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 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:

Theme:

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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.