Antonio Soler i Ramos (1729-1783) was baptized in Olot in the Comtat de Besalú of Catalunya on December 3, 1729. About that detail there is widespread consensus among historians and musicologists; but they rarely agree about further elements of the life and work of the composer best known since the late eighteenth century as Padre Soler. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, Soler’s somewhat equally evasive contemporary during most of his first twenty years, what is known beyond any historical doubt is Soler’s importance to the development of music for the keyboard from the virginals of the late Renaissance to the modern piano. Indeed, the parallels between Bach and Soler are telling. Bach’s so-called English and French Suites for the harpsichord – works of which the musicians featured in this recording, Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour, are acknowledged masters – are as comprehensive a body of work for the harpsichord as any composed during the eighteenth century. In that regard, Soler is recognized – along with Bach, the Couperins, and Rameau – as one of the founding fathers of his nation’s distinctive style of music for the keyboard.
Tracing Soler’s journey from Olot to service as maestro de capilla at the San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial monastery is a Quixotic undertaking – perhaps fitting for an artist of Spanish origin. According to records, the six-year-old future composer enrolled at the Escolanía of the Benedictine abbey of Santa María de Montserrat in 1736. The young Soler’s blossoming musical prowess was nurtured by the Escolanía’s resident maestri of the period, maestro de capilla Benito Esteve and organist Benito Valls, about whom almost nothing else is remembered.
In 1744 he was appointed as organist of Catedral del Santa María de Urgel, where one of the composers whose work likely exerted a strong in uence on Soler’s own liturgical music, fellow Catalan – by adoption, at least – Joan Brudieu, was maestro de capilla for more than four decades in the sixteenth century. Soler’s appointment at the age of fourteen suggests both that he was precocious and that his artistic development was rapid. It is also alleged that the adolescent Soler was named organist at an unspecified “Santa Iglesia” in Lleida; but which, if any, of the town’s churches employed him is unknown.
It was perhaps in 1752 that Soler first encountered Sebastià de Victoria Emparán y Loyola, the Bishop of Urgell, who, in addition to occupying the bishop’s throne from 1747 until 1756, had previously served as a Prior of the Hieronymite community at the royal compound Monasterio y Sitio de El Escorial en Madrid, the seat of the Hapsburg and later Borbón ruling families since the reign of Felipe II. Asked by the Bishop to recommend a young man to be sent to El Escorial monastery as an organist, Soler reputedly – and for unknown reasons – volunteered himself.
In Soler’s obituary in Memorias sepulcares, the annals of mortality within the San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial monastery, an anonymous chronicler recounts that by his twenty-third birthday, Soler had embraced the rigors of monastic life as a novice, fully professing a year later. And what rigors they were! Typical days as a Hieronymite brother found Soler performing his ecclesiastical and musical duties for up to twenty hours, allowing only four hours for repose. After maintaining such a schedule, except for a few periods when his work was interrupted by illness, it is remarkable not only that Soler’s compositional output extended to more than 500 pieces but also that anyone in the monastery’s austere setting could persist at such an exhausting pace for thirty-one years.
During those three decades, Soler clearly endeared himself to his brothers. Less than two years after his arrival at El Escorial, he secured from the monastery a substantial annual pen- sion for his father, a respected regimental musician, and he seems to have risen uncontested to the post of maestro de capilla either following the 1757 death or retirement of his predecessor, Padre Gabriel de Moratilla. (Some sources suggest that Padre de Moratilla died at El Escorial in 1788.) Furthermore, the monastery financed publication of Soler’s seminal 1762 treatise Llave de la modulación y antiguedades de la música, which received a controversial response, inspiring Soler to correspond with the famous pedagogue Giovanni Battista Martini, seeking support for his theories. Soler’s missive addressed to Padre Martini in Bologna – in comically poor Italian – survives, but there is no concrete proof that the esteemed Padre Martini replied. In the unsigned remembrance of Padre Soler published in Memorias sepulcares after his death on December 20, 1783, the composer was affectionately praised for his altruism and virtue.