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Essay #1 by Lawrence Johnson

Essay #1 FERNANDO SOR - MASTER COMPOSER FOR GUITAR?
Essay #2 ON "PERIOD" GUITARS AND 19TH CENTURY GUITAR MUSIC
Essay #3
WHAT IS IN A NAME (ON SORS' CATALAN ROOTS)
Essay #4
RESPONSIVE LETTER TO GUITART INTERVIEW


FERNANDO SOR - MASTER COMPOSER FOR GUITAR?

"Sor (1778-1839) is one of the great masters of his era." Of course such a radical statement as this requires a radical amount of explanation as well as qualification. Sor's guitar music began appearing in print as early as 1808 and he continued to compose until his death in 1839. In 1808 Beethoven was soon to embark on his third and final period. By 1839 Schubert and Weber had been dead 11 and 13 years respectively, and Mendelsohn, Schumann, Berlioz and Chopin were well established in their careers. By comparison, Sor is indeed very obscure. Does he belong in such august company? Before answering this let us examine some of the aspects of the guitar, Sor, and his music which pertain to this question.

During his lifetime, Sor's greatest fame came as a guitarist-composer (although he did compose with moderate success for other mediums). Indeed the celebrated critic of the time, Francois-Joseph Fetis even described Sor as "The Beethoven of the Guitar" and over the years he and other critics praised Sor for his profound musicianship. Sor also performed in concert with many of the celebrated musicians of his time and even performed at least once with the young Franz Liszt! We can therefore assume that during his lifetime, Sor was highly respected and admired.

Normally, one would reason, that if music has universality and greatness, it will continue to be performed and appreciated long after its creator's era. However in Sor's case, this has not been true for the reason that the guitar itself suffered a drastic decline, almost to the point of extinction, during the last half of the 19th century. Therefore, from about 1840-1920 practically all of Sor's music went out of print and any existing manuscripts were lost.

Indeed, it was not until the remarkable career of Andres Segovia (1893-1987) and the 20th century renaissance of the guitar that ensued, that Sor's music began to be once again heard. Sor was easily featured more often in Segovia's concerts and recordings than all the other "guitar" composers he performed. Yet his attitude toward Sor was strangely noncommittal and ambivalent. For the most part, he chose not to play Sor's large major works, but only a number of his miniatures and oftentimes not even the best of these works. (He performed only one major work - Op. 14 - in its entirety that I know of.) And he criticized Sor as not being one of "vigorous talent," (See his annotation to his edition of 20 Studies of Sor.) while extolling the virtues of certain earlier Baroque and Renaissance composers for the instrument. (In retrospect and despite these things, Segovia probably has done more through his magnificent performances, toward the appreciation of Sor than any other performer in recent history).

The above attitude of Segovia, however, unfortunately lives on amongst guitarists to this day. The rationalization used is that Sor is a second or third rate composer and that the best of Sor's music is that which is already well known and that if Sor was a quality composer, the remainder of his music has had 150 years to be recognized. (Of course this reasoning completely ignores the fact that most of the music was not available and that there is today absolutely no performance tradition other than that which started with Segovia - if a composer's music is not heard in at least some kind of viable interpretations there is no way It can be properly evaluated.)

The next important event in the history of Sor performance occurred in 1976 when the eminent musicologist, Brian Jeffery searched, both in libraries and private collections, for the earliest published versions of Sor's complete known works for guitar and republished them in inexpensive facsimile editions. (Dr. Jeffery also wrote the first significant and only to date, biography of Sor - his work has been of immense value.) For the first time since Sor's death, guitarists had access to the bulk of Sor's music.

However with this republication has arisen the unfortunate myth that these extremely unreliable earliest editions are some sort of urtext editions of Sor's true intentions and must be followed to the letter. This, however, could not be farther from the truth. There are a great many obvious mistakes and only skeletal markings. And when there are markings they are very often questionable. All of which point up the fact that fidelity to the score was not an important issue in Sor's time. The truth is that we have no scores at present which tell us much of anything about, not only how Sor wanted his music played but in some cases, even which notes and rhythms he wanted played! We don't even have evidence of what many of the most common tempo markings (for example Andante-Allegro) truly mean.

Another important aspect of Sor is, that amongst guitarists, he is generally viewed as a Haydnesque or Mozartean classical composer and often interpreted in something of a dry, literal and restrained manner because of this. I previously mentioned that Sor wrote contemporaneously with such Romantic masters as late Beethoven and Schubert in the beginning of his career, and Schumann, Chopin and Berlioz at the end. Was Sor ultra-conservative and 50 years behind the times? The answer to this is mostly no and possibly partly yes. Certainly his concept of form was very much of the romantic 19th century. He wrote only two true classical Sonata-allegro movements (Op. 15b and the finale of his Fantasia Op. 30). His other sonatas (Op. 14, 22 and 25) show considerable freedom and individuality more typical of Romanticism than Classicism. And, in any case, he far preferred the free form Fantasy to the Sonata for his large major works. His miniatures are also very much in the Romantic time-period and style. Yet, despite his choice and freedom of forms, Sor often (but certainly not always) seemed to have a certain harmonic nostalgia for Haydn and Mozart, both of whom he expressed great admiration for. The best way that I can describe Sor is that the best of his music has the sublime simplicity of late classicism and the lyric spontaneity, exquisiteness, freedom and majestic grandeur of early romanticism. Indeed, one could divide the 19th century into two schools of compositional thought - the "avant-garde" school of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler and the reaction to this "avant-garde" or the more conservative and "looking back" school of Mendelsohn, Schumann, and Brahms. I view Sor as something of a pre-Mendelsohn member of this second group. Are all Sor's works unequivocal masterpieces? No, but I believe that many are and the rest are eminently worth studying, playing and hearing. (How many of the acknowledged great masters can be characterized as writing only unequivocal masterpieces?) In my mind, one thing for certain is that Sor had one of the finest lyric gifts of all composers.

And was Sor's concept of harmony truly conservative? Perhaps, but I think not. I feel that he was merely trying to write effectively for the guitar. We must remember that the guitar (especially the small 19th century instrument) was incapable of the dynamic range and thunderous sounds of the piano and symphony orchestra. Indeed the increased modulation and color of 19th century "Romantic" harmony seems to be directly related to the increased dynamic range of 19th century piano and symphonic music. Perhaps Sor felt that it simply was not practical to write for the guitar in the same harmonic manner as those contemporary masters of the piano and orchestra. Therefore it is my theory that as the 19th century wore on, the intimate, small-voiced guitar became completely misaligned with these musical tendencies and goals. And it went totally out of fashion and became temporarily obsolete largely for these reasons.

Of course all these factors make one ask the question: How should one perform Sor's music? I believe the answer is with considerably more freedom, expression and passion than has, for the most part, been done in the recent past. Sor, in his method of 1830 has much to say about the use of tone color on the guitar and even discusses how to imitate the various orchestral instruments. This use of color is something that is very uncommon amongst modern guitarists. Ironically Sor says very little about other aspects of expression, but other guitar methods from the era do recommend much use of portamento, arpeggiation of chords, and other expressive devices which most people today consider anachronistic and completely out of style in the interpretation of the guitar music from this very era! (It never ceases to amaze me how so many modern guitarists and musicologists can be so sure that the Sor interpretations of great past artists such as Segovia were anachronistic and lacked authenticity and yet don't even consider the wealth of material and instruction from Sor's era which cries out that this music is meant to be expressed with such devices as dynamics, tone color, portamento, chordal arpeggiation, etc. as Segovia and others did. These same modern guitarists with the conspiratorial support of supposedly enlightened musicologists will often perform this music, sometimes on a "period" guitar, and use practically none of the above-mentioned expressive devices.)

In my own case, I readily admit that my approach to Sor is highly instinctive and personal. And it may very well have little to do with authenticity. (But then I feel that achieving authenticity - especially in Sor - is something that today is not even remotely possible.) I simply desire to get the last drop of expression from the barren and inexplicit scores that we presently have of Sor's music.

At this point I should like to return to my original question. Is Sor a great master from his era. My personal belief is - yes, his music has great spiritual qualities and value. But you, the listener cannot decide this without hearing some kind of quality performances of it. Unfortunately, due to the unusual history of the guitar, much of the best of his music is that which is the least heard. And the music that is known is often heard in questionable performances.

Therefore, I fervently hope that with these recordings of his solo guitar music, we can at least begin the process of a greater general understanding and appreciation of Sor's very individual contribution to the guitar and the entire art of music.

SOR (1778-1839) - BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
It is not my intention to provide any extensive biographical information on Sor¹s life. For this I would recommend Fernando Sor - Composer and Guitarist by Brian Jeffery (Tecla Ed. TE051) Sor, a Spaniard by birth and upbringing evidently began the study of the guitar at an early age and received training in music at the Monastery of Montserrat. At first he embarked on a military rather than musical career and he originally had loyalty to the Spanish Bourbon monarchy of Charles IV. However, sometime after Napoleon¹s invasion in 1808 he, like many of his compatriots, made the decision of joining a group known as the afrancesados. (A group of Spaniards who honestly believed in and followed the ideals of the French Revolution as then represented by Napoleon.) Thus after Napoleon¹s defeat in 1813, not only was his military career ended but he was permanently forced into exile from his native land, spending the rest of his life in Paris except for eight years in London. Musically this may have been beneficial because, though much of his music is internally imbued with Spain, externally it is filled with the universal European style of its time. Yet it is very unfortunate that, to this day, many Spaniards still blame Sor for joining the afrancesados and following Napoleon and because of this refuse to accept him as the great Spanish artist that he was!

At one point Sor made part of his income from teaching voice and evidently even wrote a method on singing. (This work has since been lost.) It seems that his interest in voice accounts for much of his lyric style of writing for guitar. Sor also taught guitar and wrote a method for it. This work discusses the instrument from both a technical and compositional point of view and even has a partial analysis of Haydn's Creation within it! It is not perhaps, the most practical method for learning the instrument but is perhaps the most erudite discussion of the guitar in existence.

THE SOLO GUITAR MUSIC OF SOR
Sor¹s solo guitar music may be loosely categorized in seven forms and/or styles. 1. Sonata - his sonata expositions and recapitulations rarely follow traditional form yet are filled with strong lyricism and thematic material. The developments are short but effective with rich and surprising modulations. Sor wrote four sonatas; Op. 14 and 15b each in one movement, and Op. 22 and 25 each in four movements. 2. Fantasia - Sor's fantasias are multi-movement large-scale works often (but just as often not) containing a slow introductory movement, a set of variations and a coda or finale. He wrote 13 works entitled "Fantasia:" Op. 4, 7, 10, 12, 16, 21, 30, 40, 46, 52, 56, 58, and 59. 3. Variation - Sor was a wonderful composer of variations. His invention and lyricism often seem inexhaustible. Besides the variations in his sonatas and fantasias he wrote 12 sets; Op. 3, 9, 11a, 11c, 15a, 15c, 20, 26, 27 and 28, and 2 sets without opus number. 4. Etude - Sor may well have been the earliest 19th century creator of concert etudes. Indeed one should compare his etudes to such contemporaries as Cramer and Kreutzer to understand this point. Sor's etudes are always musical and show his remarkable gift for melody and form. Sor's etudes range from low intermediate to virtuoso levels of proficiency. He wrote 121 etudes In 6 sets; Op.6, 29, 31, 35, 44 and 60. 5. Minuet - These works in both form and style are unique. They are in binary form and full of charm, elegance and above all, Sor's remarkable lyrical gift. Indeed they often seem to be a 19th century throwback to the earliest baroque minuets. Sor wrote 35 minuets. Besides the 12 of Op. 11 the remainder are scattered throughout his various collections of short works. 6. Other miniature forms - Sor composed about 85 other miniatures - waltzes (many), marches, siciliennes etc. They are found in the collections of Op. 1, 2, 5, 8, 13, 17, 18, 23, 24, 32, 33, 36, 42, 43, 47, 48, 51, 57 and works without Op. number. 7.

Essay #1 FERNANDO SOR - MASTER COMPOSER FOR GUITAR?
Essay #2 ON "PERIOD" GUITARS AND 19TH CENTURY GUITAR MUSIC
Essay #3
WHAT IS IN A NAME (ON SORS' CATALAN ROOTS)
Essay #4
RESPONSIVE LETTER TO GUITART INTERVIEW


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