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8.555032 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 9
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Antonio Soler (1729-1783)

Antonio Soler (1729-1783)

Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 9


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.


Sonatas Nos. 86/84 in D major have lively Spanish dance rhythms, and flamenco orientated harmonies and guitar-like repeated chords are prominent features of both these sonatas in triple time. Much of the thematic material of No. 86 is built out of rising and falling scale patterns. There are also some striking modulations, particularly in the second half. The very familiar Sonata No. 84, with its Scarlattian leaps, rapid repeated notes and chords suggesting the tremolo of the Spanish guitar, is one of Soler’s most ebullient and justly popular works.


The fine Sonata No. 72 in F minor is characterized by a relentless drive and vitality that is immediately attractive and fresh sounding. Lyricism frequently cuts through the intricate figurations, and Soler’s gift for modulation is amply demonstrated.


Both of the contrasted pair of Sonatas Nos. 132/119 in B flat major call for more than the full five-octave compass of the harpsichord, ranging from low F to the top G. The heading Cantabile – Andantino aptly describes the character of the utterly charming and lyrical Sonata No. 132, which is very Spanish in its musical language, both melodically and harmonically, especially the second subject in the dominant minor. Dotted rhythms are a prominent feature, and there are some striking modulations, particularly after the double bar. Sonata No. 119 is an exuberant virtuoso piece with many difficult leaps, subtle rhythmic changes, and modulations to remote keys. Typical of Spanish dance rhythms in this work is the shifting of accents, so that 6/8 sometimes sounds like 3/4.


Sonatas Nos. 24/25 in D minor form another contrasted pair of sonatas, the first of which is a lyrical and passionate work with an abundant flow of ideas. Again it is unmistakably Spanish in its melodic content. Each half becomes more animated and intense as it progresses, and although marked Andantino cantabile this piece never truly feels like a slow movement, since the 3/8 time has a one in the bar feeling. Sonata No. 25 begins in the manner of a fugue, and the texture of this work is often more contrapuntal than is usual for Soler (except when he is actually writing fugues) often with imitation between the hands. Passages which are purely harmonic in texture are introduced by way of contrast, including the delightful second subject with its broken chord accompaniment, after which the music becomes more dramatic, reinforced by powerful octaves in the bass.


The three sonatas, Sonatas Nos. 12/13/14 in G major appear as a trilogy in the English edition and have certain features in common. All are quick movements in duple time, making use of arpeggio figuration and hand-crossings. Sonata No. 12, De La Codorniz (The Quail), like Sonata No. 108, Del Gallo, recorded on Volume 7, is another ornithological piece characterized by a persistent dotted rhythm. No. 13 is a rich-textured virtuoso piece of much drive and vigour. There are some startling modulations in the second half, and the full five-octave range is called for. No. 14 is the most lyrical of the set despite the flamboyant use of left-hand arpeggios, hand-crossings and repeated notes. There is some ambiguity of rhythm at the beginning that causes the listener to perceive the opening bars as being in 3/2 rather than 2/2. The work also contains some striking harmonies and modulations.


Sonata No. 99 in C major is the last of the set of three four-movement sonatas (Op. 8) dating from 1783. The relaxed first movement in conventional galant style is followed by a festive sounding Minuet with a rather curious Trio section in the relative minor, marked tutto staccato, the left-hand patterning of which causes the 3/4 time signature to feel like 6/8 to the listener much of the time. The Rondo Pastoril that follows is an exuberant, folk-inspired piece with some typical drone effects. The episodes surrounding the rondo theme, one of which is in the tonic minor, all contain busy semiquaver figurations in each hand. The drive and energy of the last movement, with its varied figurations, including many passages in thirds makes a suitably brilliant conclusion.


Gilbert Rowland

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