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.