Silesia, but mainly in Bohemia, now the western part of the Czech Republic, one of the grandest aristocratic, indeed princely, families in Vienna and Prague was that of Prince Philipp Hyacinth Lobkowicz (1680–1734), whose father had patronised some of the finest French lute players after the instrument had begun to lose favour in France. Music was an obsession with the Lobkowicz family, and the tradition of supporting the best musicians of the time lasted well into the nineteenth century when his grandson in Vienna provided several commissions and funded performances for the great Beethoven himself.

Apart from one suite in Weiss’s autograph in a single Vienna manuscript, we have today none of what is likely to have been a considerable collection of lute music by Weiss collected by the Lobkowicz family, although they have preserved a priceless library of music including much by other lutenists of the time. What we do have, however, is an autograph fair copy in the Dresden manuscript of a single large-scale work, Sonata No. 40 in C major, which has a title page bearing the somewhat cryptic annotation: ‘P. S. A. S. M. L. D. de Lobkowitz / N. 12. / Januarius’, of which a plausible decoding begins: ‘Pour son Altesse Sérénissime Monsieur le Duc de Lobkowitz…’. If the rest can be taken as standing for a date, the 12th of January, it may be that this is the very ‘Partie’ (partita or sonata) which Weiss mentions being about to start for Prince Lobkowicz in a letter to him dated 17th November 1728. However, this is somewhat speculative; it seems just as likely that this is number 12 in an intended series of works—perhaps a set of twelve named for the months of the year?

The sonata, the grandest and most expansive from his middle period, opens with an Entrée marked Spiritoso, which should be taken as an indication of character of performance rather than tempo. The entrée is one of several musical suite movement-types derived from French theatrical traditions of the previous century, and is often characterized, as here, by the use of dotted rhythms rather like the opening of an ouverture, though cast in the binary form of an allemande. Throughout the sonata Weiss exploits the new kind of instrument for which it was composed, the thirteen-course lute in whose development he surely participated, and its sonority adds much to the gravitas of the music, although in later works he tended to explore the technical possibilities the extra bass strings offered rather more than here. The extended Courante which follows (over 150 measures long) is one of the extreme examples of Weiss’s radical treatment of the standard suite forms; it is almost a fantasia in the form of a courante, whose second half contains a passage of modulation leading to a cleverly-disguised reprise of the opening theme—one of Weiss’s favourite tricks, undoubtedly born out of his experience as one of the supreme improvisers of his age. A rustic and amusing Paysanne, again a far longer movement than one would expect, is followed by a gently lyrical Sarabande in which the underpinning rhythmic structure of this most French of dances is complemented and almost hidden by the almost continuous flow of shorter notes. Again, this is an example of the art of improvised elaboration captured, but in a manner that only a fellow lutenist could have realised. After a long Menuet with over a hundred measures, discursive but full of invention, comes the final tour de force of this remarkable sonata, an Allegro finale in concerto style, complete with ‘unison’ ritornelli and tutti passages in which one can almost imagine the sound of an orchestra.

It is clear from the evidence of this sonata alone that Philipp Hyacinth Lobkowicz was an accomplished lutenist; he was also a composer (the Vienna manuscript mentioned above actually contains a suite by him). On the other hand his wife Anna Maria Wilhelmina (1703–1754) had a reputation as an outstanding performer on the instrument, whose playing the great violinist Tartini once declared to be reminiscent of that of her teacher, Silvius Weiss himself. A pair of exquisitely beautiful lutes of ebony which once belonged to the couple, made by the finest Prague luthier, Thomas Edlinger, survive today in the Leipzig instrument collection; although their labels bear no dates, it is very likely they had been specially commissioned for the couple’s wedding in 1721.

In Wilhelmina’s hands, according to a poem published in Prague in 1727, ‘The lute dies in Weiss’s Tombeau’. By this, the writer almost certainly intended to refer to the most famous of Weiss’s works, his Tombeau sur la mort de M. Comte de Logy arrivée 1721; the same piece was still posthumously associated with Weiss in the 1760s when Luise Gottsched, wife of the Leipzig professor Johann Christian Gottsched, mentioned it by name in her short biography of the composer. Although it is cast in the form of an allemande, as were most of the numerous tombeaux for prominent people (usually aristocrats) left by French seventeenth-century lutenists and their German successors, it is the sheer power of musical expression that has ensured this work’s continuing place as the most celebrated of Weiss’s output. Set in the already extreme key of B flat minor, its intense harmonic modulations and singing chromatic melodic lines continually and agonizingly capture an atmosphere of very personal grief.

The aristocrat in whose memory this wonderful Tombeau was composed was the most accomplished of all the lute players born into the nobility. Count Johann Anton Logy von Losinthal (c.1650–1721) would probably have become a famous musician even without the natural advantage of his social rank. Even in the 1690s he had been referred to in print as ‘the Prince of the Lute’, and in his home city of Prague he was especially revered. Here and there throughout Weiss’s music one can hear his influence in works that quote or allude to Logy’s own compositions, a testament to the younger lutenist’s genuine admiration.

We have first-hand testimony of the high standing of Count Logy and other aristocratic musicians in Prague from accounts by composers well known at the time, including Johann Kuhnau (J.S. Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig) and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690–1749). The latter tells us that among the supporters of the Prague musical scene was the businessman and musical enthusiast Johann Christian Anthoni von Adlersfeld (d. between 1737 and 1741), to whom we owe the existence of the manuscript source of the Logy Tombeau. Adlersfeld’s lute book, now at the British Library in London, is devoted almost exclusively to Weiss’s music compiled in Prague by or for Adlersfeld between 1717 and c.1725. Weiss himself wrote several sonatas and isolated pieces into this manuscript, and, more intriguingly, occasionally amended copies of his music that had previously been entered.

One of the sonatas in Adlersfeld’s lute book to which Weiss returned in this way is Sonata No. 28 in F major, which carries the title Le fameux Corsaire. From its position in the book we can surmise that it was entered some time before the Logy Tombeau of 1721, most probably in the year 1719. This has given rise to the suggestion that it commemorates the famous pirate, Edward Teach, better known as ‘Blackbeard’, who had died in a battle at sea late in the previous year. While that is a possibility, the word corsaire was also used in a more specific sense at the time to refer to the pirates from the North African coast (‘Barbary Corsairs’) who were a constant threat to shipping in the Mediterranean. The origins of the title, which may refer to an incident connected with Adlersfeld’s somewhat obscure business dealings, are in fact entirely lost.

Whatever the meaning of its title, this fine sonata is one of the most approachable and extrovert from Weiss’s early maturity as a composer. It actually exists in two versions, that in the Dresden manuscript showing signs of having been subtly revised at a later date. The London copy does not seem to have been meticulously ‘proof-read’ by the composer, but he has inserted a couple of extra measures to each strain of the minuet, suggesting that even soon after its composition the composer did not regard it as a totally fixed entity. These extra measures do not appear in the Dresden revision, which leaves the modern player with hard choices to make in selecting a performing version, albeit at the level of detail.

It is Weiss’s melodic gift that is most prominent throughout this sonata, which, like the other works on this disc, is composed for the 13-course instrument. Paradoxically, the extra bass strings on this instrument can be used to allow the player to exploit the higher registers of the lute more freely, as happens frequently here; they also provide an additional resonance when they are not being played, an effect which is more easily heard than described. After the Allemande whose second half climaxes in a short sequence of arpeggiated chords over a dominant pedal—rather in the nature of a cadenza—comes a lively and extended Courante which has a similar cadenza-like section at about the same point in its structure. While the Bourrée and Sarabande are somewhat lighter in tone than is often the case in Weiss’s works, their respective wit and lyrical charm shines through. After the Menuet, which Weiss could not resist tweaking, the work closes with a bustling Presto which allows the player to show off a little virtuosity without being too severely challenged technically. From this we might conjecture that Adlersfeld was not as accomplished a player as Prince Lobkowicz or his wife, though none of them of course is likely to have come near to the great Dresden lutenist either as performer or as composer.


Tim Crawford


Close the window