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Sylvius Leopold Weiss

Detailed Biography

The name Sylvius Leopold Weiss undoubtedly dominates the history of lute music.That he achieved this position is due not only to his being regarded as the finest lutenist of his day, Baron in 1727 writes "because the Weissian method of playing the lute is considered the best, most sound, galant, and perfect of all, many have striven to attain his new method, just as the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece." But because he was responsible for leaving the largest, both qualitatively and quantitatively, number of compositions for the solo lute of any composer in history. In the early 18th century many German courts employed lutenists as chamber musicians, who also played theorbo continuo in court orchestras. A large number of noble and bourgeois amateurs also cultivated the lute.

Sylvius Leopold Weiss was born on October 12th 1686 in Breslau, Silesia. (Wroclaw, Poland) Weiss' father Johann Jakob, (1662? – 1754) a well known lutenist taught all of his three children Sylvius Leopold, Johann Sigismund and their sister Juliana Margaretha. That Weiss played the lute at the age of ten comes from a delightful anecdote which originally appeared in Reichardt's Musikalisches Kunstmagazin (1782) and is included in Douglas Alton Smith's 1977 dissertation.

"The great lutenist Weiss in the fiftieth year of his life (1736) answered the question of how long he had been playing the lute with "twenty years." One of his friends, who knew for certain that Weiss already was playing the lute in his tenth year, wanted to contradict him, but he interrupted and said, 'True, but for twenty years I was tuning'."

In following Weiss from 1706 when he made his debut at the court of the Elector Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate in Düsseldorf we encounter almost every important centre of music and culture in the Baroque period. By 1708 he accompanied Prince Alexander Sobiesky, a son of the Polish King Jan Sobiesky to Italy where they remained until 1714 and Alexanders death. In 1715 Weiss moved to Germany and served for a short time at the Hessian court in Kassel before returning to the service of the Düsseldorf court as a chamber musician.

In 1717 Weiss travelled to Prague where it seems that he wrote his first sonata for Prince Phillip Hyacinth Lobkowitz as indicated by a cryptic note on the score "V.(ostro) E.(ccellenze) H.(yacinth) L.(obkowitz) b.(isogno) di Volare" (Your Excellency Hyacinth Lobkowitz must turn the page) Evidence of Weiss' close relationship with the Prince and the Lobkowitz family who were patrons of the arts for generations is also to be found in a letter from Dresden in 1728. In this letter he explains the details of a purchase of tea for the Prince and apologises for not sending any music

Weiss had other links to the Bohemian aristocracy as his two tombeau were written after the deaths of Baron Cajetan von Hartig and Count Jan Antonín Losy von Losimthal. Count Jan Antonín Losy von Losimthal, known to his contemporaries as Comte Logy was the most celebrated German baroque lutenist before Weiss and was almost certainly an influence on the young Weiss, whose early compositions are similar in style. Weiss revisited Prague in 1719 and again in 1723 for the coronation of Emperor Charles VI.

In September 1718, Weiss was one of the musicians who accompanied the Crown Prince of Saxony to Vienna. The object of this journey being the selection by the young prince of a bride amongst the daughters of the Emperor. By March 1719 the Crown Prince had not made up his mind and in consequence the Pope chose the eldest daughter Maria Josepha! Baron reports that "He (Weiss) has had the special honour of performing to unusual applause for both living and ruling Imperial Majesties."

In 1722 as reported by both Mattheson and Baron an incident in which a violinist named Petit nearly bit off Weiss' thumb occurred. Fortunately this did not leave Weiss incapacitated. In the autumn of 1722 Weiss and the flautist Pierre Gabriel Buffardin accompanied the Crown Prince to Munich to perform in the celebrations for the marriage of the Crown Prince of Bavaria to another of the daughters of the Emperor Joseph I. For his contribution Weiss was handsomely rewarded, financially by the Elector of Bavaria and with the gift of a golden snuff box inlaid with diamonds from the Crown Prince.

In a letter to Johann Mattheson written in 1723 Weiss describes the lutes he used:

"….I am of the opinion that after the keyboard there is no more perfect instrument than this one (the lute) especially for Galanterie. The theorbo and Arciliuto, which are quite different even from each other, cannot be used at all in Galanterie pieces…I have adapted one of my instruments for accompaniment in the orchestra and in church. It has the same size, length, power and resonance of the veritable theorbo and has the same effect, only that the tuning is different. This instrument I use on these occasions. But in chamber music, I assure you that a cantata a voce sola, next to the harpsichord, accompanied by the lute has a much better effect than with the Arciliuto or even theorbo, since these two latter instruments are ordinarily played with the nails and produce in close proximity a coarse, harsh sound."

From this we can conclude that Weiss considered the theorbo as a thorough bass instrument for use in large halls or in large ensembles. For his solo performances his early compositions use an eleven course lute, after 1719 however he consistently used a thirteen course lute.

In 1728 Weiss, along with Pisendel, Buffardin and his student Quantz travelled with Augustus the Strong to Berlin to visit the "fat cousin" King Frederick William I of Prussia. Weiss remained in Berlin for nearly three months following his patrons departure and impressed Princess Sophie Wilhelmine, sister of the Crown Prince Frederick. (later to become King Frederick the Great) The princess who was also a lutenist, praises Weiss in her memoirs with a remarkable insight " famous Weiss, who excels so strongly on the lute that he never had an equal and that those who come after him will have only the glory of imitating him."

In 1733 Weiss' salary was again increased to 1200 thalers and three years later he refused an offer of 2000 thalers from the Viennese court following the death of Francesco Conti, surely an indication that Weiss was happy at Dresden. In 1744 Weiss received another increase in salary to 1400 thalers making him the most highly paid instrumentalist at Dresden.

At least one documented occasion exists that Bach met S.L. Weiss. In 1739 Weiss accompanied by his student Johann Kropfganss visited the Leipzig home of Bach. Johann Elias Bach, who served at this time as private secretary to Bach, mentions the visit in the draft of a letter of August 11th 1739 to Cantor J.W. Koch.

"….so I certainly hoped to have the honour of speaking to my brother; I wished it all the more because just at that time there was extra special music while my cousin from Dresden (Wilhelm Friedemann) who was present here for four weeks, together with the two famous lutenists, Herr Weiss and Herr Kropfganss, played at our house several times…."

J.S. Bach whose patron Count Keyserlingk was a frequent host to Weiss may have written some of his lute pieces for Weiss. Indeed Bach's contact with the Dresden court from 1719 and especially after 1733 when his son Wilhelm Friedemann became organist at the Sophienkirche meant that there were many occasions when it was possible for the two musicians to meet. Johann Friederich Reichardt writing in 1805 refers to a competition which took place in Dresden, possibly at the residence of Count Keyserlingk:

"Whoever knows the difficulty of playing harmonic modulations and good counterpoint on the lute will be astounded and scarcely believe when eyewitnesses assure us that the great Dresden lutenist Weiss competed in playing fantasias and fugues with Sebastian Bach, who was also great as a harpsichordist and organist."

We have further evidence of Weiss' relationship with Count Keyserlingk when in 1738 Weiss was arrested due to an affront to the Maitre des plaisirs von Breitenbauch.Keyserlingk intervened with a letter to the Minister of State Count von Bruhl praising the lutenists character and requesting his release. Keyserlingk also brought the Circassian Bellegradsky to Dresden to study with Weiss and provided a home in Königsberg for Weiss' son Johann Adolf.

The following anecdote is from Hiller's biography of Franz Benda:

"In Carneval of the year 1738, Benda, upon the invitation of the concertmaster (Johann Georg Pisendel), who had friendly correspondence with him, travelled to Dresden to hear Hasses's opera "La Clemenza di Tito." There he became acquainted with the Imperial Russian Ambassador Count von Keyserlingk, who, as a great lover and connoisseur of music, was very gracious to him. In this noble household Benda had the opportunity to hear the famous lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss in all his power. One day Weiss invited Benda and Pisendel to lunch and secretly had Benda's violin case brought along. In the afternoon he was asked to play a solo on the violin, which Pisendel accompanied with the viola pomposa. After the first solo another was demanded, and so it went until midnight. Benda had twenty-four solos in his case, and he had to play all twenty-four. In the meantime, Weiss played eight to ten sonatas on the lute."

In 1740 Luise Adelgunde Victoria Gottsched, wife of a Leipzig literature professor and amateur lutenist since childhood received a visit from Weiss which her husband described as follows: "she played even the most difficult Weiss pieces perfectly,almost by sight; and she even earned the applause of this great master when he visited her in 1740, playing for her and hearing her play." A letter from Weiss to her in 1741 speaks for itself as to the relationship between them.

It is a great presumption for me to be so bold as to avail myself of my pen, since both my handwriting and rough draft are equally weak. However, I have found no other means to unwind myself from a previous anxiety than to pay my respects with the present letter. Namely, some time ago I took the liberty of obliging (you) with a small Galanterie-Partie, of which (as Mons. Schuster later informed me) you already had one movement or another. In order to correct this error now, I wished to compose, for you alone, and herewith most obediently dedicate to you the enclosed (partita). Despite the fact that it is just something simple, I must obediently request that you not communicate it further, for as long as one has thing for oneself, it is always beautiful and new, I will also keep it just for myself. Here and there I have added a fingering, which I would have done throughout if your already-achieved insight concerning fingering were not sufficiently known to me. It would be a further audacity to request an answer of just two lines as to the safe receipt of this my musical enclosure, yet I would nonetheless like to be thus assured of (your having received) it. My humble suggestion would be to honor Herr Hoffmann with the duty of a secretary. Please give my most obedient respects to your husband. I remain with all obligation, Madame.
Sept 28 1741
vostre tres humble et tres obeyssant Serviteure.
signed, Silvius Leopoldus Weiss

Unfortunately there is no evidence that the music mentioned has survived!

On the 16th October 1750 Weiss died and was buried in the cemetery of the Catholic court church. He left a widow and seven children. His son Johann Adolf Faustinus was also a lutenist and succeeded his father as chamber lutenist at the Dresden court. It seems ironic that from approximately this time the lute as a chamber and ensemble instrument began to lose favour due to its inability to compete with the louder violins and pianoforte!

"The translations above stem from the dissertation by Douglas Alton Smith, the primary source of information for this biography. Permission to reprint the translations was granted by Dr. Smith." See Bibliography for more details. Also see the Weiss Discography.

~ Copyright © 1996-2000, David Charlton. If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!