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8.557137 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 10
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Antonio Soler (1729-1783)

Antonio Soler (1729-1783)

Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 10


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 Sonata in D flat major (without Rubio number) is a lively work with its profusion of fresh ideas, surprising modulations, and dance-like syncopated rhythms towards the end of each half. It seems to have been unknown to Rubio as it is not included in his complete edition. This is curious since it forms the first sonata in the collection of twelve known as “The Madrid Conservatory Manuscript” of which Father Rubio must surely have been aware.


Sonata No. 88 in D flat major is one of Soler’s more familiar works and is paired with its predecessor. This is one of the composer’s most exuberant and energetic sonatas containing plenty of drive, brilliance and technical virtuosity, including scale passages, rapid repeated notes and hand-crossings. Other features include bagpipe effects, infectious Spanish dance rhythms, and startling modulations such as the abrupt transition from A flat major to F major after the first section repeat. The whole work has the character of a jig in 9/8 time, although written in 3/4 using triplets.


Sonatas Nos. 77/78 in F sharp minor form a pair. The first sonata is a lyrical, poignant slow movement in which the interval of a third features prominently, both melodically and harmonically as a unifying element in the most serious and heartfelt of sonatas amongst Soler’s output. By way of contrast the rich-textured Sonata No. 78 is one of the composer’s most strenuous works technically, featuring rapidly moving left hand octaves, wide skips, passages in thirds, and also some remarkable modulations in the second half.


Sonata No. 37 in D major consists mainly of somewhat elaborate triplet figuration in the right hand, sometimes syncopated, against a forward moving bass line. There are several sonatas by Scarlatti in a similar vein.


Sonata No. 64 in G major is the second work from a collection of six sonatas dating from 1777, all of which have three movements, the last of which is a fugue in each case. The term Pastorale aptly describes the character of the first movement, a piece of considerable charm containing some unexpected twists of melody and harmony with themes seemingly derived from Spanish folklore. This is followed by a typically Galant Allegretto grazioso in sonata form with some audacious chromatic touches, and the joyful four-part double fugue which follows with its peals of bells towards the end and its many excursions into remote keys, shows Soler to be a master of counterpoint even though he only employed it intermittently in the majority of his keyboard works.


The fine Sonata No. 126 in C minor consists of two well contrasted movements. The first is a beautiful slow movement, which begins with imitation between the hands in the manner of a fugue, and in which dotted rhythms feature prominently. A short cadenza precedes the lyrical second subject, reinforced by octaves, and in the relative major accompanied by almost pianistic-sounding arpeggios in the left hand. There are some striking modulations in the second half. An energetic hunting type jig of irresistible drive and vitality follows. The opening theme is closely related to that of the first movement, and both movements have first sections ending in the relative major. Again there are some extraordinary modulations in the second half.


Sonata No. 61 in C major is the first of two sonatas in four movements dating from 1782. The work opens with a Rondo whose theme moves stepwise in contrary motion to the bass. Of the more elaborate contrasting episodes the first two are in the relative minor, the third in the tonic minor. The full orchestral sounding textures which characterize the second movement give it an almost symphonic weight, and some of its thematic material is suggestive of popular Spanish folk-music, both melodically and rhythmically, The Minue di rivolti which follows, a “revolving” Minuet in which all the themes initially stated re-appear, but not necessarily in the same order, is cast in a form which seems to have been unique to Soler. The work concludes with a driving Allegro of much brilliance and virtuosity complete with hand crossings and frequent use of the “Scotch Snap” in one of its many joyous themes.


Gilbert Rowland

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