Silvius Leopold Weiss

1687 1750

Silvius Leopold Weiss

Composer

Biography

Silvius Leopold Weiss was a German lute virtuoso and composer of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was a contemporary of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, both of whom regarded him as a talented composer.

Silvius Leopold the son of the court lutenist Johann Jacob Weiss. Weiss Sr. was employed by the court of the Palatine chapel which was located in Düsseldorf (1708), Heidelberg (1718) and Mannheim (1720). He died in 1754 in Mannheim, outliving his son by four years, after having retired from the court 20 years prior. None of his compositions have survived. Johann Jacob trained his son in lute from a young age. Silvius Leopold possessed great talent and performed for Emperor Leopold I at the age of seven.

Silvius Leopold’s first known employer was the Count Carl Philipp of the Palatinate, for whom he performed in 1706 during the count’s residence in Breslau. The same year, while visiting the count’s brother in Düsseldorf, he also composed the Sonata No. 7, his first datable composition. Weiss relocated to Italy in 1710, where he remained for four years in the service of the Polish Prince Alexander Sobiesky, who resided in Rome with his mother Queen Maria Casimira.

Weiss probably received numerous opportunities to work with Alessandro Scarlatti and Domenico Scarlatti while in Rome, as his employer's mother, Queen Maria Casimira, had hired them in succession as her music directors. He was also likely exposed to other Italian composers active in Rome at the time, such asCorelli.

Weiss left Rome in 1714 following the death of the prince and promptly found employment with his former employer, Carl Philipp, who had since become the Imperial Governor of the Tyrol. Just a few years later, in 1717, Weiss was listed as a member of the chapel at the Saxon court in Dresden, though he was formally appointed the next year. He began with an impressive salary which continued to grow, resulting in Weiss being the highest paid instrumentalist of the court. It was around this time that he married Maria Elizabeth, with whom he had eleven children. In addition to composing and performing as a soloist, evidence suggests that Weiss was very active as an ensemble musician. This assumption is the result of the discovery of Weiss’s handwritten notes to the continuo parts ofJ.A. Hasse’s operas, which were performed at the court between 1731 and 1749.

Weiss often travelled to other courts throughout Europe to perform for short periods. He went to Prague on two occasions (in 1717 and 1719) and to Vienna in 1718 with the Saxon Crown Prince Frederick Augustus. While in Vienna, he joined eleven top court musicians in a performance for the Emperor.

After being physically attacked in 1722 by Petit, a French violinist, Weiss nearly experienced an abrupt end to his career, as Petit attempted to bite of the top of Weiss’s right thumb.

Luckily with his thumb intact, Weiss performed at the Bavarian court in Munich with flautist P.G. Buffardin in 1722. The next year he was invited to Prague to perform Fux’s operaCostanza e fortezza with the orchestra aside musicians such as Quantz and C.H. Graun for the celebration of Charles VI’s coronation.

Weiss travelled with Pisendel, Quantz and Buffardin to Berlin with Elector August in 1728. On this trip, he managed to greatly impress the royalty, most notably the future King Frederick the Great and his sister Wilhelmine, who studied with Weiss and had become a fine lutenist herself.

As a teacher, Weiss was very active and taught lessons to amateurs and professionals alike. His students included Prince Philipp Hyacinth Lobkowitz and his wife in Bohemia and Vienna. He also taught many professional lutenists in Dresden including Adam Falckenhagen and Johann Kropfgans. Documentation exists of Weiss’s visit toJ.S. Bach in Leipzig in 1739 together with his student Kropfgans, though this was likely not the first or last time they met as Bach was often in Dresden to visit his son Wilhelm Friedemann and to enjoy the music of the court musicians.

After his death in 1750, his widow Maria Elizabeth was left in a desperate financial situation, despite Weiss’s high salary. Seven of the eleven children were still living at the time of Weiss’s death, after which Maria Elizabeth appealed to the Elector for financial aid.

Weiss’s ability to play and compose for the lute was unrivalled in the late Baroque period. His level is best compared to his keyboard contemporaries J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. In the entire history of the lute, Weiss composed the most works for the instrument, numbering hundreds. Of the surviving works, many are six-movement sonatas (called Suonaten or Partien) containing the movements: allemande, courante, bourrée, sarabande, minuet and gigue (or allegro). His use of this structure is present in both his early and later works, though he often substituted one or more movements. In addition, some of the sonatas include a fantasia or an unbarred prelude, which was likely improvised and thus almost never written down.

Standard in Weiss’s sonatas were serious and melancholic allemandes and sarabandes with upbeat, lively fast movements similar in nature to Corelli’s uptempo movements. His later compositions became increasingly longer and with coordinated thematic motifs and harmonic structure, foreshadowing the Classical sonata form.

In addition to the many sonatas, Weiss composed a number of concertos, lute duets and much chamber music for the lute, though none of these works have survived in complete form. Their existence can be verified by their inclusion in previous catalogues, including that of Breitkopf. There have been several single tablature lute parts that have been discovered, though an accurate reconstruction is quite impossible.

The style of his compositions is much like Bach’s in his combination of French and Italian influences to create a German sound. Due to the limitations of the baroque lute, Weiss’s music is much less contrapuntal and chromatic than that of Bach, though he does make use of remote modulations through diminished seventh chords and enharmonic changes, resulting in a highly sophisticated harmony.

Weiss inspired many lutenists, who referred to his manner of playing as the ‘Weissian method’, referring to his virtuosic fingerings and legato style. Bach arranged Weiss’s sonata No. 47 for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1025). For this arrangement he composed original material for the violin and an opening fantasia bursting with lute motifs in the style of Weiss.

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