About this Recording
8.570551 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 9 (Barto) - Nos. 32, 52, 94
English  German 

Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 9


The compositional output of the most famous eighteenth-century lute-player, Silvius Leopold Weiss was amazing. As the task of transcribing and editing his complete works [Note 1] now enters its final phases, with the two great manuscript collections in London and Dresden now published, it has become clear that as well as 109 sonatas (averaging six movements each) and a further ninety separate pieces which will appear in the edition, we can account for roughly another 25 sonatas and forty ensemble works which once existed but are now lost, bringing the total number of separate sonata-movements or pieces he composed to well over one thousand. When we remember that these movements are usually not much shorter than each of the 556 famous keyboard sonatas of his contemporary and one-time colleague Domenico Scarlatti, this figure becomes all the more remarkable.

Unlike Scarlatti’s sonatas, Weiss’s multi-movement solo works share the formal framework of the seventeenth-century baroque suite or partita, with an optional opening prelude, fantasia or overture followed by a roughly standard succession of dance movements: an allemande (usually omitted after an overture), a courante, a sarabande, a bourrée or gavotte, always a minuet and a closing fast movement, most commonly a gigue. Because they were not published in Weiss’s lifetime, with very few exceptions it is hard – often impossible – to date his sonatas with any degree of certainty. This is certainly true of the three recorded here; we are forced to rely on judgements of their musical style, with only the rarest shred of external evidence in support. The C minor Sonata, number 52 in the complete works, shows all the signs of being a late work, such as greatly extended movements with an adventurous use of chromaticism and modulation within the restrictions of the dance-forms; the F major, number 32, seems to be more representative of Weiss’s first mature ‘middle’ period, while the the G minor sonata, number 94, possibly from the mid-1730s, shows signs of experiments in the latest modern musical style.

Sonata No. 52 in C minor is one of the fifteen or so large-scale sonatas that Weiss scholars generally agree represent the composer’s full maturity. These ‘late’ sonatas cannot be precisely dated, but must come mostly from the 1740s. Like J. S. Bach’s music of the same period, they cannot be said to be ‘modern’ in style, but they are true master-works, wedding technical assurance with expressive power in a manner that shows us why these two men were so famous in their age. For, while it is unquestionably Bach’s reputation that has survived through the medium of his wonderful body of compositions of every kind, in the eighteenth century he was famous above all not as a composer but as Germany’s finest organist. Silvius Weiss held a similar reputation as a performer, but on an instrument that soon after his death was all but forgotten until modern times. Above all through the efforts of today’s lute-players, Weiss’s music for the instrument is beginning to be recognised as worthy to stand alongside his more famous contemporary’s instrumental works, even though relatively few of his sonatas have appeared in print. One thing that comes across powerfully is that this is music that begs to be performed and enjoyed intimately, rather than just studied on the page – in this respect it has benefited enormously from recordings. In almost every piece there is some point at which Weiss springs some sort of surprise on the attentive listener, whether it be an unexpected quirk of melody, a sudden asymmetry of phrasing or a disconcerting twist in the harmony. To be sure, these moments of ‘fantasy’, upsetting what we think of as the conventions of eighteenth-century taste, are often quite subtle and fleeting, but they are always deftly handled, and convey the sense of a performer with a strongly individual style. And by ‘performer’, of course, we also mean ‘improviser’: like Bach, Weiss had legendary powers in improvising at length, even producing complex structures such as fugues in his extempore performances.

Among Weiss’s many movements in improvisational style are many preludes as well as a good number of fantasias. Several contain fugal sections in which the impression is sometimes given that the music is in more contrapuntal voices than it actually is – a good example of the ‘tricks of the trade’ that are part of good idiomatic writing for an instrument like the lute. This is sometimes done by Weiss in more formal settings, such as in the Ouverture that opens the C minor Sonata. This is in standard French-overture form in three sections: an imposing Largo is followed by a fugal Allegro, and the movement is concluded by a return to the opening mood, here marked Vivace. The central episode is a masterful example of quasi-counterpoint, in which Weiss gives the impression of a fugue without using any more than three voices at most; for most of the time he only uses two. The Courante shows Weiss extending the normal limits of the conventional dance form; the movement has no fewer than 94 measures, twice the length of those by Bach or Handel. The opening passage of the Bourrée makes use of the lutenistic special effect known as ‘campanella’, in which open and stopped strings alternate rapidly to give a bell-like sound. Instead of the more usual sarabande, Weiss substitutes a gentle Siciliana in E flat, which is followed by a Menuet in the home key. The Presto is an example of one of Weiss’s favourite types of finale, owing much to the style of the concerto, a genre in which he also excelled.

Three copies survive of the Sonata No. 32 in F major, representing two distinct versions; that from the Dresden manuscript is played here. As with many of those that come down to us in multiple copies, there is evidence that Weiss made minor revisions to this sonata, probably when giving copies to pupils; sometimes, as in this case, he added or substituted entire movements. While it requires the extra low notes characteristic of the enlarged, thirteen-course lute introduced around 1717, these are not handled with the fluency we find in the late works, where Weiss fully exploits the technical possibilities of the newer instrument; one could perform this sonata on the earlier eleven-course lute without doing much damage to the music. Furthermore, the movements are shorter than we usually find in later works. We can thus tentatively suggest a date of around 1720-25 for this sonata. The stately opening Allemande is followed by a flowing Courante in which Weiss presents idea after idea in more-or-less continuous succession. After the energetic Bourrée comes a typical Weiss Sarabande in which he shows his gift for cantabile melody enhanced by tasteful embellishment. As well as the graceful Menuet of the early version, Weiss introduces a second Menuet in contrasting style for this revision, and a lively Gigue in 9/8 rhythm replaces the more conventional original one in 6/8.

Apart from the 391 movements in the large manuscript collections in London and Dresden that are dedicated to his compositions, Weiss’s music is mostly scattered among sources which are more miscellaneous in nature. One manuscript, now in the Glinka Museum in Moscow, is especially unusual, however, in that it was copied in Russia a decade and a half after the composer’s death; it remains the only surviving Russian manuscript of lute music. While we cannot be completely certain about it, there seems every reason to suppose some direct connection with a distinguished pupil of Weiss, the Ukrainian musician, Timofei Bielogradsky, who was sent to Dresden in 1733 to study with him; on his return to Moscow six years later, Bielogradsky was appointed lutenist to the Russian Imperial court, where he remained in continuous employment until he retired on a state pension in 1767. In spite of a title-page which implies that the whole contents comprised music by Weiss, it is clear on close examination that, apart from a few otherwise unknown pieces which are explicitly ascribed to him, much of the music is by others – possibly including Bielogradsky himself, of course, although we have no documentary evidence that he composed at all. Assuming, on the balance of probabilities, that the music in the Moscow manuscript was originally brought to Russia by Bielogradsky in 1739, it is interesting to see how, in Sonata No. 94 in G minor, one of the Moscow ‘partitas’ attributed to ‘Signor Veiss’, the composer seems consciously to be experimenting in a style more like that of the following generation. The movements are not long – in fact rather modest in length by Weiss’s standards – yet this is clearly not an early work. The use of triplets and certain harmonies remind one of the ‘preclassical’ style, perhaps above all, that of Johann Adolf Hasse, whose appointment as Dresden’s Kapellmeister in 1730 had a profound effect there. Weiss and Bielogradsky worked closely in the opera house for several years with Hasse and his wife, the great soprano Faustina Bordoni; in 1741 the glittering couple acted as baptismal sponsors for Weiss’s son, Johann Adolf Faustinus Weiss.

The opening Andante is an allemande in all but name; such a change to generalised tempo indications rather than dance-titles is not unusual in later sources of lute music. It is a sad movement, largely built on a sequence of chromatic descents, delicately embellished with triplet figuration. The Courante, the humorous Paisane and the closing Gigue are rather more typical of Weiss’s middle-period music, while the Polonaise gives us a rare authentic Weiss example of the Germanised version of the stately Polish dance that is said to have become popular throughout Europe following the unification in 1697 of the Polish Crown with the Saxon Electorship in the person of August the Strong, Weiss’s first employer at Dresden.

© Tim Crawford


[1] D. Smith, T. Crawford, D. Kirsch, eds, Silvius Leopold Weiss, Sämtliche Werke für Laute (Frankfurt: Peters, and Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1983- )

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