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Sylvius Leopold Weiss

a friend of

Johann Sebastian Bach

S.L.Weiss - Biography



Silvius Leopold Weiss was born in 1687 in Grottkau near Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland), capital of Silesia1, whence came several German lute-players of the Baroque period: Reusner father and son, Le Sage de Richée (?), Meusel, Baron, Kropfgans, Straube...

His father, Johann Jacob( ?1662-1764), said by Baron2 to be a profound musician, lute and theorbo-player, taught the lute to Silvius Leopold, his younger brother Johann Sigismund and their young sister Juliana Margaretha.

In 1706, Count Karl Philipp of Palatinat-Neuburg, then residing in Breslau and Brieg, took Weiss into his service. In the beginning of that year Weiss accompanied hereditary prince Friedrich of Hessen-Kassel to Kassel, where he performed at the court of the Palatine Elector Johann Wilhelm3, who was a fervent patron of the arts and a keen and passionate music-lover - so much so that Corelli dedicated his Opus VI. to him. The young Silvius Leopold stayed for over a month and returned afterwards to Breslau4. There is evidence that from 1709 on his father and his brother were employed in Dusseldorf as lutenists. Possibly their employment was procured by Silvius Leopold.

In the year 1707 Karl Philipp moved with his court from Breslau to Innsbruck. Probably Weiss accompanied him there, but that couldn't be proved yet.

  • 1710-1718

Probably from 1710 on Weiss was in service of the Polish Prince Alexander Sobieski, who lived in exile in Rome5. Prince Alexandre's court, residing in the Zuccari palazzo, was the opportunity for him to meet the Scarlatti, father and son, as well as organ-player Bernardo Pasquini and compatriots Handel and Heinichen.

Weiss would accompany the Prince in his visits to other courts. His virtuous performances were universally admired.

When his protector died in 1714, Weiss looked for a situation worthy of his talent. Even if he left Italy, the country's influence was to be strong ; these years would leave their mark, even in his last works.

Until Silvius Leopold Weiss had been employed at the court of Dresden in 1718, supposedly Weiss had been in service of his former employee Karl Philipp6. In 1717 he had been two times in Dresden, where he performed so succesful, that he was given 100 ducats as a reward.

At least once he had been in Prague that year, where he met the famous Bohemian lute-player, Count Johann Anton Losy von Losimthal (ca. 1650-1721), better known nowadays as Count Logy. It seems that Weiss was influenced in his compositions by this lute-player. As a matter of fact, he composed a tombeau in his memory (he did the same with Baron Cajetan von Hartig).


  • 1718-1723

On August 23rd of 1718, he was appointed chamber musician for the Prince Elector of Saxony August the Strong, who had been King of Poland since 1697.
This highly prized position was based in Dresden, overlooking the Elbe. A cosmopolitan center for arts and sciences, Dresden could boast the possession of one of the finest opera houses and musical chapels in the Empire.

At the time, the court at Dresden had in its midst some great names, beside Silvius Leopold Weiss the flute-players Buffardin and Quantz (his pupil) and the violin-players Francesco Veracini and Pisendel (who studied with Vivaldi).

Weiss' annual salary was of 1000 Imperial Thalers - which was regarded as high. Yet, when Frederic August II succeeded his father in 1733, he raised the amount - without any intervention of the musician - to 1200 Thalers and again in 1744 to 1400. The lute-player was thus the best paid musician of the orchestra at the court of Dresden.

This situation clearly denotes the admiration and respect he was held in. So much so that his protector the king often sent him travelling as his musical emissary.

From end of 1718 to the beginning of 1719 he went, together with eleven other musicians of the court, to Vienna for the wedding of the Elector of Saxony. The newly-wedded couple were celebrated for four weeks in the fall of 1719.

In 1722 the violinist Petit, a pupil of Tartini, supposedly as an act of vengeance, had almost bitten off a part of his thumb. After his recovery, during the fall of that year, he left for Munich with Buffardin to attend the Prince Elector of Bavaria's wedding. He was handsomely rewarded there.

In 1723, he returned to Prague for the third time (before in 1717 and 1719), accompanied this time by the illustrious flute-player Johann Joachim Quantz and singer and composer Carl Heinrich Graun. The three musicians went to the crowning of Emperor Charles VI as King of Bohemia.


  • 1728-1738

In May 1728, he accompanied his lord and three of the greatest musicians of the court - violin-player Pisendel and flute-players Buffardin and Quantz - to the court at Berlin. They stayed there for three months, probably upon the invitation of future Margrave Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, Frederic II's sister. Her testimony is one of the most pleasant.

Weiss must have enjoyed the court of Dresden, as proves his refusal to join the Imperial court in Vienna - who had offered him, in 1736, the positively indecent amount of 2000 Thalers. It is true that the Dresden musicians and audience alike were known for their quality.

Weiss can count among his protectors Imperial Count Hermann von Keyserlingk, known in the world of music to have ordered JS Bach to write the famous « Goldberg Variations ». He had the reputation of a great amateur and connoisseur of music. He intervened in favor of Weiss when the latter was emprisoned in Dresden for an alleged crime (Weiss would have offended the Master of Revels of Breitenbach). Kayserling wrote the Minister of the State to praise the lute-player and to ask for his release.

In 1738, in Dresden, Weiss met violin-player Franz Benda, from Berlin. Their took turns at playing, throughout a whole afternoon and until midnight, 24 violin solos and 8 or 10 suites for the lute (see Hiller, F Benda's biographer).


  • 1739-1750

In August 1739, Weiss met JS Bach. WF Bach, the organ-player at Sainte Sophie in Dresden, was in Leipzig. Weiss had been there with his fellow countryman and pupil Kropfgans - who played the lute for Count Brühl in Dresden. Several meetings with the master of Leipzig sealed their friendship, as reports Johann Elias Bach, then JS Bach's private secretary.

We have seen that Weiss was Imperial Count Hermann von Kayserlink's protégé. Such was also the case for JS Bach. D.Charlton tells us that actually the two men had many occasions to meet in Dresden and that JS Bach is said to have written some lute pieces for Weiss. Furthermore, JS Bach occasionally went to the court of Dresden - from 1717 and especially from 1733 when his son WF Bach became the organ-player at Sainte Sophie - which allows us to imagine that the two men had many ocasions to meet.

Another interesting element is to be found in JF Reichardt's 1805 account of the competition between the two musicians in Dresden :

Anyone who knows how difficult it is to play harmonic modulations and good counterpoints on the lute will be surprised and full of disbelief to hear from eyes-witnesses that Weiss, the great lute-player, challenged JS Bach, the great harpsichord and organ-player, by playing fantasies and fugues.

Weiss didn't seem to be interested by the publication of his works. Of the 650- odd known works of his, only one small piece was published when he was alive ; it was done so by GF Telemann in 1728 to serve as a tablature example in the volume Loyal Music Master.

His works showed his virtuosity and it is possible that, like Paganini or Mozrt later, he wanted to keep them to himself.

Weiss' final days are those of a man who is at the peak of his notoriety. He lived in Dresden, received pupils from various countries coming to him to study his music and to receive his advice.

On October 16th 1750, Weiss died, leaving his widow, Marie-Elizabeth, and 7 children ; Johann Adolf Faustinus (1741-1814) was the only one of them to follow his steps as a lute-player at the court of Dresden.

Despite his exhorbitant (for a musician at the time) earnings, Weiss left nothing to his family, having probably spent all his money in keeping the appearances going with his status.

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