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8.554565 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 6

Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord Vol. 6

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 Fern√°ndez built for the Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.

Sonata No. 4 in G major is a rich-textured, festive sounding work, complete with guitar-like repeated notes and the imaginary sounds of trumpets and drums. Each of this sonata's two main sections is divided into three sub-sections separated by fermatas, and there are some typically abrupt modulations coupled with short repeated phrases in the manner of Scarlatti.

Sonata, Nos. 102/104 in D minor are both light-­textured works consisting of mostly two-part writing throughout. Triplet figuration dominates most of Sonata No. 102 except for the four bars in each section where a three-voice texture is introduced making effective use of suspensions. Sonata No. 104 is a sprightly little work, very Spanish in idiom with occasional syncopations giving an aural impression of 3/4 against 6/8. This is characteristic of the Zapateado, of which this is a typical example.

The musical language of Sonatas Nos. 109/56 in F major is far closer to Mozart than Scarlatti suggesting that both must be late works. The first is a Rondo of much charm and rhythmic buoyancy with occasional unexpected excursions into the Phrygian mode. The second is a warm, lyrical work containing at least three distinct ideas. It also approaches sonata form since the opening theme is recapitulated in the second half after a short development section. Again, Soler's gift for surprising modulations is apparent.

>Sonata, Nos. 70 and 71 in A minor are a well contrasted pair. The first is a brilliant perpetuum mobile of much drive and virtuosity complete with scales, hand-crossings, and passages in thirds. Sonata No. 71 is a poignant, intense slow movement (unusually placed second), containing many subtle rhythmic and harmonic changes. Each section builds up to an impressive climax, re-inforced by octaves in the bass. Again there are hand-crossings.

Sonata No. III in D major is a genial work which like Sonata No. 4 contains three sub-sections in each of its two halves. Guitar-like repeated chords feature prominently and there are some striking modulations.

Sonatas Nos. 100/103 in C minor are another strikingly contrasted pair of sonatas with one of Soler's most memorable and heartfelt slow movements placed first. The work is rich in thematic content as well as offering plenty of variety in the way of rhythm, texture and figuration. Sonata 103 is a lively Spanish dance movement containing melodies which appear to be of folk origin. The sound of the Spanish guitar is portrayed by the use of arpeggios, broken-chord figurations, and repeated chords in the left hand.

Sonata No. 96 in E flat major is the last of Soler's set of six-movement sonatas (Op. 4) dating from 1779. Perky march rhythms characterise the first movement which is not really a slow movement despite the Andante gracioso tempo marking. The idiom is similar to certain movements from the six Concertos for two organs. Allegro cantabile is an apt description of the long, flowing lines governing the amiable second movement which begins with the same rising thirds as Sonata No. 73. Of the pair of Minuets which tallow, the first is dominated by lively dotted rhythms, and the second falls into three repeated sections. The Pastoral with its Siciliano-style dotted rhythms and seemingly folk-inspired melodies calls to mind similar pieces by Scarlatti in that particular vein, and brings this work to an enchanting conclusion.

Gilbert Rowland

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