Essays by Lawrence Johnson
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WHAT IS IN A NAME - ON SOR'S CATALAN ROOTS
Many years ago I was first introduced to the classical guitar through an Andres Segovia recording that my father gave me as a 17th birthday present . On this record was Ferran Sorsí Variations Op. 9. It was love at first hearing. Shortly afterward I ordered the music for that and also the 24 Progressive Lessons Op. 31. I did not tackle the Op. 9 after I found it to be "impossible." However the first piece of Op. 31 was within reason and I quickly learned it plus the next 7 pieces This student material of Sors, probably more than any other factor (except possibly the inspiration of Segoviaís wonderful, expressive playing), created in me a deep love of the guitar and music during my most impressionable years. I am eternally grateful for this. To me, love is the keyword to describe Sorsí music and even the sketchy details that we can glean on his life. His music exudes charm, delight, incredible spiritual depth and a sort of innocent childlike wonder. In short love. And the more I learn about his life and thoughts, the more I realize that he was a very great thinker and human being. To understand his thought processes, one must study his method for guitar. Just a cursory reading of it will reveal a man who thinks scientifically, loves reason, and has a passionate zest and love for life all at the same time.
It was love of his homeland, not only Catalunya, but all of Spain that caused him to fight against the French in 1808. At the time he even wrote patriotic songs which expressed his love of Spain. Yet it was also love of his homeland that caused him to cooperate with the French occupation during the following years until, when in 1813 he was forced into exile, never to return to his beloved homeland. What was it like to be a young Catalan intellectual during those years? Or to be reared in a bourgeois Catalan home amidst the atmosphere of oppression against the Catalan language and culture that was ever present at the time? I deal with these issues in this essay. At this point I should like to say that I deal with these issues as an American who has had to personally deal with somewhat similar issues of oppression in my own land. Yet I am an outsider looking in. I cannot possibly fully understand these things as a native Catalan or Spaniard might. I do hope however, that the many Spaniards who might read this essay will understand that it is not my intention to denigrate Spain or to be any more critical of Spainís treatment of its minorities than I am of Americaís similar or worse treatment of its own minorities. Having visited Spain in 2001, I was greatly impressed with the modern Spanish democracy and Spainís current attempt to treat all Spaniards equally despite cultural and linguistic differences.
WHAT IS IN A NAME
Who was Jose Verde? He was born in Italy in 1813, and died in 1901 at the age of 87. During his lifetime he wrote many of the best known and greatest operas of his age such as Aida and Ottello. He also wrote a Requiem Mass which today is considered a masterpiece. . . . Indeed by now many readers will know that I am writing about the great Italian master Giuseppe Verdi. Of course the notion of translating his name to Jose Verde in Spanish or even Joseph Green in English is outrageous. Music is an art that communicates across all linguistic and cultural boundaries and we therefore customarily use the given names of musicians in their original languages. I therefore pose the question: Is "Fernando Sor" the correct name for the great Catalan guitarist-composer who is known worldwide by that name? What difference does a name make - especially when the noted composer himself used that name or even the Anglicized variant forename "Ferdinand" almost exclusively later in life? In this essay I would like to expound on the proposition and possibility that the Catalan form "Ferran Sors" is indeed the more appropriate - if not literally the correct - name for this composer. If we are to understand why this might be, we must understand the historical, ethnic, and ongoing relationship between Spain and one of her "nations within a nation" Catalonia.
Men, when faced with others who are different from themselves (as we all are to some degree) have the choice to either accept and welcome these differences and in the process learn and grow from them, or the choice to reject and recoil from them in mistrust, fear and misunderstanding and thereby become self-centered and isolated. Once this isolation has set in, one of the more aberrant forms of behavior is to attempt to force and control the other person to act, think, speak etc. like you and as you wish. To put this in a more Christian-ethical way: One can either choose to love oneís neighbor as oneself and embrace him or hate oneís neighbor as someone fundamentally different and ultimately he becomes your enemy. Once this happens there is the tendency to control your enemy and to make him over in your own image rather than to respect him as someone who, like you, is made in the image of God despite his differences.
This becomes especially apparent and almost universally happens en masse in nations whose political boundaries encompass different ethnic groups which are separated by geography, class, language, religion, etc. In almost all cases of this there is a large dominant majority group and one or more minority groups.
Until recently, in Spain there has mostly been an adverse attempt to create national cultural and linguistic unity by forcing and controlling its various minorities - Basques, Catalans, Galicians, to speak and write "Castillian" Spanish, accept the mainstream "Spanish" (i.e. Castillian) culture and in the process lose their own languages, culture and even their entire regional identities. Let us now examine the history of Catalonia and its language how this policy has affected Spainís largest minority - the Catalans.
Cataloniaís history and language go back to the early middle ages and Catalonia was officially an independent nation in 989AD but total independence was not gained until the treaty of Corbiel in 1258. At a somewhat earlier time Catalonia and Aragon united in what is today known as the Catalan-Aragon dynasty. By 1414 the institution known as the Generalitat was formed which was one of the earliest forms of representative government and which, even at that time, in certain situations, had authority over the King! (The generalitat - in very different form - was revived in 1977 and today is the central governing body in modern Catalonia)
It was not until 1479-1516 during the famous reign and marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella that Catalonia (along with the rest of Aragon) was politically united with Castile and it was during and after this time that Castile grew in power and influence and ultimately dominated most of the Iberian peninsula while Cataloniaís power and influence progressively diminished. Today it is various versions of Castillian "Spanish" that are spoken by over 500 million people worldwide. On September 11, 1714, after the infamous siege of Barcelona, Catalonia entirely lost its political identity as an individual State and effectively was politically, culturally and linguistically at the mercy of Madrid (Castile). This situation remained in effect until briefly between 1931-1939 it regained its independence. During the Franco dictatorship, however, Catalonia again lost its independence. Since 1977 Catalonia is once again an independent State within the umbrella of modern democratic Spain.
Let me now discuss the Catalan language. It is a neo-Latin language, in the same linguistic family as Castillian Spanish, French and Italian (but is probably as different from Spanish as French or Italian). It was fully formed by 950AD. By 1150 scientific, legal and religious written documents began to appear. During the 13th century one of the great mystics and literary figures of the era, Ramon Llull wrote exclusively in Catalan and shortly afterward came a golden age of Catalan literature which included the first modern novel in European literature, Tirant lo Blanc by Joanot Martorell. During the 14th century Catalan was one of the most widely spoken languages of Europe and the Mediterranean basin. After Ferdinand and Isabellaís reign, however, the Catalan people progressively became an oppressed minority group to the point in 1714, after the siege of Barcelona, when the language was banned from all official documents. By 1768, during the reign of Charles III, it was also outlawed from all primary and secondary education effectively making Catalan a language for in home and private use only. Indeed the language was not fully restored and legalized until 1931 and the second republic! This legalization was short-lived, however - the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) outlawed all public use of Catalan. With the restoration of the Generalitat and democratic institutions (1977) Catalan has been completely legalized and again restored as the official language of Catalonia. It is also now the primary language of all educational institutions in Catalonia.
Language is perhaps the most essential element of being human. Expressing ourselves, communicating and learning through our use of language is, more than anything else, what differentiates us from other creatures and indeed makes us "created in the image of God.". When a small child learns to speak, he is not simply learning words. He learns the feelings communicated by the warm smile, hugging, touching, kissing and body language of a mother when she speaks those words or the forbidding warning along with accompanying facial expressions and hand gestures of a fatherís words when protecting the child from danger. Indeed, it seems to me that oneís mother tongue is absolutely essential to a person to express his innermost feelings and spirituality no matter how skilled he may be with other secondary languages! To deny the people of a whole ethnic group the use of their mother tongue is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing things that can be done - in some ways ultimately more dehumanizing than outright physical rape, torture etc. Fortunately, even after several attempts to suppress it, the Catalan language - the mother tongue of over 6 million Spaniards - was kept alive privately and in the home only and hopefully as of 1977 has been permanently restored as a living language!
When Ferran Sors was born of longstanding Catalan ancestry in 1778, his baptismal records list his surname as "Sors" and his forename as "Fernando." There is no question in my mind that "Sors" - as opposed to "Sor" is the original surname. "Fernando" however is the Spanish equivalent of the Catalan name "Ferran." Ten years before Sorsí birth in 1768, the use of Catalan was outlawed in all Spanish educational institutions along with it previously being outlawed in all official documents. Was a baptismal record an official document that would outlaw even the use of Catalan forenames? Probably not. Would it be wise for Catalan parents to name their children Spanish instead of Catalan names in 1778? It probably depended on the viewpoint of the parents, yet I know that I would name my own child "Fernando" instead of "Ferran" if I were a Catalan parent in 1778, amidst such an oppressive anti-Catalan atmosphere as apparently was present then. As a loving father I could not conscientiously and permanently bind my child to a Catalan name which could very well hinder his chances for success for the rest of his life.
Oppressed people who are not treated as equals by their oppressors are naturally attracted to philosophies and movements that expound equality and brotherhood. Therefore another important factor in the Sors legacy was that many Catalans (especially those from Barcelona) were culturally and politically attracted to France and liberal French ideas of government following the French revolution of 1789.. Many of these Afrancesados, as they came to be called, ended up supporting, and working with the French occupation and Crown of Joseph Bonaparte during the period of the Napoleonic wars. Ferran Sors, however was a Spanish patriot who fought against the French in 1808. And he wrote several patriotic songs at this time. By 1810, however, he must have changed his mind because he began working in the service of the government of Joseph Bonaparte and thus when Napoleon was defeated and the Spanish crown was recovered by Fernando VII in 1813. Sors, along with the other afrancesados, which numbered more than 10,000, were forced into exile. (The great painter, Goya was also among them!) What might have caused Ferran Sors to change his mind? Certainly the previous Spanish government of the weak and ineffective Charles IV, effectively controlled by the corrupt Manuel Godoy, had no integrity as compared to that of the benevolent King Joseph. (It must be mentioned, however, that Joseph himself was mostly ineffectual because of the tyrannical domination of his brother, Napoleon.) Was Ferran Sors merely an opportunist, like some of the other afrancesados, who expediently joined whatever regime was in power and seemed destined for success? I believe not. We have very scant information on Sorsí beliefs but everything that we have indicates that he was a great believer in human rights and equality. Later in life he wrote several songs, including one which castigated the slave trade, which divulged his feelings on manís inhumanity toward his fellow man, especially toward those defenseless ones who were persecuted by the greedy and the powerful.
In any event, Sors ended up going to London first and finally settling in Paris. Indeed Sors effectively became a man without a country from 1813 until his death in 1839! He petitioned Fernando VII in 1828 to return to Spain - after he had already achieved considerable fame as a guitarist and composer throughout Europe. The petition was not granted and it seems that for a great many years after the fact, many Spaniards still considered Sors and the other Afrancesados as traitors. The famous musicologist and to date only biographer of Sors, Dr Brian Jeffery, relates that in 1974 a Spanish archivist greatly hindered his research on Sors because he had been an Afrancesado over 160 years previously! What were Sorsí true motives for joining the Afrancesados? Were they necessarily unpatriotic? To me it is patently obvious that we simply cannot know for sure. However. I relate the following allegorical fantasy to further express why I believe Ferran Sors might have behaved a he did:
Let us imagine that Italy, sometime in the late 15th century was united with Spain through marriage as was Catalonia. By the 18th century Spain dominated and controlled Italy which was now part of the Spanish nation. With the belief that Spain now needed national cultural and linguistic unity the Italian language was suppressed. It was effectively outlawed everywhere except in the home. Let us further assume that this suppression continued well into the 20th century. Now let us imagine that in 1813 a married couple named Verdi had a son. The father, who was strongly sympathetic with an Italian separatist movement, wanted to name his son "Giuseppe." But the mother, who was more levelheaded and practical, finally persuaded her husband that in the light of current attitudes "Jose" was the best name and so "Jose" it was.
As a youngster Jose showed remarkable abilities as a musician with a special gift for creating harmonized melodies in an Italian style. As a young adult he composed the music for a number of Italian operas but these operas were illegal to perform in Spain (of which Italy was a part). He changed his surname from Verdi to Verde and settled in Madrid where he tried his hand at writing operas in Spanish. But, even though he spoke the language almost like a native, his melodic style was too Italian and found that he could not make the adjustment for the Spanish language and he had no success. He knew, however, that his Italian operas were second to none but were illegal and he became bitter to the point that when a Polish military genius named Napolianski Bonpartwicz amassed an army and occupied Spain and gave the Spanish crown to his brother Josef Bonpartwicz,.he gave his support wholeheartedly to this new Polish king. After all, his own Spanish government had treated him and his people as if they, their culture and language were worthless and King Josef seemed a much more benevolent and respectful king toward Italy and its people. Earlier he had read the works of Voltrarski (a distant grand nephew of the great French writer Voltaire) who again promoted the revolutionary idea that rationality, liberty and equality are the absolute rights of men. But, as fate would have it, the Spanish military rose up against Napolianski (who, it turned out became something of a despot) won back their land, deposed King Josef and sent him and all 10,000 of his supporters (who became known as Polados) into exile. Our hero, Jose Verde, moved around Europe for a while but ended up settling in Warsaw. He was basically a musician of genius but little reputation, and also a displaced man without a country and without a name which would even indicate what country and culture he came from. Yet he still managed to write music. One such work, a Requiem Mass at least had several performances and one critic even said that it possibly even had a touch of genius. Yet all these works were largely forgotten and Jose Verde died in poverty in 1901 at the age of 87. However, it was not until 1993, 16 years after the Italian language was fully restored in Italy, that an Italian musicologist discovered his Italian operas, and one in particular, Aida, has become a huge success. And these proud and perceptive Italians insist that our heroís true name is Giuseppe Verdi.
Every adult human being is the result of nature, i.e. his genetic makeup which he derives exclusively from his parents, and nurture which is the result of reactions to ever widening environmental influences which could generally be described in the following progressive phases: 1. The specific nuclear family, usually his biological parents and other siblings from whom he learns the most important things in life such as his mother tongue and basic ethical rules of conduct and civilized behavior. 2. The extended family from which his basic learning is applied and increased. 3. The residency in a certain village or neighborhood where he begins his primary education and learns to relate to other peers and adults. 4. The city or locale of which the neighborhood or village is a part of where he begins his secondary education and other cultural activities. 5. The nation (or subnation in Ferran Sorsí case) which has a specific language, music, theater, and other elements of culture that have mostly been derived from the previous four steps in this chronology. 6. The umbrella nation (again in Sorsí case) from which are derived many of the laws, military service etc. 7. And finally the world citizen phase of which only a relatively few people arrive at because they somehow have the God-given insight and inspiration to express universal values and concepts of the human condition.
is in a Name?
is in a Name?
In Chopinís case he wrote in two forms that were specifically of Polish origin, the mazurka and the polonaise. Yet a great many non-Polish composers from that era (including Sors) also wrote in these forms. Indeed one could say that they were universal forms during that particular period of European music! Very few people question the essential Polish qualities of Chopinís Mazurkas and indeed he had a very special gift for writing these wonderful miniatures. The same is true of his polonaises. But when this very same composer writes Waltzes, Nocturnes, Preludes, Impromptus, Sonatas and other forms that are not of Polish origin is his music somehow marginally Polish or non-Polish? Of course, to me, the answer is obvious; Chopin still sounds like Chopin the Pole with the same depth of Polish feeling regardless of the origin of the forms he chose. But consider the following quotation from Conversations With Casals by J. Ma. Corredor P. 154:
Corredor: Heinrich Heine said about Chopin "Poland gave him his chivalrous character and his historical melancholy, France, his graceful elegance, Germany his dreamy profundity. . . . But now we donít think of him as Polish, French or German, he has a higher origin: he comes from the country of Mozart, Raphael and Goethe. His real home is in the birthplace of poetry."
Casals: I donít agree. I find his music essentially Polish; if you select any of his subjects and look for the origin of his inspiration, youíll find it can only come from his native land. I just cannot see what there is in Chopin that could be French or German."
Heinrich Heine(1797-1856) was the great German writer and Pau Casals the great Catalan Cellist. Both were respected, knowledgeable and honest men. Yet how could they have such diametrically different views? This brings me to a point: How does one define what makes certain music French, Polish, German etc.? I must confess that I believe that there is no objective, scientific way in which national origins in music can be measured. It is like trying to objectively define the beauty of a sunrise over the mountains etc.
Again on Liszt (P. 150) Casals: . . .With Bartok and Kodaly I feel that their music is impregnated by the savour of their soil, I donít find the same influence in Liszt; whether this happens on account of his universality, or the circle he lived in, or his ideology, I canít say. It is strange to find a man, who when he wanted to could be entirely Hungarian, showing so little trace of it in his other works.
I must say that I completely agree with Casals on Liszt. Perhaps Liszt is analogous to certain people who have a gift for languages. They can speak several languages with no trace of an accent. That is their mother tongue is not at all apparent when speaking these other languages. While Chopin is incapable of speaking anything musically without a heavy Polish accent.
In Domenico Scarlattiís case, he was an Italian who emigrated to Spain and wrote his great keyboard sonatas exclusively for Spanish patrons and students. These sonatas are so full of jota and other fiery and passionate Hispanic dance rhythms with guitar-like harmonies that on the surface many of his sonatas sound almost blatantly Hispanic. Does this mean that he stopped being Italian while writing these works? I donít believe so. I feel that anyone with more than a superficial knowledge of these pieces should know that underneath this Hispanic veneer lies a lyric Italian tunesmith at work. Indeed it is often crosscurrents such as these that create originality and universality in music. Yet there are still many who consider Scarlatti to be Spanish in the same sense as El Greco.
What about the Catalan Ferran Sorsí case? First let me say that I feel that Catalan music is very different from other Spanish music. The relatively stately, dignified Sardana is the national dance of Catalonia as opposed to the fiery, passionate jotas etc. of other Spanish music And most of the Catalan folk music (that I have heard at least) has a very special bittersweet romantic melodic quality with an aristocratic bearing. In many ways Catalan music is probably as different from other Spanish music as is French or Italian music. Then again we really donít know what Catalan music was like at the end of the 18th century during Sors formative years and Catalan music was almost completely unknown in the mainstream European musical consciousness of the early 19th century. Thus you do not have Sors writing sardanas for the general European audience as, for instance, Chopin wrote mazurkas and polonaises. (The sardana was not even invented until late in Sorsí life - I make this comparison for analogous purposes only.) But other than that is Sors to Catalonia what Chopin is to Poland? Or was Sors like Liszt? A universal musician with no apparent "accent" from his homelandís soil? In comparison to Chopin, both composers did the main body of their work in Paris for a public that was not made up of their compatriots. Thus, in both instances, does the very soul of their respective musics comes from the soil of their homelands while in outward appearance both are mainstream European composers? And, to stretch this comparison a little further, could one say that Sors is Catalan in the same sense that Scarlatti is Italian?
I ask these questions because as we have already seen, there are no absolute answers to such questions of aesthetics. Yet I shall at least try to answer these questions with at least some rational opinions.
First, we have a great deal of post Scarlatti keyboard music by Catalan clerics such as Antonio Soler (1729-83) and Mateo Albeniz (1755-1831). Almost all of this music is in binary form a la Scarlatti. Sors uses a preponderance of binary forms for many of his smaller pieces, most notably his minuets. (He clearly did not derive this form from Haydn, Mozart or even early Beethoven - their minuets almost unilaterally use ternary minuet form.) A good example of a piece that I consider to be very similar to the above mentioned keyboard music are the etudes Op. 29#17 and #22 (Segovia edition # 20 and #18).
Second, A great deal of more recent Catalan folk music and Sardanas use largely triple rhythms - especially 6/8 as likely does Sors (Sonata Op. 25, movements 2, 3 and 4)
A particularly fascinating aspect of musical life in Barcelona during Sors formative years is that there was the previously mentioned distinctive Catalan instrumental style. But for vocal music - especially opera, the Catalans almost entirely imported their styles (and language) from Italy. One of the earliest compositions (1797) that we have of Sors is his opera Telemaco written in the Italian style. We know that Sors was not only a singer, but later in Paris he taught singing and evidently even wrote a method on singing. He also wrote many Italian songs that he called "ariettes." One can certainly recognize this Italian "bel canto" style in much of his lyric guitar music. (Op. 5 #5, Op. 6#12 etc.) Yet this music, when compared to contemporaneous Italian composers (Rossini, Donizetti, Giuliani etc.) sounds very non-Italian and sometimes (to my ears) downright Catalan/Hispanic (Op. 33#3a for example). And very rarely does it remind me of any other composer - not even Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, all of whom Sors expressed great love for. I feel that Sors had one of the finest lyric gifts of all composers of any era. But where did it truly come from? Could it have come from a native of Catalonia, perhaps somewhat subconsciously, interpreting and molding this Italian style to suit his own needs?
I close this by saying that (again to my ears) much of Sorsí guitar music has a certain aristocratic, chivalrous quality that is unique to him (Op. 24 # 1 for example) And I also feel this may have emanated out of his Catalan/Hispanic roots.
I return to the question: Is Sors Catalan in the same sense that Scarlatti is Italian? I donít believe so. Scarlatti was born into the universal style because Italy was in many ways the musical center of Europe in 1685. But he needed the "exotic" Spanish element before he could truly find his voice. On the other hand, Sors was born into such an "exotic" element (Catalonia in 1778) and needed a universal musical center so that he could truly find his voice.
On first hearing his music seems to be very similar to certain Schubert, Weber and even Mendelssohn, but under this surface, his style is very different and original and the greatest part of that originality lies, I believe, in his Catalan roots.
is in a Name?
On the other hand, Ferran Sors is a man with a definite identity. A native son of Catalonia. A composer whose music, like Beethoven, Schubert and Weber and Mendelssohn grew out of Haydnesque and Mozartean classicism to develop into an original 19th century style based not only on mainstream European music but on the musical education and inspiration of his native land. Let Ferran Sors finally and belatedly receive the honor and recognition that he deserves as one of the greatest, if not the greatest universal Catalan musician to walk the face of this earth. May the name Ferran Sors become a byword throughout the musical world as a great universal musician from Catalonia.
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