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Silvius Leopold WEISS (1686-1750)
Weiss in Nostalgia
Suite No. 1 in F major, SW1.1-10 [34:14]
Suite No. 13 in d minor, SW13:1-5 [14:27]
Alex McCartney (Baroque lute)
rec. 2018, The Unitarian Chapel, York, UK

I have long loved the lute music (he wrote almost exclusively for the lute) of Weiss. Yet I have largely shied away from reviewing it. This, essentially, has been because for me it has qualities which I find peculiarly difficult to put into words. Of course, it is difficult to write satisfactorily about any valuable ‘pure’ music – perhaps the measure of the difficulty is one of the measures of how fine, musically, a piece is?

Weiss’s music is the opposite of flamboyant – by which I don’t mean to imply that it is merely plain; rather, that it eschews grand gestures, preferring understatement and reticence. The best of Weiss’s music has about it an undemonstrative, quiet beauty, which seems to expect a good deal of ‘active’ listening on the part of its audience.

There is a fascinating contemporary comment on Weiss and his music by one of the most remarkable women of the Eighteenth Century – Luise Adelgunde Victoria Gottsched (1713-1762. Gottsched (her maiden name was Kulmus) was a German woman of great learning and wide culture – a poet and dramatist, a considerable linguist, an essayist and critic, an amateur musician and a distinguished translator: she produced versions, amongst much else, of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock and Molière’s great play Le Misanthrope. She wrote in praise of Weiss, declaring that “his compositions stand out above all that are known today” and observed that “his touch was very gentle; one could hear it, but did not know where the music was coming from”. This last part of what Gottsched wrote about Weiss suggests that in performance Weiss did not seek to draw attention to himself – and, as I have suggested above, the music doesn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself, either.

Weiss’s music is a distinctively German ‘take’ on the prevailing French and Italian idioms. The ‘dance-suite’ structure which Weiss deployed in his suites is essentially French, as is his use of unbarred preludes; harmonically, the music sounds more Italian and there is at time an echoing of the cantabile manner of Italian opera and song (the young Weiss spent six years in Italy, and there was a good deal of Italian opera to be heard in Dresden where he was based for much of his working life); but both influences are filtered, as it were, through what Manfred Bukofzer (Music in the Baroque Era) called a “Bachian gravity”.

That ‘gravity’ is felt in the predominant seriousness of tone in Weiss’s suites; indeed, at times, there is a plangent sadness to the music. But too much emphasis can be placed on that dimension in Weiss’s music, as when José Miguel Moreno’s 1993 CD of Weiss’s music (GLOSSA GCD C80102) carries the title Ars Melancholia and there is an almost all-pervading sense of gloom to the proceedings.

If ‘Melancholy’ is of central relevance to Weiss’s music, as I believe it is, it is not in terms of the modern meaning of the word – as meaning a sad state of mind. Rather we think of ‘melancholy’ in the sense given to it by important early-modern thinkers such as Cornelius Agrippa and Marsilio Ficino. Melancholy was understood to be, metaphorically, the daughter of Saturn and, as one of the four human temperaments, identified with “the introspective intellectual qualities of … ‘contemplative man’ (James Hall, Dictionary of Symbols and Subjects in Art). It is such a figure that Milton celebrates in one of his great poems Il Penseroso (‘The Serious / Thoughtful Man’), a poem which, like Weiss’s music can seem slight to a modern reader / hearer; but both are heavily freighted with profound significance. I quote a few passages from Milton’s poem, beginning with its address to Melancholy:

… hail thou goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight
… Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There held in holy passion still,
… with thee bring,
… The cherub Contemplation.
The ‘melancholy’ man seeks sweet music which will
… breathe
Above, about, or underneath

(phrasing which intriguingly akin to Gottsched’s writing of Weiss’s music that “one could hear it, but did not know where the music was coming from”.

Though it may seem an odd thing to say, I’d suggest that a careful reading of Milton’s Il Penseroso would make a perfect preparation for listening to Weiss’s music.

While reflecting on how difficult it was to ‘verbalise’ Weiss’s music, I came across a wonderful passage in a book by the Irish writer and Hispanist Gerald Brenan (Thoughts in a dry season: A Miscellany, 1978). I rather doubt whether Brenan had ever heard the music of Weiss, but what he writes of music in general seems to me to correspond precisely and perfectly to my own experience of listening to Weiss:

“In listening to a sonata we are carried through a succession of complex emotions, enough to fill years of a life, in the space of half an hour. The range, the precision and the delicacy of our responses surprise us, for we did not know before that we had such a rich capacity for feeling or such nimbleness in moving from one mood to another under the mastery of that magical spell. Yet so poor is our language to express states of mind that we can only use such vague terms as gaiety, melancholy, humour or pathos to describe what we have felt … music gives a finer texture to our emotional responses than our lives can ever give us: it offers us, one could say, a foretaste of that celestial Utopia on which we would like to think that a perfected humanity could one day plant its flag.”

Any reader who has got this far (if any such there be!) will wonder, reasonably enough, when I am going to turn from all this ‘context’ to deal more directly with the ‘text’ itself, the music on this rewarding disc. Now, is the answer!

Although it is in some ways unusual (as I will explain below) the first thing to say is that Alex McCartney’s recital fulfils and satisfies the expectations I bring (see above!) to a recital of music by Weiss. What is ‘unusual’ here is that while the music recorded here must have been written for the 11-course baroque lute, McCartney plays it on a 13-course lute. The two suites recorded here come from the so-called ‘London Manuscript’ (now in the British Library). It is thought that this manuscript was compiled in Prague (it contains composition spanning the years from 1706-1730). The 13-course baroque lute, with its additional bass strings was not in use when Weiss was writing his early suites – such as the two recorded here, but McCartney has chosen to use this instrument, which would have been available to Weiss in his later years. His choice was informed, as it were, by an “image of an aged Weiss now holding a large ‘updated’ instrument remembering and playing compositions from his youth: in nostalgia” (I quote McCartney himself, from his booklet notes). The music certainly sounds fine on the ‘newer’ instrument. The specific instrument McCartney plays is described thus: “13 crs ‘swan-neck’ lute by James Marriage, 2008, Klaus Jacobsen, 2015, after Leopold Widhalm”. Widhalm (1722-1776), was an originally Austrian luthier, who was based in Nurenberg from 1745. The ‘swan-neck’ baroque lute seems first to have been made around 1732 by the German luthier Johann Christian Hoffman, who had connections with J.S. Bach. I have seen it suggested that Hoffman was prompted to make this innovation by Weiss, though I don’t know what evidence exists to support this suggestion. Whether or not Weiss proposed the creation of such an instrument, it is easy to believe that he might have been attracted by the idea of playing his earlier music on such an ‘enhanced’ instrument.

Throughout, McCartney shows himself to be absolutely at home in Weiss’s music and captures its elegant seriousness, its ‘gravity’, without ever letting it seem (in the modern sense of the word) ‘melancholy’. Incidentally, McCartney’s lively performance of the Courante in Suite 1 should disabuse anyone of the notion (which I have met) that Weiss’s music is always slow and sad! Without ever letting the music of Weiss (who was long based in Dresden) sound like the aural equivalent of the fine porcelain of that city, McCartney plays with delicacy and thoughtfulness (especially as regards changes of colour and dynamics). I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this disc as the best place to begin an acquaintance with Weiss, though it would do no one any harm! – (the excellent Naxos series by Robert Barto provides a relatively inexpensive place to start a Weiss collection) – it can certainly be warmly recommended to those who already share my delight in the music of Weiss. It is a recording which shows just how creatively fertile ‘melancholy’ (in the older sense of the word) can be!

Glyn Pursglove

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