Sylvius Leopold Weiss

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Born: Breslau, 1686

Died: 1750

    Internationally renowned lutenist, and the most prolific composer of lute music in history.

    Weiss was born in Breslau, and was trained by his father from the age of ten. There is evidence that by 1706 he was back in Breslau, working for the Count Carl Philipp of the Palatine. From 1708 he spent six years in Italy, where he may well have met Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. After returning to Germany, he secured an appointment to the Dresden court by 1719. His career was almost ended by a French violinist named Petit, who tried to bite off the end of Weiss’s thumb during a quarrel.

    Weiss toured widely, performing in London in 1718, in Prague at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1723, and in Berlin in 1728, where he greatly impressed Frederick the Great, whose sister Wilhelmine was a lutenist. By 1744 he was the highest-paid musician in Dresden.

    More than 600 pieces for lute by Weiss survive. They are mostly groups of dance movements like those in the suites of J. S. Bach (whom he visited in 1739). The suites often have an improvisatory prelude without bar lines. There are also four lute concertos. The music is usually less contrapuntal than Bach’s, and as Weiss got older, he moved with the times rather more than his great contemporary: his harmony grew bolder and the interaction of melody and harmony moved towards the emerging sonata ideal of the Classical style.