Sylvius Leopold Weiss was one of the greatest lutenists in history, perhaps the greatest. Weiss was first of all a great performer, a true "rock star" of his time who came into contact with the most illustrious characters of his time, including Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions were jealously costed (he published only one piece) and have come down to us thanks to two extensive manuscripts (the Dresden Manuscript and the London Manuscript) plus many other shorter ones. Fortunately for us, we know more than 300 works by the lutenist, all absolutely wonderful...Sylvius Leopold Weiss was one of the greatest lutenists in history, perhaps the greatest. Weiss was first of all a great performer, a true "rock star" of his time who came into contact with the most illustrious characters of his time, including Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions were jealously costed (he published only one piece) and have come down to us thanks to two extensive manuscripts (the Dresden Manuscript and the London Manuscript) plus many other shorter ones. Fortunately for us, we know more than 300 works by the lutenist, all absolutely wonderful...
Weiss is certainly a very well known composer both by lutenists and guitarists, for this reason, there are several publications on his life. However, these publications are often not very recent, incomplete or even conflicting with each other. What I wanted to do was compare all the available sources and try to trace the biographical line of the lutenist by making a synthesis, filtering and excluding all those contents that were clearly in contrast with the general historiography (names of wrong Princes, participation in events to court of people who died 70 years earlier, etc.). Here are a couple of examples from my research.
The answer to this question is actually quite simple and in short we could say: they are both right! But why? Silvius is the way of writing in German while Sylvius is a “Latinization”.
This answer is more complicated. From my book “Silvius Leopold Weiss A minor Sonata”: “The year of birth is not clear, in the biographies the disputed years are 1684 or 1686 (the year 1687 reported on many sites has no justification). For a long time, it was based on the only portrait of Weiss that came to us under which there is the inscription: “Sylvius Leopold Weiss, born in Breslau on 12 October 1686 [...]”, however, the register of deceased persons of the Neu-Friedrichstadt in Dresden states: “Mr Silvius Leopold Weiss Kgl. Cammer Musicus, dead on 16, buried on 19 October , at 66 years of age” which would move the date of birth to 1684. This last source was considered the definitive one until Andre Burguete found in the “Kirchliche Wochenzetteln” (weekly register of the parish that reports births and deaths) in Dresden of 19 October 1750 an entry stating that Weiss died at the age of 66 bringing us back to the date of the portrait. Given the obvious contradictions, I believe it is right to leave the matter open while waiting for new discoveries. The complete and reconstructed biography can be found on my website (stefanovivaldini.com).
"Sylvius Leopold Weiss is one of the most played Baroque composers on the guitar, however, of his immense heritage still much has not been explored on the six strings"
Sylvius Leopold Weiss is one of the most played Baroque composers on the guitar, however, of his immense heritage still much has not been explored on the six strings. Playing Weiss's music is difficult and it is especially difficult on the guitar since it is extremely ideomatic music (linked to the instrument for which it was written). For this reason, the transcription of the sonata in A minor DS16 was not an easy challenge. When transcribing a piece for lute on the guitar it is good to start immediately with the idea that we will have to renounce to something. The transcriber's ability lies in identifying which are the elements that cannot be ignored and which are expendable. However, in this transcription I wanted to impose my choices as little as possible, trying to almost always bring back the original version of each sign, especially since there is no univocal and clear interpretation for everything. The idea is therefore to leave the possibility to other interpretations, but now we will see on a case-by-case basis what I mean. There are points in favor and against for each work that you decide to transcribe, in this case the tonality is a point in favor because on the guitar the A minor turns out to be an easy key, on the other hand, this sonata is a work of the maturity therefore already written on the 13-course lute and is also among the most complex. Due to the characteristics of the two instruments, generally the part that needs to be more readjusted is that of the bass. The lack of “bordoni" in the guitar entails two problems: the first quite obvious is the lack of many notes in the bass, but the main one is that the bass do not need to be tapped and so that any bass note can be played regardless to the left hand position, and this explains the omnipresent progressions of the ascending or descending motion of basses. This is not possible on the guitar, indeed it is definitely the main problem of our instrument. In transcribing this sonata, I faced this problem already in the first bar of the allemande, in fact, it is very difficult to play the high “A” while maintaining the bass line, however it is not impossible. Other cases, on the other hand, are unplayable and therefore the most logical practice is to transpose the bass line an octave above. Often this solution solves the problem, but in many cases in this way 40 other problems are created: the most common is that the bass line transposed an octave above coincides and gets lost in the notes of the upper voices, so in this case, you must choose where to “break” the progression by returning the voice to the original octave. The way to make this choice is dictated exclusively by the “meaning" of the sentence, if in fact a progression by joint motion implies a certain unity in the sentence, it is also true that there may be moments in which the sentence is less "linked" that can be exploited to break the progression of the bass. Here is an example:
Other priority aspects of transcription, in addition to maintaining the voices, are those elements that strongly characterize the composition. In this case, since it is a piece of Baroque music, it is good to worry about writing and making all the written embellishments executable. In the case of this sonata, the only signs of embellishment are the classic “apostrophe” next to the letter, the ligature (also interpreted as a small U) under a letter but used in very few cases and the sign that I interpreted as vibrato. The most common way to write these embellishments in modern transcriptions is to write descending appoggiatura for the first and ascending appoggiatura for the second. I found this option very reductive because if it is true that the typical execution of these embellishments is an appoggiatura, this does not exclude that in other cases it may be other types of embellishments. For this reason, my choice was to draw signs that recalled those originals to be placed in the transcription that more generally indicate an increasing or decreasing embellishment. I applied the same principle to the vibrato sign which, despite there being few doubts, it is possible that there is an interpretation that at the moment I do not know (this is the beauty of research on early music). Below is an example of the embellishments in the manuscript and transcription:
Other signs, this time unequivocal, are the ligatures whose great value is to suggest the original idea of phrasing of the piece. For this reason I decided to include all the original ligatures, however, writing them dotted even if these are not often playable on the guitar due to the different tuning compared to the lute. Again for the idea of not imposing my transcription, the original ligatures are present because no one forbids the performer to ignore the fingerings I suggest in order to strictly follow the written ligatures. It is precisely the work of fingering that plays a fundamental role in this transcription. The tablature has the advantage of giving us an idea of the fingering of the piece, certainly this cannot be transcribed the same on the guitar but it can help us decide between different solutions. The most striking example is that of the so-called "campanella" or the practice of playing a scale with each note on a different string (especially using the "open" strings) which results in an overlapping of notes and makes a scale more similar to an arpeggio. This technique in particular is typical of instruments such as the lute (in the Baroque guitar it is almost the most common way to play a scale) and is a very special effect that is worth recreating whenever possible. So I always wanted to respect these instrumental formulas by adapting the fingering accordingly.
"tablature has a great disadvantage, namely that it is not possible to graphically distinguish the various note values"
If this was an advantage, tablature has a great disadvantage, namely that it is not possible to graphically distinguish the various note values. Weiss's writing has the characteristic of always having many voices in every single musical phrase, if the bass line is easily distinguishable, the same cannot be said for the upper ones. The problem is actually more about graphic rendering rather than really distinguishing voices. The trend of each voice in Weiss's music is well thought out, clear and the imitative principle that governs each phrase leaves room for few doubts, but having to transcribe this music on the staff, I have found myself each time faced with a difficult choice: to write distinguishing in detail the voices but at the risk of creating a graphically incomprehensible score or opting for a simpler writing but with the voices implied in one? After writing and rewriting the same passages many times, I opted for a hybrid choice even if more biased towards the latter. Perhaps an interesting experiment would be to transcribe each voice on a staff, but having to write a score for guitar, I preferred to distinguish the voices only when the distinction was clear. For the rest, it is up to the performer to understand the structure of the piece in its components, and on the other hand, it would not have been different reading the original tablature. A final argument related to this is that tablature does not allow us to understand the real duration of the notes since this only indicates the general rhythmic pattern. To define this last aspect, all I could do was establish the values of the notes by taking as a reference the musical sense and above all the harmonic scheme by interrupting the voices when they were not harmonically justified. In any case, the general rule was to fill the part as much as possible trying to keep each voice linked and in this sense the choices of the fingerings went. My final thoughts regarding this transcription are that despite the obvious difficulties it turns out to be a sonata that is very well suited to the guitar and even with some obvious compromises, you never get the idea that something is really missing. On the other hand, with the exception of very few notes within some chords in the allemande that are difficult to perform (which I still wrote but in a smaller scale (example below)) I did not have to give up any voice keeping the sense of the various movements entirely intact.
With the restoration of the manuscript I wanted to add further value to my work, given Weiss's dedication to music it has always been clear to me that the manuscript of the sonata should have been in the book. However, printing the photos of the manuscript would not have been of much use to his understanding as it is unfortunately quite ruined. So I decided to digitally restore the manuscript, first by removing the impurities of the paper and then making sure to bring out again all the traits that had been lost. In this way it is now possible to read the manuscript without difficulty while remaining anchored to the composer's original handwriting and signs. Here is an example of the result:
So here is a new work by the beloved lutenist who is added to the works played for guitar.
I can't link or upload the sources, if you would like to read them write me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).