Notes from “Sonata 34 by Weiss on the Ukulele”

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Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1686 – 1750) was a German composer and lutenist. Weiss was one of the most important and most prolific composers of lute music in history and one of the best-known and most technically accomplished lutenists of his day. In later life, Weiss became a friend of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and met Johann Sebastian Bach through him. Bach and Weiss were said to have competed in improvisation.

Weiss probably wrote more than 1000 pieces for lute, from which about 850 attributed pieces survived, most of them grouped into ‘sonatas’ (not to be confused with the later classical sonata, based on sonata form) or suites, which consist mostly of baroque dance pieces. Weiss also wrote chamber pieces and concertos, but only the solo parts have survived for most of them.

Dresden manuscript Musica 2841, Volume 1, Sonata V in D-minor, WeissSW 34

The Sächsische Landesbibliothek of Dresden has six volumes of French tablatures, referenced as D-Dl Ms. Mus. 2841-V-1,1 à 6. The 34 solo sonatas therein, of various origins, are written in French tablature for the baroque lute (11-course for the earliest, but mainly 13-course). They are scrupulously arranged by key in five volumes, plus a volume of ensemble music of which only the part of a single lute is extant. All pieces were composed by Silvius Leopold Weiss, from 1706 to the last days of his life in 1750. These manuscripts constitute one of our most precious sources for the composer’s music.

The sonatas, either autograph or meticulously copied, were compiled by a collector. He classified them according to age and tuning of the bass courses, very carefully assembled and, later, bound them. Several annotations, pencilled in by Weiss at a late stage, denote an elderly hand.

Facsimiles of the manuscript are available online.

The original music for Sonata 34 is in the key of D-Minor and has been transposed to the key of G-Minor for the ukulele so as to preserve as many of the fingerings as possible.  Also, some passages have been simplified, including using different bass lines or notes, especially since the ukulele only has four strings and the sonata was written for the lute