The Harpsichord Music of Antonio Soler
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The Life and Times of Soler
Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783) was one of those remarkable historical figures whom we of the twentieth century might find almost unbelievable when regarding what we would call the "output" of his career. In his life he produced: more than 200 sonatas for harpsichord, 6 quintets for string quartet and organ, and 6 concertos for the rare combination of two organs. In addition there were: 9 masses, 25 church hymns, 5 requiems, 60 psalms, 13 Magnificats, 21 pieces for the service of burial, 5 motets, 12 Benedicamus, and 132 villancicos. This is only a partial list - there are many more known works, as well as a controversial treatise on harmony (the Llave de la Modulacion, or "Key to Modulation") and, strangely enough, a mathematically adept treatise on currency exchange rates.
Unfortunately, there are very few known portraits of Antonio Soler; though Frederick Marvin has presented a facsimile of the title page from Veni Creator which shows a monk prostrate before an altar and captioned: "Possible drawing of Soler himself."¹ But this does not show enough detail to determine what Soler may have looked like. The composer rarely allowed his portrait to be painted, presumably due to modesty; this would be commensurate with his character as a man of humility and simple tastes. One well-known purveyor of recorded music has presented what is in fact an engraving of Fernando Sor as being of Soler; this engraving is presented here, in order that the reader be not misled. By a curious coincidence, both of these composers began their career in the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, Spain.
From his title you have deduced that he was a monk (a Hieronymite, to be exact), but he was also a priest. As the maestro de capilla at the Escorial royal palace in Madrid (see photo in graphics links), his duties were many and varied, including teaching and acting as the first organist as well as composing all of the music for church services. One of Solers star pupils was the Infante Don Gabriel de Borbon, the son of Carlos III. The Infante was a talented student, and many of the harpsichord sonatas were probably composed expressly for him.
A long day indeed it was for the Hieronymite monks, beginning with office hours at 5AM and progressing through a series of masses, lessons, recitations of the Stations of the Cross, and finishing at midnight with maitines. In light of this heavy schedule, it is remarkable that he managed to compose so many musical works. As if all of these duties and musical endeavors were not enough to occupy his waking hours, he also found time to invent a tuning box that he called an afinador or templante, which used plucked strings to divide the 9:8 tuning ratio into 20 equal parts. So one might, with some degree of legitimacy, state that this innovative monastic was one of the earliest microtonalists.
Apparently Soler was himself a student, the famous Domenico Scarlatti being among his tutors. Much has been made of this point, yet Solers style of composition diverges in many ways from that of Scarlatti, so that the degree of Scarlattis influence is open to debate. There are undeniable similarities in their sonatas, other than the obvious fact that they are mostly in the binary sonata form; both composers delighted in wide leaps, frantic crossings of the hands, and scalar passages in double thirds or sixths. And yet there are many stylistic differences as well, such as Soler's predilection for the musical device known as the "Alberti bass", a tool seldom used by Scarlatti (listen to Sonata 10, and refer to the short discussion of the guitar influences in the sonatas). The acciaccatura was another device where the two differed in usage, frequently used by Scarlatti but rarely used by Soler. Perhaps Scarlatti benefited from the relationship as much as his student. Certainly, though, the two composers knew each other and respected each other's work. Beyond this we enter into the realm of speculation.
Both Soler and Scarlatti, and Boccherini as well for that matter, drew much of their inspiration from the fiery, syncopated traditional music of Spain; therein lies much of the charm of Solers music. And yet, to this ear at least, you can often catch glimpses of the nascent style galant and of a young Mozart (listen particularly to Sonata 40, as well as to Sonata 41 and Sonata 94a). So Soler was a composer who drew from many sources, and became in turn a source for others.
Probably the most famous, and certainly the most played, of Soler's harpsichord works is the ubiquitous, dazzling Fandango (R. 146), which has frequently been compared to Ravel's Bolero. While both Samuel Rubio (1912-1986) and Frederick Marvin (1926 -), the two leading Soler researchers, originally attributed the work to Soler, there has been some question as to the authorship. The proponent and instigator of this theory is Isidro Barrio, himself a Soler performer and scholar, who states his case as follows:
"I told him (i.e. Samuel Rubio - ed.) that I had serious doubts about Soler's authorship of this work. Rubio then subjected the work to a thorough examination and informed me that I was right: 'I am compelled to cast a doubt on Soler's authorship of this work although I had previously confirmed it (...). I hope to explain in greater depth at a later date the reasons which make me doubt the authenticity of the work. At the time being, however, we can declare the hunt open for the true author.' " ²
Rubio's promised revelations have, sadly, never come to light. However, he did note in his critical catalogue published in 1980, that:
"Dudamos seriamente de la paternidad soleriana de este fandango. Sobre un «obstinato» substancialmente idéntico compuse José Martiy (sic) un Fandango con variaciones para el forte piano." (Literally translated, "We have serious doubts concerning the solerian paternity of this fandango. Above an ostinato substantially identical composed by José Martiy, a Fandango with variations for the fortepiano."3
If Soler did indeed write the Fandango, then it is unique among all of his harpsichord works. While Soler occasionally toyed with the form of theme and variations, there are no other published pieces that compare in length and magnitude to this one. Also unique is the use of a basso ostinato, in the form of a twelve note sequence which reappears many times in the left hand, and hypnotic in its effect on the listener. Though there may be valid reasons to suspect the truth of this theory, still it would be not at all surprising to find that a man of Soler's wide-ranging interests could compose such a masterpiece.
The most distinguishing, and to some surprising, attributes of Soler's sonatas are a delightfully uninhibited playfulness and an unabashed exuberance, which itself tells us much more about the man himself than all of the musicological research that has been done. This led Kirkpatrick to state that:
"anything gayer or more frivolous could hardly be imagined. One is accustomed to finding frolicking roseate cherubs, not to mention languorous saints, in eighteenth-century churches, but this for the Escorial is almost as if the College of Cardinals were to break into a jig!" 4
As did Couperin and Rameau, but not to such a degree, Soler occasionally gave descriptive names to his sonatas. But the names he chose were less oblique than either of those two, whose references were often based on private jokes and archaic language usage the true meaning of which has been obscured by the passage of time. Soler was a simple man, little interested in court intrigue and passing fads and fancies, and this is reflected in uncomplicated names such as "del Gallo" ("of the Rooster") and "de Clarines" ("of the trumpeter"). The "del Gallo" sonata is presented here as Sonata 108; the listener may readily perceive the meaning of the reference.
The composers own words give us another rare glimpse of the apparently vivacious and opinionated "inner man" (from the Llave de la Modulacion):
"What good does it do if a work is well written but stirs no feelings in the listener? Many people judge music on the basis of its notation and do not know how it sounds. Such people claim this right for themselves although they would do better not to practice it."
Though he is properly considered a personality of the Age of Enlightment, we might also characterize Antonio Soler as a "Renaissance Man" of many talents - monk, priest, author, mathematician, inventor, innovator, student, teacher, and, of course, composer.
Which leads us to the music itself. I have transmogrified a selection of Soler's harpsichord sonatas for the MIDI and mp3 formats, and you can hear them by selecting from the audio files and sheet music page. The music was first converted to digital format with Finale, then sequenced with Cakewalk Pro and also converted to the mp3 format. All of the audio files currently use equal temperament, though they should more properly be heard in historical temperaments like Werckmeister or Valotti. Links to other sites of interest are also shown.
All of the MIDI files were created using a SoundBlaster32 sound card with various harpsichord patches stored in RAM; as with most sound cards for the PC, the factory harpsichord patches sound little like the real instrument. If your soundcard can use external patches, I recommend that you search the web for a good harpsichord patch and substitute it for the original in order to hear the MIDI files to their best advantage. For those with Soundblaster cards and plenty of RAM, I suggest John Sankey's excellent german8 harpsichord patch, "recorded from the main 8' register of an instrument made by William Post Ross of Boston in 1969." You can hear a short sample of this combination in the Sankey german8 WAV file.
For those who are unfamiliar with the sonatas, Sonata 21 is recommended as an introduction. This piece in C# minor is one of the finest examples of the composer's style, and, typically, has its roots in the traditional canciónes of Spain. Then listen to Sonata 40 for contrast. Of course, the MIDI versions of the sonatas are a pale imitation of performances by professional musicians on real harpsichords; thanks to a growing interest in Soler's works, there are now numerous excellent CD recordings available. For the true Soler aficionado, Bob van Asperen has made an excellent recording of the entire set of sonatas. Gilber Rowland is also undertaking this magnum opus on the Naxos label. Details for these CD's and many others may be found in the linked Soler discography.
A word on the sonata numbers: there have been several catalogs of Solers sonatas, which has led to some confusion over the names commonly used. Of all the editions, that of the renowned Soler scholar Padre Samuel Rubio is the most commonly used today, and still the most comprehensive. This is the numbering scheme used here. You will also find a link to a concordance that cross-references all of the published editions along with the key of each sonata (which information, to my knowledge, has never before appeared as a single collection), as well as to a bibliography, discography, and table of editions of the harpsichord sonatas, graphics pages, and errata.
There are also versions of the documents in Adobe Acrobat PDF format; you can download these by right-clicking the title and selecting "Save target as" (if you are using Internet Explorer - for other browsers, see your documentation for instructions on how to do this). You can also view them in your browser if you have the Acrobat browser extension installed.
I hope that you enjoy listening to these sonatas as much as I have enjoyed preparing them, in hopes that they will cast some illumination into the shadows of Scarlatti and restore the music of this unique composer to its proper place in the sun.
- Ray Izumi, Redmond, WA, USA, Nov. 2005
1 Frederick Marvin, Discovered Treasure: The Music of Antonio Soler, Clavier, July-Aug. 1980, p.22
2 Isidro Barrio, liner notes to recording "Antonio Soler Piano Sonatas", Koch Schwann 3-1730-2, 1996
3 Catalogo Critico de la Obra del Padre A. Soler, Instituto de Música Religiosa de la Diputación Provincial de Cuenca, 1980
4 Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti (New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1968) p. 123
Click here to download Acrobat Reader.
Last revised: December 21, 2006. Created 24 Nov. 1996.