Soler’s Sonatas

Composer Antonio Soler at desk with quill and composition

Iberian Sonata

During the 18th century, the tiento was the most common composition to explore the possibilities of the keyboard due to the pedagogical character being similar to an exercise. Composers like José Elías started to add modifications to the Baroque-style pieces and introduced new concepts, such as enharmonic modulations, that were later used by Padre Antonio Soler (as he explains in his llave de la Modulación). Elías, along with composers Antonio de Cabezon and Juan Cabanilles, transformed the compositions, giving the necessary changes to the appearance of the binary sonata popularized by Domenico Scarlatti.

In the 1700s the term “sonata” did not refer to thematic structure. Instead, the term was used to indicate a piece with a pedagogical purpose. In the Iberian Peninsula, the designation “sonata” was not always for this musical style. Other pieces that are now recognized as sonatas appeared written with names including essercizi, toccata, and obra.

Antonio Soler began composing sonatas in 1760. He didn’t follow the schema of the binary sonata in his compositions, despite using the binary form in some of his pieces. Nor did he follow the sonata form rules from the Baroque or Galant styles that were popular at the time. Soler preferred the use of the triple meter in his sonatas. I believe that the reason that all of his sonatas are at the intermediate to early advanced level is that his sonatas had a pedagogical purpose, and because he never taught novice students. He always taught transfer students who already had some foundation in music.

Different musicologists have catalogued the sonatas of Soler. Samuel Rubio made the most important and complete edition, and I will use his catalog as my main reference.

Padre Antonio Soler’s Sonatas

Padre Antonio Soler wrote over 155 sonatas. The exact number is unknown. There is no information about the dates of the compositions, as Soler didn’t note the dates on his pieces and they were published after he died.

Sonata R. 53

Click here to view the score for Sonata R. 53.

This sonata in A Major is in duple meter. The sonata is titled Sonata de Clarines, referring to the clarin or bugle, an instrument similar to a trumpet but without pistons. This instrument was used in the courts in Europe, especially during war battles. This type of trumpet received the name clarines due to its tone, which is particularly sharp and clear.

The organ was an essential instrument in Spain, especially for the church. The Iberian organ gained popularity from the late 1600s throughout the 1700s. One of the main characteristics of this organ are the different trumpet stops, “en chamade” or “forma de artilleria,” that imitate the sound of bugles and other types of trumpets. The organ originally had 42 notes but was extended several times in the 1700s; the infant Don Gabriel had an organ of 61 notes.

Taking all of these elements into account, I believe that Soler wrote this sonata for the organ. We should keep in mind that the level for this sonata is intermediate. It is a binary sonata with repetitions and a two-part form. Some elements of difficulty are the use of thirds, broken octaves, Alberti bass, and scales. It is very important to work on the finger independence for this piece.

musical score of Sonata R. 53 mm. 1-7
mm. 1-7
musical score of Sonata R. 53 mm. 14-18
mm. 14-18

When playing the piece, it is essential to think of the sound of the clarines and to play with solid fingers – especially the thirds. Try to imitate the ringing sound. (mm. 1-8).

A similar approach needs to be taken with the eighth notes (in groups of four) in the right hand and the left hand’s accompaniment. For this purpose, it is important to have a very marked articulation. There are no marked dynamics in the score, but the structure of the piece is very repetitive. I encourage students to look for and experiment with different dynamics, just as an organist would use different stops.

Another aspect to consider is the possibility of improvisation in the repetitions of the sections. This improvisation was a widespread practice during the 18th century. Introducing improvisation to students might encourage them to create their own ornamentations for other sonatas, or even composing cadenzas for concertos. As a first step, they could add mordents or trills with the right hand in some strategic places during the second repetition.

Sonata R. 24 in D Minor

Click here to view the score for Sonata R. 24 in D Minor.

The Sonata in D Minor might seem easier in terms of the technical aspects, but I consider this sonata to be late intermediate to early advanced due to the sensibility required to play this piece. The use of a minor key, harmony, and melody must be considered for the correct interpretation. The sonata is in triple meter (3/8) and has a two-part form with repetitions.

As well as in Sonata R. 53, this sonata has many trills, acciaccaturas, and ornamentations. Students should have the freedom to introduce new or different embellishments in the repetition. For example, when I am performing the first four measures of the piece, I do the ornamentation in the left hand without any in the right hand. In the subsequent four measures, I change the ornamentation to the right hand with none in the left hand, finishing with a trill in the second repetition instead of the appoggiatura.

Another characteristic that is useful to reflect the sensibility is using two voices in the right hand, with an interesting harmony (using a C sharp and G sharp).

musical score of Sonata R. 24 mm. 1-9
mm. 1-9
musical score of Sonata R. 24 mm. 13-24
mm. 13-24

In this piece, Soler uses many of the concepts that he explains in his treatise about modulation. Using the modulation agitada, or quick modulation, Soler creates sensible moments using unexpected changes in the harmony.

In the first part of the sonata, in measure 58, there is a fermata in C Major followed by a sudden change of color and modulation to A Minor. This moment is beautiful and unexpected. This kind of modulation is woven throughout the piece. In order to teach this change of color to students, I recommend to breath enough in the change of key. After this short pause, the five fingers in the right hand plays a ringing E note, inclining the hand towards the right to help with the upper voicing while the same hand answers with the second voice. I play a crescendo with the repetition of the E and the resolution to the F on the top voice of the right hand. I play with corda to help to change the color.

musical score of Sonata R. 24 mm. 52-67
mm. 52-67
musical score of Sonata R. 24 mm. 104-109
mm. 104-109

We must make use of all the pedals and piano’s capabilities, despite not originally being written for this instrument. As I mentioned before, Soler was advanced for his time. The sound and harmony of this piece could be easily mistaken for a romantic-style piece.

The technique required for this part of the sonata is a solid gesture for the thirds in the left hand and a good extension for the right hand in order to hold the long notes at the same time as playing the top notes. In my case, I use one for the long note and three and four for the subsequences notes in the measure, arriving to the octave E with fingers 1 and 5. My hand is able to stretch, which allows me to create the crescendo in the scale of dotted quarter notes, culminating in the octave as an arrival point.

Sonata R. 84

Click here to view the score for Sonata R. 84.

Sonata R. 84 is the only sonata by Soler that Jane Magrath includes in her book The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature, which emphasizes the dance characteristics and the interesting harmony. The book also mentions the parallel octaves in the left hand. I agree with her assessment that this piece is at the early advanced level. It is a very lively piece, with fast rhythms, jumps, and arpeggios.

The sonata has a two-part form with repetitions, like the sonatas that we’ve already discussed. Soler employs the 3/8 meters that give this sonata dance characteristics. This meter was later used in many popular Spanish folkloric dances such as the jota and flamenco. Sonata R. 24 also uses this meter, but the tempo marking is allegro, creating the sensation more similar to a folk dance.

This piece is composed for harpsichord due to the required tempo and technical gestures. In my opinion, it is an imitation of the guitar. The harpsichord, like the guitar, is an instrument with plucked strings, and there are many gestures in this sonata that are similar to guitar playing.

The use of arpeggios, as well as the pick-up measure with triplet, is very idiomatic of the guitar. I use finger number 2 for the first note of the measure and then fingers 1 and 5 to ensure that the left hand is comfortable. It is necessary to mark the tempo well for the dance, so I suggest emphasizing the first note of each measure.

musical score of Sonata R. 84 mm. 1-4
mm. 1-4
musical score of Sonata R. 84 mm. 15-20 part 1
mm. 11-15
musical score of Sonata R. 84 mm. 15-20 part 2
mm. 16-20

In this section, I show some differences in the articulation at the same time that I play a decrescendo in the music. In measure 15, I modified the non-legato that I played previously to connect more of the notes and change the feeling before arriving at the repeated notes in the right hand.

musical score of Sonata R. 84 mm. 21-26
mm. 21-26
musical score of Sonata R. 84 mm. 27-30
mm. 27-30

The repetition of the notes in the right hand is similar to the guitar touch. I recommend using the fingers 321321. Once again, it is important to practice the independence of the fingers. Slow practice with accents on the first and fourth of each measure (for practice purposes) will definitely help.

Another way to establish the tempo and the dance character is by emphasizing the first note of each measure in the left hand when there are extended arpeggios. I support those notes with a bit of pedal.

This short sonata has many modulations. It starts in D Major, changes to D Minor, and then has a transition with two flats. As we saw previously, Soler had a preference for quick modulations! These sonatas are a great choice if you want to vary from the standard established repertoire. Some of these pieces can be a great introduction to Spanish music.