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8.555031 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 8
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Antonio Soler (1729-1783)

Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 8

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 gý which Diego Fernández built for the Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.

The first of the trilogy, Sonatas Nos. 7/8/9 in C major, is one of Soler’s most dashing and brilliant display pieces, containing many difficult hand-crossings, at one point four and a half octaves, repeated notes, and passages in thirds. The rhythmic impetus is often greatly enhanced by pounding octaves in the bass. Sonata No.8, by way of contrast is one of the composer’s most extended slow movements. It is an elegant and utterly charming work whose lyricism is often enhanced by the use of chromaticism. There are many modulations, some of them far removed from the home key. Sonata No.9 is another spectacular virtuoso piece with hand-crossings and many intricate figurations mostly derived from the opening bars, which constantly drive the music forward.

Sonata No.115 in D minor is a light textured little work having the character of a Minuet. The writing is mostly two-part throughout except for the occasional three-voice almost "Waltz-like" passage.

Sonata No.40 in G major is something of a curiosity and in some ways unlike any other sonata in Soler’s output. It is orchestral in texture with the imaginary sounds of woodwind and brass instruments often present. The piece has the character of an operatic overture and some of the chromatic harmonic progressions sound closer to the nineteenth century than the eighteenth. A highly unusual feature is the ending of the first section in the somewhat remote key of B flat.

The first of the two Sonatas Nos. 47/48 in C minor is a tender and melancholy slow movement which is without doubt one of Soler’s most heartfelt and poignant works, often enhanced by spare, two-part writing. The opening bar is used as a unifying passage for the left hand. In total contrast Sonata No. 48 is one of the composer’s stormiest and most restless works with frequent use of octaves in the left hand enriching the texture. Short repeated phrases in the manner of Scarlatti enhance the forward drive of the Spanish dance rhythms inherent in this work.

Like several of Soler’s later works Sonata No. 59 in F major is cast in rondo form instead of his customary binary form. The main theme has the manner of a country dance while the more virtuoso contrasting episodes show the composer at his most effervescent.

The first of the two Sonatas Nos. 20/21 in C sharp minor, in a key that is unusual for the period, is an expressive slow movement whose thematic material unfolds naturally from the opening bars. The momentum increases towards the end of each section through the use of rising and falling scale figuration in triplets derived from the fourth bar. Sonata No. 21 with its cross-rhythms and rich harmonic textures has at times an almost Brahmsian intensity. The second subject with its guitaristic accompaniment is one of the most obvious examples of Soler drawing on Spanish folk-lore for his inspiration.

Sonata No. 98 in B flat major is the second of the set of three four-movement sonatas (Opus 8) dating from 1783. In the light textured first movement, lyrical passages are offset by intricate and varied figurations which gradually become more ornate as the music progresses. There are some lively syncopated rhythms, and also some daring parallel triads at the start of the second subject. The Minuet which follows is held together by sprightly dotted rhythms and has a Trio section of much charm, in the minor, again with passages of syncopation. The simplicity of the main theme of the Rondo is contrasted with two much longer sections, containing much skittish keyboard writing coupled with the occasional serenade-like melody, and the work concludes with a brilliant dance-like movement in 3/8 time, containing hand-crossings.

Gilbert Rowland

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