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.


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!

Granados’ Valses Poéticos: A Brief Historical Background

Perhaps best known for his piano suite Goyescas, Enrique Granados (1867-1916) was a pianist, composer, and music educator with a style firmly rooted in Spanish nationalism. Granados was born in Lèrida, Spain, studied piano and composition in Barcelona with Felipe Pedrell, and moved to Paris in 1887 to study piano with Charles de Bériot. Two years later, Granados returned to Barcelona, where he began a prolific career as a concert pianist, composer, and music educator. In 1901, Granados founded his own piano school, the Academia Granados, based on his teaching philosophy. Several prominent pianists attended the Academia Granados, most notably the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha. As a composer, Granados wrote primarily for the piano, although he also composed songs, chamber music, and operas. His compositional style was heavily influenced by the music and culture of his native Spain. In 1914, Granados performed his piano suite Goyescas in Paris to great acclaim, which led to the Paris Opéra requesting that Granados compose an opera based on the composition. Granados accepted the request and collaborated with Fernando Periquet, who wrote the libretto. However, the events of World War I prevented the Paris Opéra from premiering this work. In 1916, the Metropolitan Opera premiered the opera, and Granados traveled to New York to assist with its production. The opera was met with an enthusiastic reception and much critical acclaim, although it never became an enduring part of the opera repertory. During his travels back to Europe, the ship he boarded was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel, resulting in the death of both Granados and his wife.

Valses Poéticos was originally written for piano, most likely between 1886-1894 (the exact date is not known). The work consists of eight short movements, including an Introduction and a Coda. Valses 1-4 were published in 1894 by Lustración Musical Hispano-Americana, and the remaining Valses were published by Casa Dostesio in 1900. All of the movements are in two-part form or three-part form. The Introduction is in 2/4 time and is played at a fast and lively tempo (Vivace molto), featuring a predominantly sixteenth note texture interspersed with staccato eighth notes that act primarily as transitions between the sections. As it’s tempo indication (Melodioso) suggests, Valse No. 1 features a beautifully lyrical melody in A Major, which is accompanied by a repeating pattern of arpeggiated chords. In the second section of the piece, the key changes to the parallel minor and the melody moves to the bass line before returning to the upper voice (and the original key) for a final statement of the main melody. Valse No. 2 (Tempo de Valse noble) is in F Major and has a noble yet expressive character. Valse No. 3 (Tempo de Valse lente) is in D minor, has a slow and memorable melody in the A section, which followed by a rhythmically contrasting B section in the parallel Major. Valse No. 4 (Allegro umoristico) is in Bb Major and, true to its tempo indication, is a bright, lively and somewhat humorous piece. Valse No. 5 (Allegretto (elegante) is in the same key as Valse No. 4. However, it is played at a moderate tempo that wonderfully showcases its gorgeous melody. Like Valses No. 1 and No. 3, it also modulates to a parallel key, though this time it changes key to the parallel minor in the B section. Valse No. 6 (Quasi ad libitum (sentimental) is a reflective and calm piece in F# minor. Valse No. 7 (Vivo) in A Major is a prodigious feat of technical capability, and Valse No. 8 (Coda: Presto) is in A Major and begins with rapid flights of melody and chromaticism before transforming into an exact repeat of Valse No. 1. Recurring elements in this work include a keen melodic sensibility, the use of two and three-part song form, and the utilization of parallel major and minor keys.


Graduate School

After approximately a year of preparation, research, learning repertoire, visiting colleges, taking the GRE (which is a total bullshit moneymaking scam, by the way-more on this later), and filling out multitudes of forms, the results are in. I will be attending the M.A. in Music program with a concentration in Music Theory and Music History at Hunter College this fall!

When I finished my undergraduate studies last May, I had this gut feeling that this was the one time in my life where the sky was the limit and I could try to get in to some amazing colleges for graduate school. So that’s what I did. I aimed high, applying to Yale, Juilliard, Columbia, The CUNY Graduate Center, and Hunter College. I knew that all of these schools are difficult to get into and that there was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t get accepted to any of them, but for some reason, in my mind, I just had to try and see what happened.

While I did have some fears about this process, rejection wasn’t one of them. As a musician, I’m used to being rejected. It happens…a lot. Most of the time, venues and other music-related jobs don’t even bother to let me know: I just never hear from them, or suddenly never hear from them again (huge props to the people who do let me know-it really is very much appreciated!). Anyone who is a fellow musician, writer, artist, or creative professional knows what I’m talking about. After a while, you realize that it’s not personal; it’s just part of the job. This experience proved to be an asset, as it helped a lot with keeping things in perspective throughout the application process and making an informed and carefully considered decision.

I wasn’t sure what to major in. I love playing classical guitar, and I also love studying music theory, music history, teaching music, and reading lots of good books about almost any topic of interest. As a result, I figured that I would apply to both performance and non-performance based programs in music, prepare as best as I could, and see what happens. My ultimate reason for applying to graduate school is that it is a credential that will put me one step closer to my long-term goal of being a music professor. That being said, I also believe in keeping my options open and strive to view the future in a way that is simultaneously both highly focused and reasonably broad. In short, this was a year in transition. I spent the year working to grow my career as a performer and music educator, and, of course, getting ready for applying to graduate school. For the first time since I began playing music, I was not taking classes or lessons, and I reveled in this newfound freedom, especially with regards to playing classical guitar. I started playing classical guitar to attend an undergraduate program in guitar performance, and as a result have never been able to choose which pieces to work on. I am very grateful for the excellent formal training that I received, and it is because of this training that I am able to choose repertoire that is both inspiring and challenging. However, I love getting to choose my repertoire for the first time, without having to worry about grades, juries, or other academic deadlines.

For the combined M.A./Ph.D. programs, I needed to take the GRE. I bought a test prep book and taught myself by going through the book, focusing on the topics that I struggled most with (such as math), and watching lots of Kahn Academy videos (Kahn Academy is AWESOME! Highly recommended!). I had read about a lot of test center nightmare stories online, so I researched the test centers extensively before signing up, and had a great experience at the one in Purchase, NY-the people there were very professional, kind, and fair. I have a lot of choice words about the GRE, but before I begin my tirade, I would like to point out that the GRE does do one thing reasonably well: it does a good job of measuring your abilities on the subjects that are on the GRE, and only on the subjects that are on the GRE. Predictably, I scored well on the topics that I am generally good at, and did not score as well for the topics that I am not generally good at. It also forced me to learn some basic skills that I had previously not thoroughly learned. Both good things, as far as it goes.

That being said, there are many things wrong with the GRE. First of all, it’s too expensive. It costs $205 just to take the test, the average test prep book is about $50, and if you want to be super prepared and sign up for tutoring, you can spend thousands on preparing for this test. Also, you can take the test multiple times, but you have to pay for the test again for each retake. Sounds like a nice way for ETS to make a hell of a lot of money off of our societal obsession with test scores. This is a marketing strategy that clearly favors people who are wealthy or have wealthy parents, and is a huge disadvantage for those of us (read: most of us) who are not wealthy or have wealthy parents. In addition, the steep cost discourages some very intelligent people from applying to graduate school.

It’s also a huge time suck. Like any other big test, the GRE takes a long time to adequately prepare for, which adds a lot to the time spent preparing for graduate school applications. It’s yet another requirement to prepare for, except unlike most of the requirements (which actually for the most part make sense and relate to your field of study), it is questionable how much my performance on a test which does not cover music or related fields actually demonstrates my readiness (or lack thereof) for graduate school in the field of music. This is also true for other non-STEM majors. Because of these reasons, I recommend that colleges and states stop requiring the GRE as an admissions requirement for graduate school. I realize that I am a comparative nobody in the field of education policy, but I sincerely and firmly believe that it is important to critically think about the way things are, express our views in a reasonable manner, and expound on ways to make things better, or, in this case, reasons to eschew the given thing altogether.

One of the upsides of applying to graduate programs in both performance and non-performance fields was that I learned a lot about multiple disciplines of music. I learned some beautiful and timeless classical guitar repertoire (some of which I’ve discussed on this blog), reviewed and expanded my music theory knowledge, and as a result became a more intelligent and well-rounded musician and person. I applied to the guitar performance programs at Yale and Juilliard; the musicology programs at Columbia and The Graduate Center, CUNY; and the music theory program at Hunter College.

One of the highlights of this journey was making it to the audition round at Juilliard. The audition was located in a music studio room at Juilliard, and consisted of playing for Sharon Isbin. You know, the same Sharon Isbin that has performed with Sting and Billy Joel, has played at The White House, and is an astoundingly incredible guitarist. It was one of the most nerve-wracking 15 minutes of my life. I was asked to choose my first piece, so I chose Variations Mignonnes by Mertz. There were a couple of small mistakes, but I feel that I played it well overall. Then Mrs. Isbin asked me to play what was (for me) the most difficult piece in the audition repertoire: the final movement of Walton’s Five Bagatelles. I stumbled through it as best as I could; there were some good moments, but many mistakes. I was relieved to have finished the piece with no memory slips. As you might have guessed, I didn’t get in to Juilliard, but will never forget that audition.

For Hunter College’s M.A. program, I was required to take a test in music theory and ear training. As I had expected, I did well in the theory portion of the test, but not as well in the ear training section. I wasn’t sure if I would get in. However, I was very happy to receive an email stating that I had been accepted, and would I be interested in a mixed concentration in either music theory and performance or music theory and music history? I appreciate Hunter’s emphasis on a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the study and analysis of music, the option to choose a mixed concentration, the kindness of the students and faculty, and the reasonable tuition costs. I knew right away that Hunter would be a great fit. I chose a mixed concentration in music theory and music history, as I am passionate about both fields and would like to further my knowledge in order to strengthen my musical and academic background, facilitate my long-term career goal of working as a university professor, and become better equipped to advocate for the classical guitar as a legitimate classical instrument. I said yes to the offer of admission, and am very much looking forward to attending graduate school this fall!