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.


Artistic Integrity

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the concept of artistic integrity. What does it mean for an artist (or musician, writer, painter, illustrator, etc) to have artistic integrity? Is it a relatively black and white concept (like integrity), is it more subjective (like art), or is it something in between? What about the dilemma of how far an artist will or should go in order to please an audience and sustain a career? As a result of asking these questions and doing some reading and thinking, I thought I would compile some of my ideas on this topic in the hope of better defining what this concept means for me, as well as to share some of what I have learned along the way.

To possess artistic integrity is to embrace the contradiction between exquisite detail and boundless freedom. As a classical guitarist, I spend countless hours practicing and refining my technique with the goal of transcending technique. In my interpretations, I dedicate myself to learning about the composer, period, and style, while also assimilating my own musical ideas into the rich and highly textured fabric of musical influences present in a given piece. Classical musicians, like artists, walk a tightrope between respecting the traditions of the past and utilizing their individual musical aesthetic to create a body of work that is firmly grounded yet unmistakably original. In my live performances and teaching, I strive to share the fruits of my work and communicate the passion, love, and inspiration that I feel as a result of playing the classical guitar. For me, this involves performing and teaching music that I deeply enjoy, as well as discussing relevant background information about the music in a way that is both engaging and educational. It is vitally important to be true to myself, aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and to conduct myself in a manner that is professional, ethical, and morally sound. It is of the utmost importance to listen to my moral compass, artistic intuition, and common sense to make the choices that are right for my artistic journey. As a musician, I am continuously grateful that my chosen occupation involves bringing joy and beauty to others through the music that I perform, teach, and write about. In order to do this, it is crucial for me to cultivate my love of music, appreciation for beauty, and desire to learn more about music and other topics of interest. One of the wider reaching implications of being a musician with artistic integrity is that your work is not just a career. Instead, it is an all-encompassing lifestyle in which living, learning, and creating are interconnected.

Ultimately, artistic integrity, both for myself and the art form of music as a whole seems predicated on one word: balance. To be a musician requires being exacting yet expressive; learning from the past while developing your unique voice; keeping an open mind but staying true to your core principles; having the tenacity to devote extended amounts of time to something that does not always compute according to the standards of the world, and the courage to spread the word about your music. Although musicians perform for audiences and depend on pleasing their audience in order to sustain a career, a musician that has artistic integrity will not change the essence of their work for the sake of his or her listeners. Paradoxically, this commitment to strong artistic principles is often what attracts the audience in the first place.

To have artistic integrity, it is necessary for a musician to be able to work towards opposing ideas while also firmly maintaining their moral and artistic principles. To be artistic generally refers to the skill of possessing creativity or a refined sense of aesthetics, while being a person of integrity presupposes the character traits of honesty and moral uprightness. Thus, the concept of artistic integrity nicely illustrates the need for balancing an open mind with the establishment of clear boundaries. Musicians, like all people, should strive to be good, honest, and ethical people who prioritize upholding their values in every aspect of their lives, including in their art.

As you can see, I haven’t yet been able to settle on one particular definition. Instead, I attempted to outline some of the conclusions that I have reached in my exploration of the concept of artistic integrity. It is a truly fascinating topic, and writing about it has both solidified my understanding of the concept and also left me with more questions. I would love to hear your thoughts on this broad, intriguing, and important topic-how do you define artistic integrity for yourself and/or your work?