The Haslemere Manuscript
This manuscript contains tablatures that a lutenist from Dresden or Prague assembled in the second half of the 18th century, most likely to be used for his own playing or teaching. His instrument of reference was a 12-course D-minor-tuned lute. Some pieces require a 13th course, but they are few in number, and the indication of a 13th course may have been added later. This copyist often indicated a composer's name alongside the titles; however, many pieces, whose origin must have been known to him, are anonymous. The tablatures are generally grouped by key, in order to be played consecutively without having to retune the bass courses. Only rarely are these groups of pieces explicitly referred to as Suites or Sonatas.
The original manuscript is now kept at the Carl Dolmetsch Library, in Haslemere, England; its reference is GB-HAdolmetsch ms II.B.2. Its history is unclear; it may have belonged to the Fétis collection, since we know that Fétis sold or traded several of the many works he had purchased1.
In the early 20th century, the manuscript was acquired by Eugène Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940). Born French into a family of organ, piano and harmonium makers, Arnold Dolmetsch went to London to study early music and its instruments. He earned a baccalaureate in music in 1889, and settled in London.
After teaching a short while, he began building keyboard instruments, and opened a lutherie workshop in Haslemere in Surrey, where he built copies of almost every sort of instrument played from the 15th to the 18th century.
Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750)
Silvius Leopold Weiss was born in 1687 in the village of Grottkau, near Breslau. His father Johann Jacob, a proficient lutenist, taught his three children how to play, as well as the rules of harmony and the practice of basso continuo. A child prodigy, Silvius Leopold performed before the Emperor Leopold I who, although consumed with his war against Louis XIV, was a great music lover.
From 1707 to 1714 he lived in Italy. In Rome, he met Arcangelo Corelli and befriended the Scarlattis. Subsequently, he is thought to have entered the service of the Governor of Further Austria, who resided in Innsbruck. In 1718, he obtained a well-paid position in the Dresden Court Orchestra.
A first mission took him to Vienna for eight months, where he was immersed in the musical life of Austria, both at the Court and in town. It was there that he discovered the galant style, which would leave its mark on all his future compositions. He subsequently settled in Dresden where, although he often travelled, he spent the rest of his life. He was a brilliant continuo player at the Court, the Church and, above all, the Opera. His playing and improvisations were so highly esteemed that he became the best paid and most demanded instrumentalist in Dresden; even the considerable financial incentives offered by the Court of Vienna could not lure him away.
Silvius Leopold Weiss frequented the best musicians of his era. He was appreciated by princes, often lutenists themselves. Thus, between 1725 and 1730, he made several sojourns in Prague to teach his art to Prince Lobkowitz and his wife, to Johann Antonin Losy von Losimthal (Count d’Logy), Imperial Governor of Bohemia, or to Ludwig Joseph Cajetan, Baron von Hartig, Imperialo Governor of the city of Prague. Silvius Leopold Weiss met and played music with Johann Sebastian Bach when the latter, living in Leipzig, came to visit his young son Wilhelm Friedmann, an organist in Dresden.
Weiss was the main promoter of fundamental modifications to the lute: the addition of a 13th course and the subsequent lengthening of the lowest courses by means of a second pegbox on a neck extension, similar to the theorbo.
Silvius Leopold Weiss was an accomplished musician whose compositions were very solid, placing him on a par with his most distinguished contemporaries: Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel or Jan Dismas Zelenka. However, he only composed for his instrument. His daily practice of continuo and improvisation deeply influenced his entire work. His characteristic touch can be found in his unmeasured preludes and in his skillful handling of very elaborate sequences. He always made brilliant use of the possibilities afforded by the lute’s particular tuning.
Silvius Leopold Weiss died on 16 October 1750, leaving his widow Marie–Elizabeth and his seven children in financial straits. His son Johann Adolf Faustinus (1741-1814) was the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps, and became a chamber lutenist at the Court of Dresden. Silvius Leopold Weiss was buried outside the city walls, in the Katholischer Friedhof.
Jean-Daniel Forget | Le Luth Doré © 2015