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.