Petra Polácková (Czech Republic), guitar - June 9, at 4:00 p.m.

(Czech Republic)
Cleveland Institute of Music, Mixon Hall
Sunday, June 9, 2019, at 4:00 p.m.

This concert is dedicated to double bassist Riccardo Coelati Rama with best wishes for his speedy return to the stage.

Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750)    

Tombeau Sur La Mort de M. Comte de Logy
Suite XIV (D major, London Manuscript)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)                        

Ciaccona from Partita in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004


Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948)     

    5 Preludes
Variations sur „Folia de Espana“ et Fugue
    Variations 1-5, 8-13, 15-20

Petra Polácková performs on a 9 string romantic guitar (copy by Jan Tulácek)

The use of electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, iPads, and lap top computers in Mixon Hall is prohibited at all times. Photography, video, or audio recording are also not permitted at any time.


Unparalleled as a lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750) lived a charmed life. That’s not to say he suffered no setbacks—a jealous rival tried to bite off his thumb, and Weiss spent the better part of a year recovering. And a misunderstanding in 1737 briefly landed him in prison. But even this incident showed the esteem in which Weiss was held: the well connected Russian diplomat Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling interceded on his behalf, and Weiss was released. (Yes, this was the same Keyserling for whom Bach composed the Goldberg Variations.) Weiss found himself going from one cushy job to another. His greatest success was in Dresden, where he was the highest paid court musician. He even turned down a better offer to join the Imperial court in Vienna. Everywhere he went, he inspired lavish praise, including this 1720 panegyric:

"Away with the old lyre! Away with the pipes!
No crude or ruleless note is accepted here.
None but Silvius is to play the lute thereto.
When he plays he does it such a way that the hearts feel it.
In variations he is quite inexhaustibly rich,
and he is unequalled in his art."

For all his success, Weiss had only one piece published during his life. Indeed, he preferred to keep his music to himself. Writing to a patroness for whom he’d composed something, he cautioned her thus: “I must obediently request that you not communicate it further, for as long as one has a thing for oneself, it is always beautiful and new, I will also keep it just for myself.”

Weiss is also the inception for one of the oldest lute jokes. When he was 50, someone asked him how long he had been playing. “Twenty years,” replied Weiss. One of his friends, who knew Weiss was playing at age 10, tried to correct him. “True,” Weiss demurred, “but for twenty years I was tuning.”

By all accounts, Weiss was universally admired by his musical peers. He frequently engaged in long jam sessions with the best musicians of his day. One of them was his contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Over fifty years after their encounter, a writer described it thus: “...eyewitnesses assure us that the great Dresden lutenist Weiss competed in playing fantasias and fugues with Sebastian Bach, who was also great as a harpsichordist and organist.”

Bach himself must have regarded Weiss with a tinge of envy. His own base salary was a mere fraction of what Weiss earned in Dresden—in fact, Bach kept himself financially afloat by doing freelance playing for weddings and funerals. (In a year when the death rate dropped, he grumbled about the hit to his income.) Writing to a friend, Bach sullenly contrasted his situation to the shining example of Dresden. And he repeatedly demanded of his employers the means to better carry out his self-imposed mission to produce “well-regulated church music to the glory of God.” It was to no avail. Instead, Bach was chided for his “disobedience and insubordination” and pointedly admonished to “attend to his duties more industriously.”

Even before he became acquainted with Weiss, Bach already created a work that, had he written nothing else, would have guaranteed him lasting fame. His Ciaccona for solo violin is the last movement of his second partita for solo violin. It’s a vast work. At 267 measures, it not only dwarfs the rest of the partita it concludes, but also puts into shade every other work created for solo violin, before or since. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin called it “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.” Since its first publication in 1802, well after Bach’s death, musicians of every stripe have taken a crack at it. Brahms arranged it for the left hand alone on piano. Mendelssohn and Schumann wrote accompaniments. Andrés Segovia got the ball rolling for guitarists with his 1934 transcription—he also made two recordings, the first in 1947, the second in 1954. One might argue that, after the original violin version, it’s the guitar that best suits the Ciaccona, both for its intimate voice and its ability to put across the laminous counterpoint.

Mexican composer Manuel María Ponce (1882-1948) wrote 24 Preludes for guitar in the late 1920s. Living in Paris at the time, he had become a close friend of Segovia, and it was Segovia who convinced the Schott publishing house to release twelve of the preludes in 1930. For decades afterward, it was only these twelve that became familiar to guitarists. But in 1981 all 24 were finally published, thanks to guitarist Miguel Alcázar, who tracked down eleven of the remaining twelve. Failing to find one piece, Alcázar slipped in another short piece by Ponce to round out the final number.

In the mid 1920s, Segovia attended a performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia. It made a deep impression on him, and in 1929 he wrote Ponce with a request—actually, it was more a demand: “I want you to write some brilliant variations for me on the theme of the Folias de Espana, in D Minor. I want this work to be greatest piece of that period, the pendant of those of Corelli for violin on the same theme.”

The folias theme is a venerable one in music history, as Segovia doubtless knew. The word itself is Portuguese, roughly translating as “madness.” Composers who wrote variations on it (besides Corelli) include Lully, Vivaldi, Salieri, Liszt, and Rachmaninov. Even Beethoven slipped it into his fifth symphony. So Segovia likely felt a solo guitar work based on this theme would be something special.

Ponce labored mightily, his task complicated because Segovia balked when he thought Ponce’s inspiration flagged. Segovia was also leery of Ponce’s plan to end with a fugue: “Do you think it would be better to have something other than a fugue for a finale, so that the audience doesn’t cool off?” On receiving the fugue, however, Segovia changed his mind: “I am delighted with the fugue. [It] fits perfectly on the guitar. There is no need to modify anything or change one note.” Although Segovia requested 12 or 14 variations, Ponce over time responded with a more generous 20.

The resulting Variations sur folia de Espana et fugue is an immense and protean work, the pinnacle of a fine collection of guitar music composed by Ponce. An excerpt from one of Segovia’s letters stands as an apt summation: “...this work will be a chaconne for the guitar.”

- Tom Poore