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8.572515 - SOLER, A.: Keyboard Sonatas Nos. 1-15 (Filjak)

Antonio Soler (1729–1783)
Keyboard Sonatas Nos. 1–15


Father Antonio Soler was among the leading musical figures in Spain in the eighteenth century. He received his early musical training from his father, and later entered the Escolania de Montserrat, one of the most active musical centres of the time. He stayed there until he was seventeen, when, in 1753, he entered the Monastery of El Escorial as a monk, to remain there until his death. His work in the monastery was essentially musical, and he eventually became maestro de capilla, apparently from 1757, and then, from 1766, music master to the princes Antonio and Gabriel of Bourbon, sons of Charles III, in the months that the court was installed in El Escorial. As maestro de capilla, as well as directing the music of the establishment, he had the task of composing all the liturgical and religious music that was required, and a very extensive and very interesting sample of this has remained in the musical archive of El Escorial. As master to the princes, his compositions show another, secular aspect of his work, and this is where we find the best known of his compositions, his keyboard sonatas. It was for the Infante Don Gabriel that he composed the majority of his keyboard sonatas and the six concertos for two organs. Also in this context he wrote quintets for keyboard and strings. The sonatas also helped him maintain contact with Catalonia, since he often sent copies of his work to the Monastery of Montserrat.

Sonatas at that time were often considered as didactic exercises, as reflected in the title of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, and in the first and only publication of his work, in London. Soler’s sonatas are in the nature of lessons or pieces to be played in private, for individual enjoyment. They appeared in a period of coexistence of different keyboard instruments (harpsichord, clavichord, organ and pianoforte) and it is not always clear whether these compositions were for one of these instruments exclusively or suitable for all of them. Soler had access to all these instruments, as did members of the court. It seems most probable, however, that they were written for a harpsichord by Diego Fernández that Prince Gabriel acquired in 1761, an instrument with five octaves (61 keys), or at least most of the sonatas were. Some could have been written for the organ and perhaps those that are stylistically more advanced could have been written with the possibilities of the pianoforte in mind.

Approximately 150 keyboard sonatas by Soler have survived. Musicians and musicologists have affirmed their quality and originality, equivalent to the contemporary and better known works by Domenico Scarlatti (those he wrote in bipartite form), of whom Soler himself is thought to have been a pupil, although that is still a matter open to debate among musicologists. It is not clear whether this presumed connection should be taken literally or if it indicates only admiration by Soler for the Italian-born composer, mirrored in his compositions. In any case, contact between the musicians and composers of the Madrid court and other religious institutions of the capital was quite normal. One can also recognise an approach to the classical Viennese style in the sonatas he wrote with more than one movement.

Stylistically Soler’s sonatas follow the same patterns as those of his contemporaries Domenico Scarlatti and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. They are highly original in thematic elements and modulations, a reflection of his well known study La Llave de la Modulación (The Key of Modulation), in which some musicologists claim he was ahead of his time. He continuously used elements of popular Spanish music with rhythms typical of different dances or through the imitation of certain aspects of guitar playing, creating his own musical language. He starts from the monothematic bipartite sonata, structured into two sections that are repeated, characterized by the repetition of different melodic cells and frequent cadences, although his treatment of it is very flexible. It seems that, following criteria also employed by other contemporary composers, some of the sonatas were written to be played consecutively in groups of two or three. In this case they are usually written in the same key. Soler did not confine himself to this form and also began to write ternary sonatas, but with more than one movement, where we can find features of what would later be the Viennese sonata with its characteristic two contrasting themes.

Nonetheless the work of Soler remains relatively little known. The difficulty in finding a complete published edition of the sonatas has not helped. The principal editors of printed sonatas, Father Samuel Rubio and F. Marvin, did not publish all of them (120 and 44 respectively). As far as recordings are concerned, there are only two, and in both cases, they have been recorded with harpsichord, while much less is available on the piano, although some of the sonatas have played a part in the training of pianists and were found in the repertoire of great players such as Alicia de Larrocha.

Volume 1 offers sonatas using the catalogue numbering of Father Samuel Rubio. Those which do not appear in this catalogue but have come to light over time will be included in subsequent volumes. The majority of the sonatas are not dated, so that establishing an exact chronological order is practically impossible. Neither has any autograph of the composer survived, but only copies, often made in the nineteenth century. Stylistically, and lacking a more in-depth study, what can be confirmed is that the sonatas with more than one movement are later works, since they herald the new classical style.

Rubio, Kaster and R. Mitjana, among others, describe Soler’s compositional style with terms such as “national and pure” owing to the use of short and concise motifs, with their repetitions and frequent cadences, at the expense of a more extensive, more Italianate attention to melody. Soler has also been seen as a precursor of Haydn or Mozart in some of his sonatas, and some players have compared him with Liszt owing to the extreme difficulty involved in some passages. The musical result is described as brilliant, cheerful and even frivolous in the fast movements, but tender, serene and poetic in the slower movements. And in both cases, with ingenious twists of modulation.

This first volume of sonatas begins with the only sonatas that were published in Soler’s time, in London. In 1772 Soler gave them to an English amateur, Lord Fitzwilliam, and they were printed by Robert Birchall in 1796 (XXVII Sonatas for harpsichord by Father Antonio Soler. Robert Birchall, 133 New Benet St., London). The original is held in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Of the fifteen sonatas included here, this is the only surviving source, with the exception of No. 3 and No. 4, which are also found in manuscripts in Montserrat (Ms. 110 and 58, Ms. 27 and 48 respectively) and fifteen found in the archive of the Royal Conservatory of Madrid (Ms. 3/429).* The pieces in this manuscript have been published by B. Ife and R. Truby (Antonio Soler, Twelve Sonatas (The Madrid Conservatory Manuscript), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1989).

It was with these 27 sonatas that Rubio began his catalogue of Soler’s compositions (Rubio, S., Antonio Soler, catálogo crítico, Cuenca, 1980) and, according to the musicologist Rafael Mitjana, it is only with these pieces that one can begin to understand the expertise of Soler in this type of composition. Within the catalogue, these 27 sonatas make up the numbers that go from 336 (1) to 362 (27). Parallel to this, Rubio himself published them in UME in seven volumes (Soler, Father Antonio: Sonatas para instrumentos de tecla. Revision, transcription and study: P. Samuel Rubio). Rubio wanted to publish an eighth volume, but this never saw the light of day. The fifteen we present on this recording are found published in the first volume. From the editions mentioned, we can find others that also contain some of the recorded sonatas: F. Marvin in Henle Verlag (Sonatas Nos. 5, 9, 12 and 13) and in Antonio Soler, Sonatas for piano, Volumes I–VI, Contino Press Music, Inc., New York, 1976/82 (Sonatas Nos. 4, 6, 7 and 10); K. Gilbert in Antonio Soler, 14 Sonatas for Keyboard from the Fitzwilliam Collection, Faber Music Limited, London, 1987 (Sonatas Nos. 1, 4, 8, 9 and 11); J. Nin in Classiques espagnols du piano: Sonates anciennes d’auteurs espagnols, Paris, 1925 (Sonatas Nos. 2 and 15) and L. Duck in Six Sonatas for Pianoforte (Vol. 1–2), Mills Music, New York, 1950 (Sonatas 6 and 11).

In all fifteen sonatas we find the two sections that are typically repeated in the bipartite sonata. These sections are not symmetrical, but are of more or less the same length. Sometimes the first section is longer and sometimes the second, with no perceptible pattern. Within each section there are often internal sections, marked in the score with a double bar, which indicate a change of key. As compositional resources, there is imitation and the repetition of small fragments, the juxtaposition of melodic and short rhythmic motifs, broken chords, clear rococo ornamentation, especially in the slow movements, and a wide range of technical requirements that show the didactic aims of this type of repertoire, ornamentation (trills, mordents and so on), scales and arpeggios at high speed, simultaneous passages of thirds, great leaps in rapid movements, passages of broken octaves at high speed, repeated notes, held notes, frequent crossings of hands often with great leaps, some of which offer a show of acrobatics in live performance. It should also be pointed out that the same technical demands are made on both hands and that often there is a combination of different technical difficulties in the same passage.

According to the practice of the time, perhaps one of these sonatas was written to be played in groups of two or three. These are normally sonatas that are in the same key and only in one case is there a change of mode, even though the keys are the same. These groups may be formed by Sonatas Nos. 5–6, Nos. 7–8–9, Nos. 10–11, and Nos. 12–13–14. The harpsichordist Bob van Asperen suggests that Sonata No. 15 should be paired with No. 54. The reason, he suggests, is that in Ms. 3/429 of the Royal Conservatory of Madrid they appear successively, as well as being written in the same key. Nevertheless, this sonata does not appear in the contemporary London edition and in this case was published from copies from the composer’s own hand. For this reason No. 54 has not been included in this recording.

Laura Pallàs i Mariani

* I am grateful to the Royal Conservatory of Madrid for their availability and help in providing me with a copy of this manuscript.

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