About this Recording
8.572680 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 11 (Barto) - Nos. 30, 39 and 96
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Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 11


One of the most remarkable things about the music of the Silesian lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss is its individuality. Much is composed in the prevailing ‘mixed’ Italian/French style popular in early eighteenth-century Germany, and familiar to us today from the works of Bach, Handel and Telemann. But, with the exception of a few movements of the lighter kind, it could be not mistaken for any of those three great masters. The fact that one of Weiss’s works, Sonata No. 47 in A major, exists in an arrangement by JS Bach, the so-called Suite for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1025, partly copied in his autograph, did indeed mislead the nineteenth-century compilers of the great Bach-Gesellschaft edition into attributing it to the Leipzig genius, but its authenticity was always in question—it certainly does not sound much like Bach.

We know very little about Weiss’s training in composition; we are told that, like his younger brother Johann Sigismund and his sister Juliana, he was taught the lute by his father, Johann Jakob Weiss (?1662–1754). Whether Johann Jakob engaged in composition, as such, we do not know, but undoubtedly he would have been a highly skilled improviser on his instrument, and equally certainly this would have been a central element in the training of the young Silvius. The boy was an infant prodigy, and even performed for Emperor Leopold I at the tender age of seven years, though unfortunately we do not know where or precisely when this took place. At this time, the end of the seventeenth century, the Hapsburg court employed or was regularly visited by the finest musicians in Europe; the Emperor himself was a highly-respected composer, and the lute was entering the height of its popularity in the German-speaking world, especially so in the Imperial cities of Vienna and Prague. This is by contrast with its relative decline in esteem at the French court at Versailles, the place where all royal families cast their eyes in search of the model for how to conduct themselves in the rôle of absolute monarchs.

Like courtly life, lute music had been dominated by French models since the mid-seventeenth century. In fact, the outward form of the typical ‘French’ lute suite—a succession of stylised dances in a more-or-less prescribed order derived from the earlier ballet de cour—continued to be used by Weiss and his contemporaries throughout his career. Although it is by no means certain that the great Parisian luthistes, such as Denis Gaultier, François Dufaut, Jacques de Gallot and Charles Mouton, actually performed their music in such suites, their music is usually found arranged this way in the many surviving manuscripts of French music copied by or for the use of Austrian, Bohemian and German lute players around 1700. This great French repertory of lute music, and its performance style in particular, had already exerted a strong influence over harpsichord music, particularly through the agency of Johann Jakob Froberger, who was a favourite musician of Leopold I’s father, Ferdinand III.

French lute music was certainly revered in Austria and Silesia, and was consciously imitated by later composers for the instrument, including Weiss himself in several of his earlier works—he seems to have retained an affection for a particular allemande by Gallot, L’Amant malheureux, to which he returned in a number of surviving variations and imitations, no doubt based in turn on his own improvisations around the works he most admired. Gallot’s allemande, probably a product of his later career, possibly as late as 1680, makes prominent use of the device of a descending sequence of suspensions which was synonymous with the concept of ‘lament’ during the baroque period. Most of Weiss’s allemandes, even those in ‘happy’ major keys, and other movements, too, contain such sequences, and this is one of the most distinctive features of his style. Sometimes, these seem—on paper—to be taken to an extreme, but this is to forget the importance of improvisation in the make-up of a lutenist composer and virtuoso performer such as Weiss. Sequences are also one of the stock elements of Weiss’s compositions in the explicitly improvisational style typical for preludes, capriccios and fantasias, of which he left dozens of examples. These would most likely have been written out at the request of patrons, or for the instruction of pupils, and they do not seem to have formed an essential part of Weiss’s concept of the suite (or ‘sonata’, his preferred term); doubtless he would have been able to improvise a prelude in any key or mood to set the musical scene, so to speak, for the suite that followed.

Another favourite ‘fantastic’ feature is his tendency to modulate temporarily to a remote key, which—especially in his later music—he often does in longer fast movements, such as courantes or prestos; this is always followed by a ‘return home’ (sometimes teasingly delayed) not just to the home key, but usually to the actual music of the opening of the movement. In the prevailing rhetorical aesthetic of courtly music-making, such devices would have had unmistakeable narrative significance for the audience, although, unfortunately, we have no means of ‘decoding’ this with any certainty.

There is no doubt that Weiss’s experience as an improviser provided the background to his wonderful fluency in the embellishment of slow movements, where relatively simple underlying melodies become something truly special when transformed by the addition of a filigree of extra notes, not inserted in the interest of virtuosic display, but there to enhance the affective impact of the music. In the hands of a fine player, the emotional quality of Weiss’s music is far above that of most of the lute composers of his own or previous generations.

None of the music on this recording can be dated with absolute certainty, though it probably comes from three distinct periods. Sonata No. 39 in C major is certainly a work of Weiss’s high maturity, possibly even as late as the early 1740s. It opens with a majestic Ouverture, a genre which consciously apes the orchestral style of the French court. Surprisingly, perhaps, there exist many ouvertures in lute manuscripts, beginning with arrangements of Lully’s popular works in this form from seventeenth-century France. But Weiss made something of a speciality of ouvertures, often on a truly grand scale, such as this one, in which the special effects of orchestral performance, like the roulades of fast notes which embellish the opening slow section, or the successive high to low entries in the fugue which follows, are convincingly transformed into a style which suits this least orchestral of instruments.

The sheer scale of this opening movement leaves no room for the habitual allemande, so it is followed directly by a Courante whose opening few notes provide the musical motif on which the movement is based and are subjected to a variety of unexpected transformations—again, an indication of Weiss’s grounding in improvisation. This thematic unity is heard again in the robust Bourrée, which like all Weiss’s movements in ‘folk’ style allows him to display his keen wit. Although the manuscript does not actually give the melody of the Sarabande in its simple, unadorned form, it can easily be reconstructed, as it is here. In the stream of music that follows, Weiss’s lyrical embellishments treat the instrument in a manner which is utterly, and uniquely, idiomatic. Unlike other lute composers, Weiss seems to have used the minuet form as a kind of test-bed for compositional ideas, playing with and against the expectations of his audience, who would all have been familiar with the conventional steps of this most popular of dances. In the Menuet of this sonata he seems to be toying with rondo form, but, as in all the best improvisations, one is never sure where the music is going next. The Presto is one of Weiss’s typically energetic finales, whose opening is strongly reminiscent of the flute sonata in the same key ascribed to JS Bach, BWV 1033.

The following sonata on this recording, No. 96 in G major, survives in a manuscript copied in Moscow some time after 1762, over a decade after the composer’s death. Weiss actually taught a fine Russian (or, more probably, Ukrainian) lutenist named Timofei Bielogradsky (c. 1710–after 1770) in the 1730s, and it has been speculated that it was he who brought the music later copied into this manuscript back with him to Moscow, where he enjoyed a high status at court, receiving a state pension on his retirement in 1767. The short Prelude actually comes from another partial copy of the sonata—another case to suggest that a prelude would have been improvised by a professional lutenist such as Bielogradsky. The Allemande and Courante are in the restrained and elegant style of Weiss’s early years; while the Bourrée flirts briefly with chromaticism in its second half, this is cheerful music of not much technical difficulty. The Sarabande is of the plain variety, without any embellishment, and the Menuet presents few musical challenges. Although the Presto should obviously be played fast, it too does not truly stretch the player’s technique. This is clearly one of a number of musically excellent sonatas that Weiss composed for teaching purposes—perhaps Bielogradsky was glad to have a number of these in his repertory for the delight of the Tsarina’s family.

Sonata No. 30 in E flat major, probably dating from between 1725 and 1730, was copied out in Prague for the merchant and minor aristocrat Johann Christian Anthoni von Adlersfeld (died between 1737 and 1741) into the famous ‘London’ manuscript of Weiss’s lute works. Prague had been a major centre of lute activity for several decades when Weiss first visited in 1717, and he went there several more times, including a trip to the coronation of Emperor Charles VI in 1723, when, in order to hear the new opera composed for the occasion by Fux, some Dresden musicians, including Weiss, the cellist Benda and the oboist Quantz (later famed as a flute-player) found places as ripienists in the orchestra. In the manuscript, the Prelude was copied later onto some staves left empty following the imposing Allemande; again this shows that Weiss did not regard the prelude as an essential part of the composition of a sonata, preferring to leave it to be improvised on the spot.

An earthy Rigaudon is followed by a Sarabande composed in Weiss’s cantabile style but without the continuous additional embellishment we saw in the late C major sonata. In the Gavotte Weiss exercises the player’s right-hand thumb with a three-note descending bass-line motif that continually recurs throughout the piece, while the Menuet has a lilting quality enhanced by another repetitive three-note motif in the melody, this time moving upward.

The character title of the final piece, Le Sans Souci (‘the carefree’), might raise the possibility of another royal association. In January 1728 Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later known as Frederick the Great, 1712–1788) visited Dresden with his father, King Frederick Wilhelm I; on 26 January he wrote to his sister: “I performed as a musician. Richter, Buffardin, Quantz, Pisendel and Weiss accompanied. I admire them. They are the best artists at the court.” In May of the same year, the Saxon Elector paid a return visit to Berlin with Quantz, Pisendel, Weiss, and Buffardin among his retinue. Some years later, in 1745, Frederick, by now the Prussian King, began work on his palace at Potsdam, ‘Sanssouci’, named after the same French phrase. But, to be frank, this is more likely to be a mere coincidence.

Tim Crawford

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