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: 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!

Five Bagatelles by William Walton

The story of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles is one of collaboration, transformation, and assimilation. Like many composers whose works have become a part of the contemporary classical guitar repertory, Walton did not play guitar. Walton’s Five Bagatelles was commissioned and written in collaboration with the world-renowned guitarist, Julian Bream in 1971. Bream went on to give the first performance of the Five Bagatelles at the Bath Festival in Bath, England in 1972, and was the first to record this work.

Walton later reworked the music of the Five Bagatelles for solo piano, and “Varii Cappricci”, a suite for orchestra. In this way, the evolution of the Five Bagatelles contrasts with that of most guitar works written by a composer who did not play guitar. In many cases, a composition will originally have been written for another instrument (such as piano or lute, for instance), and later transcribed for the guitar by a guitarist. Here, however, we see the exact opposite historical progression. The Five Bagatelles were  written for guitar and then transcribed for solo piano, and orchestra, by the composer himself. Ironically, Walton later seemed to forget that he originally wrote the Five Bagatelles for guitar (see the last few seconds of the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=217&v=Wk4RsE7VJ7I).

The musical character of the work features an artful assimilation of modern and traditional classical music influences, which is a cornerstone of Walton’s compositional style. In this work, Walton blends lyrical melodies with dissonant and extended harmonies, unexpected musical detours, recurring rhythmic and melodic figures, and guitaristic techniques such as tambora, plucked harmonics, and rasgueado. Although the word ‘bagatelle’ typically refers to a short, light piece of music, each bagatelle in this work possesses a distinct feel. As professor, composer, and writer Phillip Cooke notes in his blog post on the Five Bagatelles (http://www.phillipcooke.com/on-william-waltons-five-bagatelles/) , “The five different bagatelles each capture a different mood from the relentlessly upbeat first, the languid second, the smoky, seductive third, the dreamy fourth and the frantic finale.”