Born: October 12, 1686; Breslau, Poland
Died: October 16, 1750; Dresden, Germany
The master lutenist of the eighteenth century, Weiss was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) into a lute-playing family, and first learned the instrument from his father, Johann Jacob Weiss. In 1706, Weiss made his professional debut in the Breslau court, in which his family served. Weiss' extraordinary talent gained the attention of Elector Johann Wilhelm, dedicatee of Corelli's Op. 6 and an intelligent patron of music. Weiss served inRead more Wilhelm's court in Dusseldorf for the next two years, and his earliest known compositions date from this time.
In 1708, Weiss left Dusseldorf for Rome in the retinue of Prince Alexander Sobieski, heir to the exiled Queen of Poland. Weiss resided in the Zuccari palazzo until 1714, absorbing new Italian styles firsthand and touring with the Prince to various courts. By the time of the Prince's death, Weiss' reputation was already well established, and he spent the next several years touring the continent and taking fixed employment only briefly. In Prague he met the prominent Bohemian lutenist Count Johann Anton Losy, whose work had a considerable impact. After Losy's death, Weiss would write a memorial Tombeau that remains one of most eloquent works.
In 1718, Weiss grew weary of wandering and decided to settle into a lucrative post offered him at the court of Dresden. Though this did not prevent him from traveling on occasion, Dresden would serve him as home base for the rest of his life. Attempts to dislodge Weiss from Dresden made by representatives of the Vienna Court, including princely sums of money offered, went ignored. Weiss is known to have met with the violinist Franz Benda in 1738. His only documented meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach took place the following year in Leipzig, although the composers were in all probability well known to one another by this time. Bach's personal secretary, Johann Elias Bach, wrote that "we heard some very fine music when my cousin from Dresden [Wilhelm Freidemann Bach] came to stay for four weeks, together with the famous lute-player Mr. Weiss." Bach, no slouch at the lute himself and an enthusiast of the hybrid lute-harpsichord, may have written his lute suites with Weiss in mind.
At his death in 1750, Weiss was 66 years of age. He was, and still is, regarded as the greatest of all lutenists, and the instrument fell into decline within two decades of his death. An evaluation by the Markgrafin Wilhelmine de Bayreuth, sister of Frederick II of Prussia and herself a composer, would serve well as epitaph; "(Weiss) excels so much in playing the Lute that no one has ever matched him, and those who will come after him will only be left with the glory of imitating him."
Some of his "Suonate" are missing their preludes, which were usually improvised. Seventy suites, however, are known in their entirety; most last about 20 to 25 minutes in performance. As a composer, Weiss shows extraordinary originality; his suites stand comparison with those of J.S. Bach. Only one of the suites, No. 49 in B flat minor, appeared in print during Weiss' own lifetime; his work was not intended for amateur players but for virtuosi whose skills approached his own. A modern printed edition of Weiss' complete works has been underway since 1980. Read less