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8.570292 - SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 13
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Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 13


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 3 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 25 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 20 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 splendid two-movement Sonata No. 60 in C minor begins with a lengthy slow movement of which this is one of Soler's most hearfelt and poignant examples. It shares certain features with Sonata No. 24 (Vol. 9, Naxos 8.555032), not the least of these being the prolific flow of lyrical melodies and the unmistakably Spanish idiom of its numerous ideas. This movement is followed by an impassioned driving Allegro in 6/8 time with almost Bartókian sounding clashing seconds heard at the beginning which must have come as rather a shock to eighteenth-century ears. Virtuoso features include frequent use of repeated notes in the left hand against wide leaps and hand crossings in the right. There are also modulations to distant keys such as C sharp minor and E major in the second half.

The Sonata in G major, without a Rubio number, is a charming, lyrical work, aptly marked Cantabile and somewhat resembling the idiom of J. C. Bach despite the guitaristic figurations in places, which suggests that it is probably a late work. This sonata is the last of a set of thirty copied out in 1786 and known as the Guinard manuscript – a source known to Rubio, so it is surprising that it does not feature in his edition.

The second Sonata in G major, without a Rubio number, is a cheerful, light-hearted, simply constructed Rondo in the style of a country dance. Of its three episodes the second and the third are in the tonic minor.

Sonata No. 66 in C major is the fourth of a collection of six sonatas dating from 1777 each of which contains three movements. The work begins with a florid slow movement of Mozartian charm, prolific ornamentation and calls for use of glissando at one point. This is followed by one of Soler's most exuberant dance movements in 3/4 time. The melodies are unmistakably Spanish sounding, there is much dash and brilliance in the keyboard writing, and some dramatic moments involving the use of diminished seventh chords. As with the other works in this set, the closing movement is a fugue, and, being in C major, this one has a ceremonial feel to it, as well as a relentless sense of forward movement. Chromaticism is prominent, there are modulations to distant keys and by way of contrast there is a passage in the middle starting in the key of B flat, which is more akin to Spanish folk-song.

Sonata No. 68 in E major is another three-movement work from the same set as No. 66 and is the final sonata in that collection. The lyrical opening movement is rich in ideas, light in texture and, like the first movement of No. 66, profuse in trills and other ornaments. There are also some passages involving the use of syncopated rhythm. This is followed by a vigorous, high-spirited Allegro with much variety of texture including the use of Alberti basses. The second subject appears in octaves and there are some striking modulations in the broken chordal passage at the start of the second half. The work concludes with an intense four-part fugue in 3/8 time with beautifully flowing counterpoint. Again there are modulations to distant keys, syncopated rhythms and masterly use of canonic devices towards the end. Curiously there is a sequential passage in the middle which is almost identical to that contained in the fugue from Sonata No. 65 (Vol. 11, Naxos 8.557640).

Sonatas Nos. 75 and No. 76 in F major form a contrasted pair, the first of which begins with some three-part writing rather in the manner of a motet. This material is then extended in a series of upward and downward moving scales until a more martial sounding second subject is reached. In the second half guitar strumming can be heard at the point where Soler finds himself in the remote key of B minor. The scale-like idea is resumed at the close of each half where again the use of glissando technique is called for. Sonata No. 76 is a busy-textured virtuoso piece very much in the manner of Scarlatti and begins like a two-part invention before giving way to a more harmonic passage with guitar strumming chords in the left hand. The second subject, involving the use of hand-crossings, is derived from the opening bars, and the second half passes through much the same distant keys as its predecessor.

Gilbert Rowland


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