Padre Antonio Soler (1729 – 1783)
by Martin Voortman

Antonio Soler was baptized on 3rd December 1729 in the church of Sant Esteve of Olot (province of Girona) as Antonio Francisco Xavier Joseph, the son of Mateo Soler (born 1685 in the village of Porrera, province of Tarragona, military musician of the Regimiento de Numancia) and his wife Teresa Ramos (born 1702 in Daroca, province of Zaragoza). Knowing this, we can suppose that he received his first musical instruction from his father, who took him to the Abbey of Montserrat at the age of six to become a choir boy in the renowned escolania. There he would have ten years under the tutelage of the masters Benet Valls (chapel master) and Benet Esteve (organist at the same time). At first he learned solfeggio; later he studied composition and to play the organ. The pupils at that time mainly studied organ works by Juan Bautista Cabanilles, Miguel López and Josep Elias. Soler is later stated to have studied “twenty four works by Joseph Elias”.

Professional development
The account written after his death by an anonymous monk of the Escorial who knew him well refers to the time after his studies in Montserrat: “And he was such advanced [in his skills] that he competed in two cathedrals for the chapel master post.” There is no extant document proving that Soler had a post in Lerida, but the Bishop of Urgell, who had formerly been the prior of El Escorial, asked Soler if there was a young organist willing to become a clergyman at El Escorial, and Soler declared that he wanted to take the habit and “retire from the world”.

Regarding his vivid and studious personality, we can guess that the “world” consisted for him of uncultivated people who did not understand his skills, and that he was keen to move to an environment where high culture was better appreciated.

There is a document, the Chapter Act, reporting that Antonio Soler was admitted as a novice by the monks' community in El Escorial on September 25, 1752. He was competent in Latin but prodigiously talented on the organ and in composition. His presence there is documented on two other occasions. In one of them, there is the declaration before his fellow novices and monks, "all were pleased with his behaviour", on 29 Sept 1753. For this occasion he composed a Veni Creator Spiritus for 8 voices and violins. There are no surviving reports about the dates he became deacon, priest and chapel master, but it must have been after 1757, the last active year of the former chapel master, Father Moratilla. The point that Soler had been “a pupil” of Domenico Scarlatti and José de Nebra seems unimportant. He would certainly have met them, because the Spanish court in which the two old masters were exclusively exployed spent some months each year at El Escorial. Soler would have appreciated having access to two of the best composers in Spain and is likely to have adopted some of their ideas for his own compositional work.

Regarding the possible influence of Scarlatti on Spanish keyboard music, remember that Farinelli, the famous castrato, left a brilliant career in the London opera to sing for the Spanish royal family. He was not allowed to sing outside the court. In the same way it seems that the Scarlatti sonatas were also exclusive to the royal family and that they were dispersed only after the death of Queen María Bárbara in 1759. More Scarlatti sonatas are being found (often anonymous or falsely attributed) in Spanish sources, but these are generally written after 1760. Some of the tocatas (sonatas) published by Vicente Rodríguez in Valencia in 1744 are rather “Scarlattian”. Does this mean that he knew the Essercizi per gravicembalo (1738) in London by Thomas Roseingrave? The influence of the brilliant Scarlatti sonatas may rather be seen in the fact that many Spanish composers went on writing in the same form even in the late 18th century, and the most probable reason is that this directly expressive form, descended from Viennese formalisms, closely reflects the Iberian landscapes and their people’s culture.

From 1766 onwards, Soler received the commission to teach the sons of Carlos III, Antonio and Gabriel. The latter seems to have been the more talented. All further documents name Infante Don Gabriel as his pupil. Especially for him, Soler wrote his six concertos for two organs and the rarely-performed quintets for string quartet and harpsichord. In addition, since Soler was a master of keyboard improvisation, we can guess that it was for Don Gabriel that he wrote most of his 150+ pieces for solo keyboard, including a few works for the organ. He would have welcomed the departure from his normal routine, which included the composition of religious vocal works (more than 350). The keyboard pieces are unusual; some of them exceed the compass of contemporary harpsichords or fortepianos (F to g’’’), with dazzling and original passages requiring great dexterity. Lord Fitzwilliam visited Soler and received a manuscript containing 27 sonatas, which was published 1796 in London by Rt. Birchall.

Soler was also skilled in mathematics and instrument building. In 1762 he published his treatise about tonal relations Llave de la Modulación, and in 1765 he produced a second book in response to critics of Modulación. In 1766 he wrote that he was working on a large treatise about “Church music of old tradition, clear, innocent and devote”, which has since been lost. In 1771 he published a manual for converting Catalan and Castilian metallic currency. In 1778 he wrote an extensive letter defending the work of the organ builder Casas in the cathedral of Sevilla.

Examples of his wide circle of contacts outside the monastery appear in 14 letters to the Duke of Medina Sidonia and 7 letters to P. Giambattista Martini in Italy. Further evidence of his fame was the publication in France of the motet Super Flumina Babilonis, written for the "Concours du meilleur grand motet", a competition organised by the director of the Concerts Spirituels of Paris in 1767. These papers were published in 2008.

Martin Voortman, November 2009. Reproduced by permission.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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