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.


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.

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,