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 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.


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!

Prelude #6 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 6 is the last prelude to be analyzed in this six part series on Manuel Ponce’s Preludes. It is my favorite of Ponce’s first 6 Preludes because of its beautiful melody, intriguing musical structure, and cohesive sound despite not being written in a song form. Like Prelude No. 5, Prelude No. 6 is in 2/4, combines modern music, Mexican folk music, and impressionist influences to create a sublime musical whole. The piece primarily uses an 8th note texture and utilizes auxiliary components (a simple introduction from mm 1-3 and a Coda from mm 34-40) but does not follow any traditional song form. Instead, the form of the piece is suggested by the melodic contour of each phrase. The entire composition seems to be derived from the first phrase (mm 4-8) after the introduction, as each subsequent phrase possesses a similar (and at times identical) melodic contour as the first phrase. In addition, this piece is the only one of the 6 Preludes to feature bitonality. The accompaniment is in the tonal center of A major, but the melody is in the key of D minor.

An A pedal tone is present throughout, and the accompaniment acts as a drone that supports the melody, although colorful impressionist harmonies are also present. A change of voice occurs in mm 21-24, in which the melody is played in the bass and middle voices, and a tone color change occurs in mm 29-33, in which the right hand plucks the strings towards the bridge of the instrument, creating a ponticello effect. The Coda consists of cadential material derived from the last two measures of the final phrase before the coda begins, and the piece both begins and ends on the same voicing of an A major chord.


Overview of 6 Preludes and Conclusion

Manuel Ponce and Andres Segovia’s 6 Preludes reflect the wide reaching influences of their composer, making use of elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music, 20th century music, the impressionist music of Debussy and Ravel, and the unique characteristics of the guitar. The irregular phrases that occur throughout the work and the relatively small pitch range and lyricism of the melodies are elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music. The 20th century music influence can be seen most clearly in Prelude No. 3 and Prelude No. 6, neither of which ascribe to a traditional song form. In addition, Prelude No. 3 uses pantonality and Prelude No. 6 uses bitonality, two primarily 20th century harmonic concepts. The impressionist influence can be seen throughout the work in the often unusual and extended harmonies chosen for the accompaniment. The profound dynamic and tone color changes in Preludes 1, 2, 4, and 6, the change of voice in the melodies of Preludes No. 1 and No. 6, the use of harmonics in Prelude No. 2, and the use of open strings in Preludes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are all notable examples of Ponce and Segovia’s exploitation of the musical potential of the guitar. This extraordinary synthesis of styles and compositional approaches demonstrates Segovia and Ponce’s virtuosic skills, creativity, and commitment to musical excellence.

Some Cool Resources

Hope you enjoyed this mini-series on Ponce’s 6 Preludes! If you would like to learn more about Ponce, Segovia, the 6 Preludes, or any related topics, I highly recommend checking out the following resources:

“A History of Western Music” (somewhat pricy but an excellent and comprehensive resource for any music-related research) http://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603

“The Influence of Folk Music in Guitar Compositions by Manuel Ponce” by Arnoldo Garcia Santos. Absolutely fascinating dissertation on how folk music influenced Ponce’s compositional style!

“The Classical Guitar in Paris: Composers and Performers c. 1920-1960” by Duncan Robert Gardiner. Excellent thesis on the leading guitarists and composers in Paris working during the mid 20th century!

“Preludes (24) for Guitar” by Blair Johnston. Brief yet very informative overview of Ponce and Segovia’s Preludes. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/preludes-24-for-guitar-mc0002462700

“The Segovia-Ponce Letters” by Andres Segovia and Manuel Ponce. Fascinating book that is a great window into Segovia’s collaboration with many notable composers, including Manuel Ponce. https://www.amazon.com/Segovia-Ponce-Letters-English-Spanish/dp/0936186291




Prelude No. 5 by Manuel Ponce

The second to last piece in this series is Prelude No. 5, which is in 2/4 time, features the creative use of open strings, modal mixture, wide intervals in the melody, and has few definitive cadences. The piece is also in three-part song form (Simple Introduction, A, B, A’, Postlude), utilizes an eighth note texture throughout, and features irregular phrases. Like the preceding Prelude, the tonality of Prelude No. 5 is a modal mixture between B minor and B major, although in this piece B minor is the primary tonality. The combination of diatonic and secondary dominant chords with extended and Neapolitan chords, as well as the ambiguity of the cadences, demonstrate the intriguing blend of classical, folk, and impressionist influences that are an important characteristic of this work. See below for my analysis of Prelude No. 5:IMG_0488

Prelude No. 4 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 4 is a fast and lively piece in 3/8 and is written in regular three-part song form. The texture of the piece is primarily eighth notes. All phrases are irregular, the piece is primarily a modal mixture of the parallel keys of B major and B minor, the melody is similar in character to a Spanish gypsy song, and the harmonies include Neapolitan and extended chords. These developments exemplify the combination of folk, impressionist, and modern influences that is a constant throughout the work. The A section (mm 1-15) utilizes a B pedal tone from mm 1-7 and the harmonic accompaniment alternates between B major and B minor throughout the A section. This is followed by a transition that consists of an unaccompanied scale passage from mm 16-21 that leads into the B section. The B section features a stark change of texture to a largely unaccompanied melody from mm 25-28 that possesses characteristics that are similar to melodies sung in the style of Cante Jondo, a vocal and poetic style of Andalusian flamenco music that is known for setting melodies of a small pitch range to lyrics that typically convey deeply emotional subject matter. Like most Cante Jondo music, the melody features a narrow range and is primarily unaccompanied. Shortly thereafter, the key changes to G# minor, the relative minor of B major, and there is an extended half cadence from mm 33-36 leading to a varied repetition of the melody that first appeared in mm 25-28. There is also an F# pedal tone and impressionistic chord voicings from mm 41-49. The first phrase of the A section (A’) comes back in slightly modified form from mm 53-58, which is followed by a ten measure Coda that alternates between B major and its neapolitan chord, C major, ending on an imperfect authentic cadence in B major.

For more on Flamenco and Spanish gypsy music, check out this dissertation: https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1846&context=dissertations (go to pages 5-6 to learn more about Cante Jondo music)

Prelude No. 3 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 3 is in several ways a composition that is significantly distinct from the other five Preludes. It is the only Prelude in this work that is completely through composed, meaning that there are no definitive sections and each phrase is different while also exhibiting some commonalities. It also is the shortest Prelude, consisting of only 19 measures, and has the slowest tempo of the 6 Preludes, being played at a graceful and somewhat free Andante. In addition, it is in F# major, which has more sharps than any of the other keys used in this work. Unifying factors in this piece include the melody being either unaccompanied or very lightly accompanied, sometimes by a bass line and occasionally by chords, which for the most part tend to be placed at the end of phrases to give the piece a sense of momentum. Also, imitation between the melody and bass line or the bass line and melody occurs in measures 1-3, 8-9, and measure 15. Phrases 2 and 4 have a similar melodic contour, as well as phrases 3 and 5. Phrases 1, 3, and 5 are irregular, though phrases 2 and 4 are of the normal four-measure length. A brief modulation to the chromatic mediant bIII key occurs in measures 10-11, before quickly modulating back to the tonic. Measure 17 uses pantonality, which is the use of nonfunctional and chromatic harmonies, to set up an imperfect authentic cadence that ends the piece. See below for my analysis of Prelude No. 3 (as well as the first 13 measures of Prelude No. 4):


Prelude No. 2 by Manuel Ponce

Like the first Prelude, Prelude No. 2 is also in three-part song form, though instead of the typical three-part song form in which the A section comes back in some capacity, this piece goes to a section that contains some material from the A section but seems to be too distinct to be labeled as the return of the A section. Because of this, I have analyzed the musical structure of Prelude No. 2 as A, B, C. This piece is played at a rapid tempo in 3/8 meter, is in the key of A major, makes extensive use of motives, and also features dramatic contrasts in dynamics. The A section (mm 1-12) consists of an expanded contrasting period in which the first and second phrases are sequences of each other; the second phrase starts and ends a step lower than the first phrase.

The B section (mm 13-30) derives its character from a two-measure motive that repeats throughout the entire section. The melody of phrases 2 and 3 of the B section use the exact same melodic and rhythmic pattern as phrase 1 of the B section, though the melody is stated a minor third above in phrase 2 and a major second below in phrase 3. This melody is accompanied by a descending bass line and light harmonic accompaniment in phrase 1 of the B section, a stepwise bass line and equally sparse harmonic accompaniment in phrase 2 of the B section, and harmonies based on the dominant in mm 21-22 and mm 27-30 and bVI chromatic mediant chord in mm 23-26. In addition, a gradual and long crescendo occurs throughout the entirety of the B section. The C section begins with a one measure motive from measure 1 of the A section, though this time it is played an octave lower. The second phrase of the C section is a modification of a motive from the third phrase of the A section. This phrase also modulates to the chromatic mediant bVI key. The third phrase of the C section modulates back to the tonic and makes use of harmonics, while the fourth and final phrase of the C section begins with the same motive that began the section, although this motive is transposed a perfect fifth lower than its first appearance in the C section. The piece ends on a perfect authentic cadence. Recurring themes of this piece include the repetition and variation of rhythmic and melodic motives. These characteristics combine with the fast tempo to create a restless and driving rhythmic feel that contrasts with both the preceding and upcoming Preludes.


Prelude #1 by Manuel Ponce

In the spring of last year, I analyzed the first set of 6 Preludes by Manuel Ponce as part of an assignment for a Form and Analysis class at Nyack College. Fast forward about a year and a half, and I am now preparing to apply to graduate schools, most of which require writing samples as part of the application. As a result, I’ve been looking over some of the papers that I had written and came across this analysis of the first set of Ponce’s Preludes. After doing some editing on this project, I thought that I would share my analysis of each Prelude on this blog in the form of a series of posts, each of which will discuss one Prelude. See below for my analysis of Prelude #1:

Prelude No. 1 is a mid-tempo piece in the key of F# minor that uses regular three-part song form (A, B, A’, Coda) and is in 4/4 time. The A section (mm 1-8) begins by stating the opening phrase in the tonic key with a two-measure phrase extension, followed by a restatement of the first phrase, this time in the chromatic mediant biii key and without the phrase extension. This section contains a primarily eighth note texture with sparse accompaniment. The B section (mm 9-16) is of a markedly different character than the A section, featuring a repetitive 1 measure rhythmic and melodic motive, as well as rapid key, dynamic, and tone color changes in the first phrase of the B section. The second phrase of the B section returns to the tonic key and features a bass line in mm 13-14 that ascends the natural minor scale by step from the tonic up to the tonic an octave higher. This bass line is supported by diatonic harmonies and an eighth note upper voice, all of which propel the phrase to a definitive half cadence in measure 16. In addition, a change of voice occurs in measure 15, where the melody is placed in the middle voice. The A’ section (mm 17-19) consists of an exact repetition of the first phrase of the A section. This is followed by the Coda (mm 20-26), which consists of an F# pedal tone, a variation of the 1 measure rhythmic motive from the first phrase of the B section, and a phrase extension from mm 24-26. The section ends on an extended plagal cadence in the tonic key.


Ponce Prelude 1.jpg

BWV 998: Prelude

There is always something special and somewhat indescribable about Bach’s music. I know it sounds cliché, but something about his music seems to transcend place, time, and definitive description. This piece is no exception: I have performed this piece at events ranging from farmers markets to very formal events, and it always seems to fit regardless of the occasion. The flexibility and ambiguity inherent in this piece also applies to some details of its historical background. The exact date in which the piece was written is not definitively known, with the general consensus being approximately between 1735-1740. The instrumentation of this piece was indicated on the original manuscript to be for lute or harpsichord (the manuscript recently sold for more than 2.5 million euros-see the following link for details and a very cool video which shows the manuscript: https://www.christies.com/features/Johann-Sebastian-Bach-autograph-manuscript-7497-3.aspx) However, there is much scholarly debate as to whether or not the piece was actually intended for lute, as some lutenists and scholars have found the writing style more suited for harpsichord then lute. Regardless of its original instrumentation, this is an excellent and beautiful piece that has become a staple of the classical guitar repertory.

A couple of noteworthy features include nearly constant forward motion rhythmically (except for measure 40 and 48), the use of all closely related keys (the piece is in D Major and modulates to A Major, e minor, b minor, f# minor, G Major, and even uses the key of g minor, which is the parallel minor of the subdominant). The form of the piece involves the theme or main musical idea being repeated and varied in different keys in between short musical statements that appear to be both related and distinct from the main idea. In addition, the piece utilizes several pedal tones on the tonic, a couple of memorable bass lines that are repeated with small variation in order to accommodate the current key (the bass line in measures 4-5 repeats in mm 17-18, 23-25, 36-38; and the bass line in measures 11-13 repeats with slight variation in mm 30-33).

Big picture analysis: the theme or main idea appears in measures 1-5 (D Major), 6-8 (A Major), 14-18 (b minor), 25-27 (G Major), and 42-44 (D Major), with a Coda from measures 45-48 in the tonic key.

Phrases and cadences: mm 1-6 (IAC), 6-11 (IAC), 11-14 (IAC), 14-19 (IAC), 19-25 (IAC), 25-30 (IAC), 30-33 (HC), 33-38 (IAC), 38-42 (PAC), 42-48 (IAC with a 4-3 suspension).

Pedal tones: mm 1-4 (D), 6-9 (A), 14-17 (B), 25-28 (G), 42-46 (D).

Hope you enjoyed this brief analysis of the BWV 998 Prelude! As always, feel free to reach out if you have any comments, questions, suggestions, or insights relating to this piece or analyzing Bach in general, as there are many aspects of Bach’s music that can yet be discovered and discussed.

See below for some fascinating and informative sources/references regarding this piece: http://brandon.multics.org/music/articles/ReadingBach.pdf, http://www.johnhallguitar.com/blog/prelude_analysis_bwv_998_by_j.s._bach/, https://www.allmusic.com/composition/prelude-fugue-and-allegro-for-lute-in-e-flat-major-bwv-998-bc-l132-mc0002369008