Sketch of Antonio Soler

by Frederick Marvin



Padre Antonio Soler y Ramos was born in Olot, Catalonia, and baptized in the lovely old church of San Esteban on December 3, 1729. Contrary to most musical reference books, the exact date of his birth is unknown.


The young Antonio showed such extraordinary musical talent that his father, Marcos Mateo Soler (musician in the Regiment of Numancia), enrolled him at the age of six in the Escolanía (singing school) of the Monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona. This Escolanía is still one of the best music schools in Spain and is possibly the oldest in the Western world. An entrance requirement was that a boy must have not only a beautiful voice but also the rudiments of a musical education, which Soler had most certainly received from his father. His studies included solfège, harmony, composition, cembalo and organ, and he had the organ music of the best masters of the time at his disposal: Juan de Cabanilles, Fray Miguel Lopez, and the well-known José Elías. Soler excelled in his music to such a degree that, at the age of fifteen, he was accepted in the Church of Lerida as Master of Chapel.


Soler took his minor order vows and became sub-deacon in 1752. That same year, he accepted the post of organist at El Escorial, the palace-monastery-church complex built by Phillip II, and there became a monk in the Order of St. Jerome. He was later appointed Master of Chapel. Busy as he was with composing, teaching and performing, he was, nevertheless, required to fulfill the ordinary time-consuming duties of his order; it is said that he refused to work in the fields but would often appear there with music paper and spend his time composing. His devotion to his music resulted in his having constructed a special table that allowed him to compose even while lying ill in bed. One wonders how this daring, original and sensitive musician could, in such a forbidding atmosphere, compose such joyful, dance-like, earthy music. However, El Escorial, one of the most austere buildings in the world and the burial place of Spanish kings, also was the site of secular music and drama. Performances of Calderón and Lope de Vega afforded an opportunity for Soler to compose music for their plays, which were presented in the Royal College.


One of the reasons that Soler, who was so famous in his day, is so little known to the 19th and 20th centuries is because of the paucity of Spanish music publishers. The only works of Soler that were known to have been published in the 18th and 19th centuries were twenty-seven sonatas that he gave to Lord Fitzwilliam in 1772 to take to England for publication. These were finally issued in 1796, thirteen years after Soler's death. (I have already discovered some 200 sonatas in manuscript for keyboard instruments.) In 1762, Soler published a work of great magnitude, entitled "Key to Modulation" (Llave de la modulación), that caused a furor in musical circles in Spain. The conservatives were most outspoken against the book, but his admirers, including one of his teachers, the excellent composer José de Nebra (vice-Master of the Royal Chapel), rallied to Soler's support. An insight into the thought and spirit of Soler is furnished by his two lengthy letters (one is sixty pages long) of rebuttal to criticisms of this book. Soler had a rapier-sharp style in refuting his adversaries.


One of Soler's pupils, to whom he dedicated numerous keyboard works as well as the six quintets, was Prince Gabriel of Borbón, the gifted son of Carlos III.


Soler died at the age of fifty-four, after a life filled with intensive work, devotion and dedication to his beloved music, on December 20, 1783.