Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 9
Owing mainly to the tireless efforts of the late FatherSamuel Rubio and other editors in making many of his works available in printduring the past forty years, Antonio Soler is now justly regarded as the mostimportant composer active in Spain during the second half of the eighteenthcentury. He was born at Olot, in the province of Gerona in north-eastern Spainin 1729 and baptised on 3rd December. At the age of six he entered the famouschoir school at the Monastery of Montserrat where he studied organ andcomposition. Before that he probably received some tuition from his father, whowas a regimental bandsman. In 1744 he was appointed organist at the cathedralin Seo de Urgel and was later ordained as subdeacon there.
At that time the Bishop of Urgel asked him if he knew of aboy who could play the organ and who wished to take holy orders at theEscorial. Soler volunteered himself, saying that he very much wanted to takethe vows and retreat from the world, and so on 25th September 1752 he became a monkand entered that famous monastery near Madrid, built by Philip II. He alsobecame master of the Chapel there, probably in 1757 following the death of hispredecessor, Gabriel de Moratilla. Soler remained there until his death in1783.
During the years 1752 to 1757 Soler is reputed to havestudied composition with Domenico Scarlatti and many of Soler's sonatas showhis influence to a marked degree both in form and musical language. Despite hisprobable debt to Scarlatti, however, Soler's own personality is very much inevidence in these works. Many of these sonatas, like Scarlatti's, are singlemovements 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 isquite possible that he was one of the copyists of some of the manuscriptvolumes of Scarlatti's sonatas, now housed in Venice and Parma.
Fortunately for posterity Soler's wish for a quiet life didnot work out quite as he intended. Apart from his monastic duties he wasexpected to train the choir, provide choral music for services, and provide theRoyal family with secular and instrumental music during their frequent visitsto the Escorial. The Spanish court regularly spent the autumn there. Soler'sachievement is also astonishing when considering that much of his day wouldhave been taken up with prayer and the routine of the community. Periods ofillness often prevented him from working. We learn from the anonymous obituaryof Soler, written by a fellow monk on the day he died, that he survived on onlyfour hours' sleep most nights, often retiring at midnight or one o'clock in themorning before rising at four or five o'clock to say Mass. Mention is also madeof his religious devotion, compassionate nature, scholarly interests andexcessive candour. Soler died at the Escorial on 20th December, 1783, from agradually worsening fever which he had caught the previous month. Soler's hugeoutput runs to nearly 500 individual works, and of his 150 keyboard sonatas, mostwere intended for harpsichord.
A large number of Soler's instrumental works, including manyof the sonatas, were composed for the Infante Don Gabriel (1752-1788), son ofCarlos III, whom Soler served as music master from the mid-1760s. As withScarlatti, Spanish folk-song and dance elements feature prominently in hissonatas. Soler was much influenced by the changing musical fashions of thesecond 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 1780sapproach the Viennese classical school in musical language. There are a largenumber of slow movements amongst the single-movement works which contain someof 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, thoughthis is not always apparent in Rubio's edition, except in the case of RubioNos. 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 wereprobably originally played on a 63-key harpsichord with a compass from F tog˝ which Diego Fernandez built for the Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.
Sonatas Nos. 86/84 in D major have lively Spanish dancerhythms, and flamenco orientated harmonies and guitar-like repeated chords areprominent features of both these sonatas in triple time. Much of the thematicmaterial of No. 86 is built out of rising and falling scale patterns. There arealso some striking modulations, particularly in the second half. The veryfamiliar Sonata No. 84, with its Scarlattian leaps, rapid repeated notes andchords suggesting the tremolo of the Spanish guitar, is one of Soler's mostebullient and justly popular works.
The fine Sonata No. 72 in F minor is characterized by arelentless drive and vitality that is immediately attractive and freshsounding. Lyricism frequently cuts through the intricate figurations, andSoler's gift for modulation is amply demonstrated.
Both of the contrasted pair of Sonatas Nos. 132/119 in Bflat major call for more than the full five-octave compass of the harpsichord,ranging from low F to the top G. The heading Cantabile - Andantino aptlydescribes the character of the utterly charming and lyrical Sonata No. 132,which is very Spanish in its musical language, both melodically andharmonically, especially the second subject in the dominant minor. Dottedrhythms are a prominent feature, and there are some striking modulations,particularly after the double bar. Sonata No. 119 is an exuberant virtuosopiece with many difficult leaps, subtle rhythmic changes, and modulations toremote keys. Typical of Spanish dance rhythms in this work is the shifting ofaccents, so that 6/8 sometimes sounds like 3/4.
Sonatas Nos. 24/25 in D minor form another contrasted pairof sonatas, the first of which is a lyrical and passionate work with anabundant flow of ideas. Again it is unmistakably Spanish in its melodiccontent. Each half becomes more animated and intense as it progresses, andalthough marked Andantino cantabile this piece never truly feels like a slowmovement, since the 3/8 time has a one in the bar feeling. Sonata No. 25 beginsin the manner of a fugue, and the texture of this work is often morecontrapuntal than is usual for Soler (except when he is actually writingfugues) often with imitation between the hands. Passages which are purelyharmonic in texture are introduced by way of contrast, including the delightfulsecond subject with its broken chord accompaniment, after which the musicbecomes more dramatic, reinforced by powerful octaves in the bass.
The three sonatas, Sonatas Nos. 12/13/14 in G major appearas a trilogy in the English edition and have certain features in common. Allare quick movements in duple time, making use of arpeggio figuration andhand-crossings. Sonata No. 12, De La Codorniz (The Quail), like Sonata No. 108,Del Gallo, recorded on Volume 7, is another ornithological piece characterizedby a persistent dotted rhythm. No. 13 is a rich-textured virtuoso piece of muchdrive and vigour. There are some startling modulations in the second half, andthe full five-octave range is called for. No. 14 is the most lyrical of the setdespite the flamboyant use of left-hand arpeggios, hand-crossings and repeatednotes. There is some ambiguity of rhythm at the beginning that causes thelistener to perceive the opening bars as being in 3/2 rather than 2/2. The workalso contains