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8.554434 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 5

Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord Vol. 5


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.

The first of the unmistakably Spanish sounding sonatas in D major, Nos. 73/74, is an exhilarating and powerful dance movement whose texture is often enriched by a chain of thirds in the left hand. The driving rhythms are temporarily halted in the middle of each section by the dramatic use of diminished seventh chords, after which the second subject appears, first in the minor, then in the major. No. 74 is held together by extended melodic phrases in the right hand accompanied by guitar-like chords in the left hand, often with flamenco orientated harmonies. A more exultant passage containing bagpipe drone effects and virtuoso arpeggios is introduced towards the end of each half.

No. 118 in A minor is a lively Spanish dance movement in 6/8 time. Short repeated phrases in the manner of Scarlatti contribute to its forward drive, rapid repeated chords in the left hand portray the strumming of guitars, and there is a surprising modulation in the second section where, having paused on a chord of A major, Soler plunges straight into the key of B flat.

Sonata No. 38 in C major is rich in thematic material and nearly all the seemingly folk-inspired melodies appear to derive from the opening bars. The style is very close to Scarlatti, particularly some of the figurations in the left hand.

Of the Sonatas Nos. 105/2 in E flat major, the first is an affecting slow movement of much lyricism and beauty. The first half of the work ends in the relative minor instead of the more customary dominant, and there are some irregular phrase lengths. The second, on the other hand, is a busy driving work of much virtuosity and brilliance. Trills, repeated notes, passages in thirds, left hand jumps and surprising modulations are all there to dazzle the listener. The figure heard at the beginning of the work appears in a type of inversion just after the start of the second section.

Sonata No. 58 in G major is one of several sonatas by Soler conceived in Rondo form rather than his customary binary form and many of the almost pianistic figurations point to this being a late work. The two long episodes before and after the second appearance of the Rondo theme involve virtuoso writing which is in marked contrast to the perky, audaciously naïve theme itself.

A graceful, Minuet-type movement of much charm, Sonata No. 114 in D minor is held together by triplet figurations. The general harmonic drift is closer to the idiom of Haydn or C.P.E. Bach than that of Scarlatti, suggesting that this is also a comparatively late work.

In the first of Sonatas Nos. 5/6 in F major, much use is made of the opening material, particularly the triplet in the first bar, and the lyrical second subject is clearly derived from it. There is some imitative writing between the hands, and there are some wide leaps in the left hand. No. 6 is a driving Presto movement of much technical intricacy in the manner of Scarlatti. There are some remarkable modulations, repeated chords imitating the Spanish guitar, and both sections end in the minor.

Sonata No. 95 in A major is the fifth of a set of six four-movement sonatas (Op. 4) dating from 1779. The work begins with along Haydnesque slow movement with lyrical writing offset by more florid passages in the right hand. The second movement has much verve and forward movement. Halfway through each section there is a fermata coupled with the term arbitri, which suggests a short cadenza is intended to be inserted at that point. Of the contrasted pairs of Minuets which follow, the first is marked Maestoso and has a very similar theme to the first minuet of Sonata No. 93 (Naxos 8.553464). The second is much quicker and in four sections followed by a repeat of the first section. The Allegro Pastoril with its jaunty rhythms, folk-like melodies and country dance elements brings this attractive work to a suitably lively conclusion.

Gilbert Rowland

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