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Mystery Man of the Lute: Lute Music BY SILVIUS LEOPOLD WEISS

The MHS Review 410, VOL. 12, NO.14• 1988

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Frank Cooper


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Not too many years ago, Sylvius Leopold Weiss was introduced to the 20th century by guitarist Andres Segovia via a suite of pieces ''transcribed by M. Ponce." Ponce, Segovia's friend and one of Mexico's best-­known composers, supposedly had edited the work and adjusted its original lute technique to the requirements of the guitar. Segovia played the suite widely, got good reviews for it, and, through his champion­ship, the work was published. Then came trouble.

Musicologists delving into the Weiss family and its music began to express doubt about the suite. One of them, Antonio Ig­lesias, wrote: ''We have begun to doubt the paternity of this suite since a personality deserving of our complete confidence con­fided to me that, in his judgement, the work could well be an original composi­tion by Ponce himself, 'in the style of Weiss, with the character and spirit of his music expounded in an admirable manner, nevertheless revealing certain turns of phrase, modulations somewhat foreign to the 18th century which render suspect its original attribution."'

So, scholars were hot on the trail of a possible deception, egged on, no doubt, by the memory of violinist Fritz Kreisler's "forgeries." The beloved virtuoso had fooled critics and audiences for many years with an array of charming baroque and classic solos which he himself had written but published under the names of little­-known composers of the past. There was much ado in the press when this harmless bit of trickery was exposed. Aesthetic arguments rose and fell like an ocean's waves, detracting in no way from Kreisler's overall reputation as a great artist nor from the delightful nature of the pieces he so cleverly had composed.

If the reader is wondering how the Weiss-Ponce flap turned out, I regret to say that I lost track of it a long time back and never knew its result. But the real music of Herr Weiss has surfaced and been published, the facts of his life researched and made widely known, and his reputa­tion as one of history's best lute composers reestablished. This release allows us to bring him into our homes for present-day consideration and, I dare say, delectation.

Weiss is interesting because he traveled and worked widely (Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, England, Austria, etc.) when such peregrinations were anything but easy (and sometimes dangerous), knew the outstanding musicians of his day (in­cluding both of the Scarlattis, J.S. Bach, Quantz, and Graun), astonished by his vir­tuosity as a player of the lute the leading aristocrats (among them King Frederick the Great), and survived (to the delight of 18th-­century gossipmongers) an attack by an enraged French violinist named Petit "who attempted to bite off the top joint of his thumb."

Weiss' music, particularly the selections heard here, runs the gamut of baroque gesture and even forecasts in some ways the classic style to come. By turns im­provisatory and organized, lyrical and perky, inward and outgoing, it is deployed across the instrument with elegant effect. The idiom of German lute style probably had no greater master than Weiss. Bach was influenced by it in the works he wrote for the lute, as were many others. What captivates is the utter smoothness, or legato, of its flow, a feature which resulted from Weiss' innovations in fingering his demanding instrument.

The lute, from Renaissance times through the baroque, was ever a gentleman's (or gentle lady's) pursuit. To play it well was fearsomely difficult. Even keeping it in tune was no easy task. Thus, the lute and its repertoire were meant for cultivated persons, for those with the refinement, breeding, and patience to con­quer the seemingly impossible. That our soloist has achieved such mastery goes without saying. The music sounds utterly natural under his hands and carries us along from one sonic pleasure to another.

Aficionados of the baroque will note that all the selections on one side are cast in ma­jor keys--bright, happy, and seemingly carefree--while the massive suite on the other side is in the minor--brooding, dark, and dramatic. The contrast is like the chiaroscuro of certain paintings of the era which heightens our perception of the chosen subjects. Fascinating!

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