Fernando Sor Mini-Series Part 5: Sor’s Music and Legacy

This post will be the last in my five part mini-series on Fernando Sor. In previous posts, I have discussed Sor’s contributions to furthering the status of the classical guitar, his compositional style, perceptions of his music during his lifetime, and his approach to pedagogy. In this post, I will attempt to summarize these aspects of Sor’s musical career and illustrate why Sor’s music, pedagogy, and musical philosophy are still important to consider today.

Sor combined his approach to part-writing, pedagogy, and musical philosophy to craft music that challenged stereotypes about his instrument and led the classical music world to take the guitar more seriously as a concert instrument, thus raising its status. Sor’s music uses a deft combination of counterpoint, harmony, classical forms, and clear phrases, illustrating the assimilation of a broad array of styles, ranging from classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn to fellow guitarist-composers Padre Basilio and Federico Moretti. Although Sor is perhaps most famous for his guitar music, he also composed operas, ballets, art songs, and other works, which likely contributed to his synthesis of disparate approaches in his compositions for guitar. Today, his works for guitar are standard repertoire for students and professionals alike. They are taught in private studios and university programs, and performed in concert halls around the world. His music and pedagogy combines classical sophistication, past and contemporary traditions of part writing, and an emphasis on logic and reason, all of which are just as relevant today as they were during the early nineteenth century.

Resources for further information on Fernando Sor’s life and career as a guitarist, composer, and music educator:

Hartdegen, Kenneth. “Fernando Sor’s Theory of Harmony Applied to the Guitar: History, Bibliography, and Context.” PhD diss., University of Auckland, 2011.

Jeffery, Brian. “Sor [Sors], (Joseph) Fernando.” Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Accessed 9 October, 2019. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

Page, Christopher. “New light on the London years of Fernando Sor (1815–1822).” Early Music 41, no. 4 (November 2013): 557-569.

Rhodes Draayer, Suzanne. Art Song Composers of Spain: An Encyclopedia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Ribiero Alves, Júlio. “The History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution.” Marshall Digital Scholar (Fall 2015): 1-169.

Sor, Fernando. Method for the Spanish Guitar. London, UK: Robert Cocks & Co., n.d. (ca. 1832). http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg/2/2b/IMSLP260517-PMLP58779-sor_method_merrick.pdf.

Wade, Graham. Traditions of the Classical Guitar. Richmond, UK: Overture Publishing, 2012.




Fernando Sor Mini-Series Part 4: Sor’s Pedagogical Methods and Musical Philosophy

Fernando Sor was by no means unique in writing a method book or espousing his musical philosophy in written form. As Graham Wade states in his discussion of the guitar during the early nineteenth century, “the great teachers of the age developed the techniques, methods of study and theoretical bases of the instrument in a manner appropriate to the manner of Czerny and Paganini.” Contemporaries of Sor such as Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, and Dionisio Aguado also wrote influential method books that made valuable contributions to the technical, pedagogical, and performance aspects of the instrument. However, Sor’s method is significant in three ways: it focuses on the application of reason and critical thinking, outlines his views on the role of the guitar and the system for left hand fingerings that he created to facilitate that role, and emphasizes the teaching of musicianship as well as technical fluency.

Sor’s method utilizes an unusual approach: instead of mainly discussing the techniques needed to play an instrument skillfully, his method places as much emphasis on demonstrating why a student would benefit from learning the techniques taught as it does in teaching these techniques. As a result, this method provides an exposition of Sor’s musical philosophy as well as his pedagogical approach. Perhaps not surprisingly, his method is quite text-heavy, featuring more text then musical examples (fifty pages of text and forty-two pages of musical examples, which are located in the back of the book). This focus on favoring the use of reason and critical thinking over following the dogmatic dictates of those who claim to be experts is a central component of his method, and appears to derive from the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment. As Sor states in the introduction to his method, “music, reasoning, and the preference which I give in general to results before a display of difficulty, constitute my whole secret.”

Sor also outlines his views on the role and perception of the guitar in his day. In particular, Sor addresses the perception of the guitar as an accompaniment instrument. In Sor’s view, people tend to think of the guitar as an accompaniment instrument but treat it as a melody instrument by excessively emphasizing scales, and using all of the left-hand fingers for the scale fingerings instead of leaving some of the fingers to play harmony parts. By contrast, Sor’s fingering system is based on the maxim that the fingering used for the melody should be based on the fingering needed for the harmony parts. In this system, all fingerings are based on finding logical fingerings for harmonic and melodic intervals of thirds and sixths that avoid excessive shifting and transitions to another string by using the same finger. According to Sor, once this fingering system is mastered, correct fingerings organically emerge for any chords that the player may encounter. Ultimately, Sor views the role of the guitar “as an instrument of harmony.”

Lastly, Sor advocates that guitarists become knowledgeable musicians in addition to gaining technical proficiency on the instrument. Sor makes this clear by stating “I make a great distinction between a musician and a note-player.” Sor defines a musician as one who adopts a holistic perspective on music, studies harmony and music theory, and sees music as a language conveyed by notes and indications on the score. By contrast, a note-player is fixated on the names of the notes and how to play them on their instrument without regard for the broader musical whole. Overall, Sor’s pedagogical approach seeks to create well-rounded musicians who possess a high level of both technical proficiency and musical knowledge.


Resources for further information on Fernando Sor’s pedagogical methods and musical philosophy:

Ribiero Alves, Júlio. “The History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution.” Marshall Digital Scholar (Fall 2015): 1-169.

Sor, Fernando. Method for the Spanish Guitar. London, UK: Robert Cocks & Co., n.d. (ca. 1832). http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg/2/2b/IMSLP260517-PMLP58779-sor_method_merrick.pdf.

Sor, Fernando. Prepared from the autographs and earliest printed sources by Bradford Werner. Rev. Ed. Victoria, BC: Werner Guitar Editions, 2019. https://www.thisisclassicalguitar.com/fernando-sor-studies-free-sheet-music-pdfs/.

Wade, Graham. Traditions of the Classical Guitar. Richmond, UK: Overture Publishing, 2012.


Fernando Sor Mini-Series Part 3: Perceptions of Fernando Sor’s guitar music during his lifetime

Reviews of Fernando Sor’s music generally acknowledge his musical talent while sometimes questioning the musical potential of the guitar. For example, a review of one of Sor’s concerts in an 1832 issue of the French magazine the Revue Musicale states that “on hearing M. Sor one recognizes a superior artist; but, I repeat, why does he play the guitar?” Echoing this sentiment but arriving at a significantly different conclusion, a review of Sor’s first concert in London in 1815 published by The Giulianiad states that “there was a sort of suppressed laughter when he first came forth before the audience, which, however, soon changed into the most unbounded admiration when he began to display his talents.” As these passages illustrate, the musical ability of Sor was generally praised. However, perceptions of the guitar by the classical music world tended to view it as an inferior instrument. This can be evidenced by questioning why Sor plays the guitar and the mention of “a sort of suppressed laughter” when he arrives on stage with this instrument. It should also be noted that The Giulianiad was a publication rooted in the musical ideas of prominent guitarist-composer Mauro Giuliani, which may explain this more complimentary view of the guitar. That being said, the mention of the audience trying not to laugh at Sor playing a guitar in a publication which possessed a core readership of guitarists may be a further indication of the somewhat derogatory role of the guitar at that time. However, upon his arrival in England in 1815, Sor is praised in a concert announcement by the Morning Post as “the most celebrated performer in Europe on the Spanish Guitar” pointing toward him being known as a renowned guitarist in England and probably elsewhere. Furthermore, in an 1817 description by the Morning Post of Lady Langham’s Divertisement, &c., an event in which Sor performed, he is described as “an artist of unrivalled excellence on that instrument.”

Resources for further information on perceptions of Fernando Sor’s music for guitar:

Hartdegen, Kenneth. “Fernando Sor’s Theory of Harmony Applied to the Guitar: History, Bibliography, and Context.” PhD diss., University of Auckland, 2011.

Page, Christopher. “New light on the London years of Fernando Sor (1815–1822).” Early Music 41, no. 4 (November 2013): 557-569.

Stenstadvold, Erik. “‘We hate the guitar’: prejudice and polemic in the music press in early 19th-century Europe.” Early Music 41, no. 4 (November 2013): 595-604.


Fernando Sor Mini-Series Part 2: Notable aspects of Sor’s compositions for guitar

Although Sor composed numerous pieces for the guitar, I will limit my focus to two of them, each of which showcases notable aspects of Sor’s compositional style. Because Sor composed in a wide range of forms both large and small, including studies, waltzes, theme and variations, divertimentos, and sonatas, I have chosen to briefly analyze one of his studies and one of his works that uses a larger form. For the former, I will discuss his Study No. 8, Op. 6, focusing on its use of multiple voices, suspensions, and part-writing. For the latter, I will explore his Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9, with emphasis on its virtuosity, connection to Mozart, and role in elevating the status of the guitar.

The music of Sor is typically introduced to guitar students through the many studies that Sor composed. These studies have stood the test of time for their technical and musical appeal, and, along with the pedagogical works of Carcassi, Carulli, Giuliani, and Aguado, make up a large portion of today’s typical classical guitar curriculum as taught in private lessons and university courses. Sor’s Study No. 8, Op. 6 is among his most popular studies, and showcases his part-writing ability, as well as his use of both vertical and horizontal compositional styles. This study was first published in 1815 in London, and is dedicated to his pupils, further evidence that it was intended as a pedagogical work. Despite its short length of thirty-nine measures, the study features three independent voices, suspensions, grace notes, and several key changes. It is comprised of five short sections (referred to by Stanley Yates as “episodes”) and is through-composed. Each voice has an independent part, illustrating Sor’s polyphonic approach to composing for guitar, as well as his deft use of suspensions, which can be seen in the following excerpt of the first four measures:

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By contrast, his Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9 is a significantly longer and more technically demanding piece. The theme is based on the melody of “O Cara Armonia” a theme from The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s most famous operas. There are several stylistic similarities in the music of Sor and Mozart, including the use of forms common during the classical period, and their penchant for clear phrases and lyrical melodies. In addition, the use of a theme by Mozart appears to imply Sor’s acknowledgement of his influence.

This piece also showcases the prodigious capabilities of the guitar, especially in the variations, which incorporate great technical skill and musical imagination, both of which assisted in raising the status of the guitar. As Graham Wade notes in his book Traditions of the Classical Guitar: “there are no precedents in guitar literature for this tour de force in which all the technical devices of the guitar are developed with such gusto.” It was first published in Paris by A. Meissonnier in 1821, and achieved a renaissance in popularity in the mid-twentieth century when Andrés Segovia chose this piece as the first work by Sor that he recorded and performed. Segovia’s popularization of this piece led to its current reputation as a rite of passage for aspiring classical guitarists. Its form consists of a short introduction, which is followed by the theme, five variations, and a coda. Each variation utilizes different variation techniques, including change of key, change of mode, embellishment of melody, change of harmony, and unique rhythmic figure, as well as many passages featuring rapidly played scales and arpeggios. In my brief discussion of these variations, I will show the first two measures of the theme and each variation, noting some of the variation techniques that I have discovered in my analysis of this work:


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Variation 1 (slurs, 32nd notes, and scale run embellish the theme):

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Variation 2 (Change of mode (parallel minor) and change of harmony):

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Variation 3 (Rhythmic variation: straight sixteenth notes and arpeggio in measure 1 of this variation):Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 9.07.23 PM

Variation 4 (Unique rhythmic figure, arpeggiated chords):

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Variation 5 (Different unique rhythmic figure and sequences):

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Resources for further information on Sor’s compositional style:

Jeffery, Brian. “Sor [Sors], (Joseph) Fernando.” Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Accessed 9 October, 2019. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

Ribiero Alves, Júlio. “The History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution.” Marshall Digital Scholar (Fall 2015): 1-169.

Sor, Fernando. Sor Study No. 8, Op. 6. Prepared from the autographs and earliest printed sources by Bradford Werner. Rev. Ed. Victoria, BC: Werner Guitar Editions, 2017.

Sor, Fernando. Variations over a theme from the Magic Flute by Mozart Op. 9. Prepared from the autographs and earliest printed sources by Eythor Thorlaksson. Rev. ed. Iceland: The Guitar School, 2001.

Wade, Graham. Traditions of the Classical Guitar. Richmond, UK: Overture Publishing, 2012.

Yates, Stanley. Classical Guitar Study Guides: Intermediate Repertoire Series. Self-Published, Classical Guitar Study Guides, 2009.

Fernando Sor: Guitarist, Composer, and Educator

This post is the first of what will be a mini-series on the music, career, and legacy of Fernando Sor. Although Sor tends to be considered as a minor composer in music history, many fellow guitarists will recognize his name as the author of pedagogical works that have become part of the typical classical guitar curriculum as taught at colleges, universities, and private lessons. While Sor’s studies undoubtably accomplish the rare feat of being both pedagogically useful and musically interesting, his contribution to the classical guitar goes far beyond his work as an educator. Sor also composed a variety of larger-scale works for guitar, piano and voice, orchestra, and other typical instrument combinations in use during his time, maintained a prolific career as a performer, and even published a book on his thoughts regarding the learning and playing of the guitar. Taken together, Sor’s musical output has played a significant role in elevating the status of the guitar and expanding conceptions of what can be written or performed on the instrument.

In the early nineteenth century, the classical guitar experienced a revival in the quality of music written for it and the skill level of its performers, many of whom also taught and published method books for the instrument. Along with his contemporaries, the Spanish guitarist, composer, and teacher Fernando Sor composed, performed, and taught music that challenged conventional notions of the possibilities of the classical guitar. Sor wrote in a wide range of genres, including operas, ballets, string quartets, songs, and pieces for solo classical guitar. Sor’s works for guitar encompass a diverse array of music, including sonatas, fantasias, divertimentos, variations, and studies, among other works. During his prolific performing career, Sor performed his guitar music throughout Europe for royalty, nobility, and in public concerts, bringing his polyphonic approach to the instrument to a broad audience. In addition, Sor wrote a guitar method, originally titled Méthode pour la Guitare, which is as much an exposition of Sor’s musical philosophy as it is a method for learning how to play the classical guitar. His approach to teaching favors the use of reason and critical thinking, and advocates the learning of music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and basic musicianship skills along with the technical skills that are specific to the guitar. Sor’s method also demonstrates his approach to fingering, which is based on the intervals of thirds and sixths. It is important to note that Sor was not the first guitarist to write complex music for the guitar or elevate its status. His approach seems to be influenced by past guitarist/composers such as de Murcia, Moretti, and Basilio, as well as Haydn and Mozart. However, what sets Sor apart is that he was one of the few guitarists of his time to synthesize these influences into an approach to playing and teaching the guitar that challenged several assumptions and perceptions surrounding the instrument and, in doing so, helped pave the way for the guitar to be taken seriously as a formidable instrument in its own right.


Resources for further information on Sor’s career, influence, and legacy:

Heck, Thomas F., Harvey Turnbull, Paul Sparks, James Tyler, Tony Bacon, Oleg V. Timofeyey, and Gerhard Kubik. “Guitar.” Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

Page, Christopher. “New light on the London years of Fernando Sor (1815–1822).” Early Music 41, no. 4 (November 2013): 557-569.

Ribiero Alves, Júlio. “The History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution.” Marshall Digital Scholar (Fall 2015): 1-169.

Sor, Fernando. Method for the Spanish Guitar. London, UK: Tecla Editions, 2003.

Wade, Graham. Traditions of the Classical Guitar. Richmond, UK: Overture Publishing, 2012.


Analyzing Music for Performance

In this post, I will discuss my process of learning and analyzing music that I perform in the hope that it may be interesting for fellow musicians and music lovers to learn about the process behind what getting a piece ready for performance looks like “behind the scenes”, so to speak. There are many ways to do this; the process that I outline below is what currently works for me, and I don’t think there is any one “right” way to approach learning music. That being said, here is how I currently approach learning a new piece:

Before learning or even playing through a piece, I listen to it. Being a guitarist, I tend to first listen to a guitar rendition, listening for whether or not I like the piece, where the main sections are, any musical elements (melody, bass, recurring rhythmic figure, etc) that need to be brought out, and just try to get an overall idea of the musical essence of the piece. If the piece was originally written on another instrument, I will then listen to the piece on the original instrument. I find this to nearly always be enlightening, as the timbre, dynamics, and sometimes even notes may be differently played on the original instrument than on the guitar. This significantly broadens possibilities for interpretation. Sometimes there are additional aspects of a piece not written in the guitar arrangement that I will transcribe and incorporate into my version of the piece. On the other hand, sometimes it is physically impossible to play everything exactly as it is played on the original instrument, in which case I strive for a compromise that includes the most musically prominent parts while also being playable and musically viable on the guitar. Another listening exercise that I will often do is to listen to many interpretations of the piece while following along with the score, which allows me to get a better idea of the musical essence of the piece while helping me to think creatively about how I may choose to interpret the piece.

After listening to it enough that I have an approximate aural image of the piece, I will then start to learn the music, starting slowly, double checking that I’m playing the correct notes, and looking for patterns that I can hold onto later when I begin to memorize. I will often instinctively try to figure out what chords are being outlined, as this enhances my enjoyment of the piece, helps with memorization, and gives me ideas for future original compositions. Once this is done, I will then do a harmonic analysis (usually with pop chords, sometimes with roman numerals), and identify key musical elements such as sections, keys, phrases, cadences, and pedal tones. Because it can take a while for me to acquire an aural image of the piece, I tend to play each musical part (melody, bass, inner voices) separately, at first just listening, then humming or singing along. I find that this also deepens my awareness of each musical element, and renews my appreciation for the music that I am learning.

At this point, I will start to add dynamics. I begin by trying out the indications on the score, and making sure that these ideas make musical sense. Once these dynamics are internalized, I will experiment with adding my own dynamics, using the different tonal colors of the guitar (normal, ponticello, tasto, etc), and bringing out important musical lines. I will tend to bring out the musical lines that are either distinctive or interesting, and try not to bring out lines with repeating notes.

Once this is accomplished, I will begin memorizing the piece. I tend to alternate playing with the music and without the music, memorizing the music in small chunks and then gradually piecing these chunks together until I have memorized the entire piece. During this process, I strive to be aware of the melody and harmonic progressions, as these help me to memorize the music more quickly and thoroughly. When I reach a point (or have to reach a point due to having an upcoming concert in which I will be playing the given piece) where I can play the piece several times, beginning to end, with no mistakes, I will then add it to my repertoire and perform it as often as I can. As I perform the piece, I often find that my interpretation and overall manner of playing it evolves over time as I become more comfortable with the piece and continue to discover more aspects of the music.

I hope this overview of my process was somewhat helpful and/or interesting to read. What is your process for learning music (whether on guitar or another instrument)? I’d love to learn about your approach to this topic in the comments below!

A Musician’s Observations on Learning to Create Your Own Website

It was one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019. I would finally have my own website. At first, I thought I would hire a website developer. It seemed like a good idea. That is, until I started pricing it out. I quickly realized that this prospect was beyond what I could afford, and after much deliberation and research and planning, I decided that I would try to do it myself. I figured it would be a good learning experience, and at least I could say that I tried. To be honest, even the thought of making my own website filled me with fear. Specifically, the fear of spending lots of time on it, only to make one wrong click and watch my website fade away into oblivion. Because of this (mostly unfounded) initial fear, I have decided to write a post on this topic (even though it doesn’t have much to do with analyzing classical guitar music) in order to encourage my fellow musicians that you absolutely CAN make your own website! It is truly amazing what can be done if you do a little bit often and start with an approximate vision of what you want! I have found that building a website uses many of the same skills necessary to be a musician and is much less overwhelming than it seems if you do a little bit at a time.

Although I do have some prior experience doing web-based projects, this would be the first time that I would attempt to single-handedly build a website from scratch. Like most things worth doing, it was simultaneously more and less difficult than I originally imagined. Seemingly simple tasks such as setting up a contact page ended up taking many hours of trying an idea and thinking that it worked, only to test it and find out that it didn’t work at all, and repeating the process until I found a solution. On the other hand, the process of changing basic elements of the site (like adding/editing items on the main menu) was surprisingly easy. During the course of creating my own site, I learned a lot about WordPress, web hosting, and significantly improved my skills with HTML and CSS.

I started by looking at other music and/or creative arts websites to help me figure out what I wanted my website to look like and what I wanted my website to do. I made a visual sketch of each site, which helped a lot. Once I had an approximate idea of the look and feel I was going for (and made a sketch of my vision for my site), I researched and compared different web hosts and content management systems for a couple of weeks, eventually choosing Siteground for web hosting and buying a domain name, and WordPress as the CMS (content management system). Once this was set up, I had to decide on a theme for my site. After looking at lots of different themes, I chose to use the Genesis Framework and Workstation Pro child theme by Studiopress, because it seemed to be the most high-quality and dependable theme that fit with my vision. It did add to the cost of making a site (the Genesis Framework and child theme cost around $100), but the theme was (in my opinion) so much better than any of the free themes that I saw on WordPress. Using Studiopress was, hands down, the best decision I made during the course of creating my site! The theme works great, the support at Studiopress is amazing, and it made my site work so much better overall in terms of design, responsiveness, and aesthetic appeal. To add music, photos, and other necessary features, I used either widgets, widget shortcode, plugins, or HTML code. Ironically, I used HTML mainly to format my resume, which I thought (very wrongly) would be a simple copy/paste endeavor, and to add special effects. I tried my best to be as organized as possible, because I know that I can easily spend way too much time mulling over options and not enough time actually building a site.

I also want to emphasize that no one learns something new entirely on their own, and my foray into website design was no exception. I read books on website design (my favorite books on this topic are “Wordpress to Go” by Sarah McHarry and the two book HTML & CSS and Javascript and jQuery set by Jon Duckett), googled nearly every problem I came across, contacted the support team of Studiopress, and looked on many forums (which I found especially helpful if the problem involved code). In fact, it was similar (in some ways) to learning an instrument. You start with no idea what you are doing, you listen, read, and study those who do know what they are doing, and gradually learn new skills along the way as needed in order to accomplish your vision.

All of this is to say that I am very happy to announce that I have successfully created my own website! I started working on the site in late January, added the theme (Genesis Framework, Workstation Pro child theme) and essential components throughout February/early March, and added the finishing touches earlier this week. The website showcases my music, teaching, writing, blog, upcoming gigs, and much more. Please feel free to check it out and spread the word!!! See the link below to take a look: https://benguitarmusic.com/







The Bach Cello Suites: A Brief Historical Background

J.S. Bach’s Six Cello Suites have been studied, performed, and recorded by countless musicians (including classical guitarists). They have become a fixture of the classical music repertoire. The Cello Suites have even made their way into contemporary mainstream culture via television performances, movies, videos, and radio. Most people have at least heard the opening notes of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite. As a result, their place in musical history appears to be exceedingly secure.

However, although the Cello Suites were composed approximately three centuries ago, there is much that is not known about this iconic composition.

First of all, the original manuscript is lost. Because of this development, we are left with many questions concerning the composition of the Cello Suites. We don’t know the exact date that they were composed, or what tempo, dynamics, or even instrumentation Bach intended for each movement. In other words, the Cello Suites could have been originally written for another string instrument! (see this fascinating article: http://www.pauldwyer.net/blog/so-what-instrument-were-these-cello-suites-written-for).

The earliest surviving manuscript of the Cello Suites was penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach between 1727 and 1731, and is the source for most of what we know about the Cello Suites today. Interestingly, this manuscript was not written for a cellist. Instead, it was intended for violinist Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanenberger. Three other early manuscripts survive: one by J. Peter Kellner from the early-mid 1700’s, another by two unknown authors from the mid 1700’s, and yet another by an unknown author from the late 1700’s (all of these manuscripts can be viewed here: https://www.jsbachcellosuites.com/score.html#9WJNcwhn).

Most of the Cello Suites were written around 1720, while Bach worked as Kapellmeister (Court Music Director) for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During his time in Cöthen, Bach mainly wrote instrumental music for soloists or ensembles, and this output included six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the six Cello Suites, and a Partita for solo Flute. Although nowadays pieces of music written for solo instruments are relatively common, in Bach’s time, it was quite unusual for music to be written for a solo instrument. This convention especially applied to a lower-pitched instrument such as the cello, which had previously been viewed as an accompaniment instrument. While Bach was not the first composer to write music for a solo instrument, his contribution to the cello repertoire was highly unusual at the time, and ultimately transformed the public’s perception of the capabilities and limitations of the cello. One of the most remarkable aspects of Bach’s compositions for solo instruments is that they tend to sound as if they are played by more than one instrument. Despite the cello’s inability to play full chords, Bach makes clever use of double stops, arpeggios, and alternating musical registers to create the illusion of harmony. The listener mentally “fills in” the remaining harmony notes without realizing that they are missing. As a result, the Cello Suites sound full and deeply resonant, even though they are played by a single instrument.

Bach used the dance suite form for the Cello Suites, and each Suite consists of six movements. Every suite begins with a Prelude, which tends to be dramatic, improvisatory, and full of character. This is followed by the Allemande, an elegant dance movement that was popularly performed but not often danced to during Bach’s time. After the Allemande comes the Courante, an upbeat dance of which there are two main types: the French Courante or the Italian Corrente. Bach usually used the Italian version in the Cello suites. The fourth movement consists of a Sarabande, which was originally a passionate and sultry Iberian dance, but by Bach’s time mellowed to a slow, longing character that was influenced by its use in French courts. The fifth movement is either a Minuet, Gavotte, or Bourrée, all of which possess a memorable, melodic, and generally joyful aesthetic. Lastly, all of the suites conclude with a Gigue, an animated and up-tempo dance movement with a big personality.

Bach (or his Cello Suites) were never famous in his lifetime. Before Pablo Casals’ groundbreaking recording of the Cello Suites in 1938, the Cello Suites were viewed as musically dry pedagogical studies. In fact, if Casals had not stumbled upon this work at a music shop in Barcelona as a teenager, the Cello Suites might still be shrouded in the dimly lit hall of musical obscurity. In the decades following Casals’ recording, multitudes of incredible cellists, violinists, violists, classical guitarists, and other instrumentalists have performed, recorded, and spread the word about the inimitable beauty and staying power of Bach’s Cello Suites.

Some cool resources: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bach/music/cello-suites/, http://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces-bachs-six-solo-cello-suites-83797, https://www.amazon.com/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248, https://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603,

Last Post of 2018

As 2018 winds down, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the past year. This year, I graduated from college, taught music lessons at a local music school and privately, and performed at Cafes, Farmers Markets, Churches, and other venues throughout New York and New Jersey. I also started this blog, and have greatly enjoyed writing about my artistic journey, sharing my insights with fellow bloggers, and discovering some wonderful and thought-provoking blogs in the process. In 2019, I will continue to perform, teach, and write about music, and may be starting graduate school in the Fall of this coming year. I’m also looking forward to blogging about my favorite classical guitar pieces, as well as ideas and issues that are relevant to myself and the wider musical and artistic community.

I also would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to visit, follow, or comment on this blog. When I began Classical Guitar Analysis this May, I wasn’t sure if anyone would bother to read my somewhat technical and academic analyses of classical guitar music. I was pleasantly surprised, and am very grateful to each and every one of you for your interest in this blog-it is very much appreciated! Wishing you a happy, healthy, and all-around fantastic New Year!

I will end my last blog post of 2018 with perhaps my favorite New Year’s quote of all time:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

-Neil Gaiman

Artistic Integrity

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the concept of artistic integrity. What does it mean for an artist (or musician, writer, painter, illustrator, etc) to have artistic integrity? Is it a relatively black and white concept (like integrity), is it more subjective (like art), or is it something in between? What about the dilemma of how far an artist will or should go in order to please an audience and sustain a career? As a result of asking these questions and doing some reading and thinking, I thought I would compile some of my ideas on this topic in the hope of better defining what this concept means for me, as well as to share some of what I have learned along the way.

To possess artistic integrity is to embrace the contradiction between exquisite detail and boundless freedom. As a classical guitarist, I spend countless hours practicing and refining my technique with the goal of transcending technique. In my interpretations, I dedicate myself to learning about the composer, period, and style, while also assimilating my own musical ideas into the rich and highly textured fabric of musical influences present in a given piece. Classical musicians, like artists, walk a tightrope between respecting the traditions of the past and utilizing their individual musical aesthetic to create a body of work that is firmly grounded yet unmistakably original. In my live performances and teaching, I strive to share the fruits of my work and communicate the passion, love, and inspiration that I feel as a result of playing the classical guitar. For me, this involves performing and teaching music that I deeply enjoy, as well as discussing relevant background information about the music in a way that is both engaging and educational. It is vitally important to be true to myself, aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and to conduct myself in a manner that is professional, ethical, and morally sound. It is of the utmost importance to listen to my moral compass, artistic intuition, and common sense to make the choices that are right for my artistic journey. As a musician, I am continuously grateful that my chosen occupation involves bringing joy and beauty to others through the music that I perform, teach, and write about. In order to do this, it is crucial for me to cultivate my love of music, appreciation for beauty, and desire to learn more about music and other topics of interest. One of the wider reaching implications of being a musician with artistic integrity is that your work is not just a career. Instead, it is an all-encompassing lifestyle in which living, learning, and creating are interconnected.

Ultimately, artistic integrity, both for myself and the art form of music as a whole seems predicated on one word: balance. To be a musician requires being exacting yet expressive; learning from the past while developing your unique voice; keeping an open mind but staying true to your core principles; having the tenacity to devote extended amounts of time to something that does not always compute according to the standards of the world, and the courage to spread the word about your music. Although musicians perform for audiences and depend on pleasing their audience in order to sustain a career, a musician that has artistic integrity will not change the essence of their work for the sake of his or her listeners. Paradoxically, this commitment to strong artistic principles is often what attracts the audience in the first place.

To have artistic integrity, it is necessary for a musician to be able to work towards opposing ideas while also firmly maintaining their moral and artistic principles. To be artistic generally refers to the skill of possessing creativity or a refined sense of aesthetics, while being a person of integrity presupposes the character traits of honesty and moral uprightness. Thus, the concept of artistic integrity nicely illustrates the need for balancing an open mind with the establishment of clear boundaries. Musicians, like all people, should strive to be good, honest, and ethical people who prioritize upholding their values in every aspect of their lives, including in their art.

As you can see, I haven’t yet been able to settle on one particular definition. Instead, I attempted to outline some of the conclusions that I have reached in my exploration of the concept of artistic integrity. It is a truly fascinating topic, and writing about it has both solidified my understanding of the concept and also left me with more questions. I would love to hear your thoughts on this broad, intriguing, and important topic-how do you define artistic integrity for yourself and/or your work?