Fernando Sor (1778 - 1839) by Andrew Daly
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by Andrew Daly.
There was a time, (25-30 years ago) that a Classical Guitar recital would seem incomplete without the inclusion of a work by Fernando Sor. Today it is rare for him to be included in a concert programme.
It must be said that his other works , Operas, Ballets, etc., have been silent since his death, and today his reputation rests solely as a composer of guitar music. It cannot be that todays new generation of young guitarists find his pieces unworthy, as his contribution to the literature of the guitar is undeniable, (the critic Fetis adorned Sor with the title The Beethoven of the Guitar). He is acknowledged in the development of technique for the instrument and his collaboration with makers improved guitar construction. In the history of the guitar his name is assured. So why is it that todays modern players neglect his music in the concert hall?
Present day critics may be responsible for the decline of Sor's exposure to the concert-going public by accusing him of being lightweight, of trying to inject a depth in his music that in the end only made it sound ludicrous, that he was guilty of clichés, (more eminent composers than Sor were guilty of that) and that he was unable to produce extended compositions of distinction. It may be this that dissuades the young guitarists of today from performing his work, so as not to invite negative critical reviews, but, nevertheless, I have always found Fernando Sor`s music (lightweight, clichés and all) pleasing, satisfying and always a delight.
Allegro non troppo
It is known that Senoir Sor Snr. owned a guitar so Fernando was familiar with its sound. On leaving the Monastery, he received the customary token of a gold coin from one of the monks with which he bought a guitar which was to become the passion of his life. (The gold coin was supposed to benefit the family of the graduating student).
It is at the age of eighteen that we next really hear of Fernando Sor. A production of his opera "Telemachus on the Calypso's Isle" performed in Barcelona in 1797 was very successful and led to a patronage in the service of the Duchess of Alba who apparently doted on the young composer. It is also at this time that Fernando was enlisted in the Spanish army, making the rank of captain in the Cordovan volunteers. It is also from this period that his first important guitar compositions can be charted. The premature death of the Duchess of Alba in1802 left Fernando without a patron, but luckily he found employment with the Duke of Medinaceli. His luck was not to last long: the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Spain.
Napoleon placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain and some more forward-thinking Spaniards thought that his puppet government would put into motion much needed political reforms. Fernando Sor was one of these French sympathisers (Afrancesados) and sided against the deposed Spanish King ,Charles IVth. So it was, when the French were defeated by Wellingtons army and had to withdraw, Fernando was obliged to leave with them. (This is a controversial issue; some scholars maintain that Sor was a Spanish patriot, and while I do think he believed that his association with the French was in the best interests of his own country, the fact remains he left Spain never to return. This implies that Sor must have regarded his actions as being perceived by his fellow countrymen as fraternising with the enemy and therefore treasonable).
Sor took residence in Paris and continued his musical career, encouraged by other prominent composers such as Cherubini and Berton. This was a productive time for Sor which saw him composing Operas, Ballets, Symphonies and Songs as well as guitar pieces.
In 1815 Sor went to England and with his virtuoso playing captivated the English guitar fraternity. On March 24th 1817 he performed his Concertante for guitar, violin, viola and cello at the Philharmonic Society to great acclaim. (This work is not included in Sor`s Opus listing and may be lost). By 1822 he became an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, which is a tribute to his personality and his musicianship.
Sor`s musical ambitions then took him to Russia, arriving in Moscow in November of 1823. His talents were soon appreciated and before long he was mixing with the highest level of Russian society, playing for the mother of Tsar Alexander 1st and the Royal family. When the Tsar died in 1825, Sor wrote a funeral march which was played at the funeral in St Petersburg. Returning to Moscow he produced the premiere of his ballet Cendrillon.
By 1827 Sor was once again living in Paris. The instrument was enjoying an revival of popularity and other famous guitarist/composers such as Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849) and Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841) were in the French capital at this time. Sor struck up a friendship with Aguado that prompted many of Sor`s duet pieces, which they frequently performed together. As well as giving concerts he also had guitar pupils, many of them ladies of high society. This is probably also his most productive period of compositions for the guitar. They were now also available to buy, being published by Antoine Meissonnier in sixteen volumes. (Sor would later use the publisher Pacini). Sor eventually published his works himself which included ,in 1830, his Methode Pour la Guitare. This is a fascinating insight into the foundation of Sor`s view of the technique and thought process of guitar playing, acquired over a life times experience. All aspects are examined in detail, starting with his preferred make of instrument, sitting posture, the bodies relationship to the instrument, left and right hand positions, logical use of the fingers of both hands and the manner in which the right hand finger tips strike the strings. (Sor never advocated the use of the nails which was preferred by Aguado. This must have made an interesting, if not entirely compatible sound in their duet ensemble). Presumably Sor`s own technique was more than adequate to play all of his own compositions which indicates that even by todays standards he must have been a formidable guitarist.
Fernando Sor`s last years were not happy ones. Both his wife and daughter died suddenly, one very shortly before the other. He himself suffered from cancer of the tongue and died in great pain on July 8th 1839. Buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, Paris, in the tomb of a friend, with no inscription, the last resting place of the greatest guitar composer of the nineteenth century was not identified until1934.
Theme and Variations.
The legacy that is Fernando Sor`s guitar works are listed in 63 opus numbers. These range in style and forms such as Divertissements, Theme and Variations, Fantasies, Waltzes, Sonatas and groups of Studies etc., plus Duets. (Recently a number of lost pieces have been rediscovered, for example Fantasie pour guitar seule in D, which as yet carry no opus numbers).
The Studies, written periodically throughout his life, number almost one hundred, involve techniques of playing in thirds, arpeggios, rapidly repeated notes (tremolo), staccato chords, in fact all aspects of guitar playing is thoroughly covered. A compilation of 20 of the Studies from Op. 6, 29, 31, and 35 were compiled by Andre Segovia (1893-1987) who frequently performed a selection of them in his recitals. Make no mistake these Studies are not just exercises but valid pieces of music in their own right, albeit in miniature. Probably the most famous of Sor's works is his Op. 9. (1821) Variations on a Theme of Mozart the theme being O Cara Armonia from the 2nd act of Mozarts The Magic Flute. In the hands of a virtuoso this becomes a dazzling tour de force that displays the skills of the guitarist and the imagination of the composer. When writing extended works like Sonatas, Sor never tried to emulate the piano or violin works of the same genre. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument and wrote for it accordingly. A good example of this is his Sonata in C Op. 25. (1827). It is unusual in as much that normally the first movement of a Sonata uses the Sonata Form, but Sor's Op. 25, opens with a long Introduction in C minor and the Sonata Form appears in the second movement, an Allegro non troppo, which moves to the tonic of C major. There then follows a Theme and Variations and it ends with a quick Minuet and Trio instead of the usual Rondo.
The duets ,which occupy 12 of the opus numbers, vary in scale from short pieces like his set of Six valses faciles Op. 44 bis. (1831) to longer works like Les deux amis Op. 41. (1829-30) with the parts labelled Sor and Aguado and the well known L`Encouragement Op. 34. (1828). (This has the dedication une de ses élève). The parts of this are labelled Lélèves and Le Maître indicating that the pupil play the more difficult melody line while the teacher has the accompaniment. (A pupil of Sor, Napoleon Coste (1806-1883), would later rearrange this work, sharing the parts in a more democratic way). A less well known duet is Divertissement Op. 62. (c1837-38) where the movements are Andantino Cantabile followed by a Polonaise (the Polonaise is rare in Sor`s music) and is a wonderful example of duet writing. It is a shame that it is not performed more often, perhaps because a prodigious technique is required by both guitarist.
Performing any composers work requires thoughtful consideration. Julian Bream (b. 1933) gave an insight to his thoughts and approach to playing Sor when in conversation with the late Peter Sensier on BBC Radio 3`s programme The Classical Guitar in the early 1970`s
Naxos is currently in the process of recording all of Fernando Sors guitar works by various guitarists and should be explored by every serious guitar student.
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