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Essay #4 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


RESPONSIVE LETTER TO GUITART INTERVIEW

Letter to Guitart Magazine in 2004
"The sonata di Ginastera, the Partita di Dogson, Brouwer’s Sonata, Henze’s Drei Tientos...Piazzolla, Takemitzu...all these pieces highlight the thousands of colors of the guitar. This is the aspect to highlight! Giuliani’s variations, Sor’s, if compared to "Waldstein" by Beethoven cannot be of interest to the ears of the expert audience. We guitarists need a repertoire which is new and, above all, original, one which will help us enter the world of great music at the highest level! Instead we continue to play the same pieces."

The above is a quote from a recent interview with Costas Cotsiolis (GuitArt October/December 2003). I should like to comment on this because I believe that this is not only the view of Mr. Cotsiolis, but of perhaps the great majority of guitarists. Yet I feel that it is a very prejudicial view as regards our past literature (especially 19th Century). . I shall discuss this as it pertains specifically to Sor, since that is my personal realm of expertise, but I believe it also applies to Giuliani and other past composers for our beloved instrument. First, I assume that Mr. Cotsiolis is referring to Sor’s "Mozart" Variations Op. 9. At the last count (about 10 years ago) I found 87 extant recordings of this piece. This is at least 3 times the number of the runner up "Grand Solo" Op. 14! Can we assume that because of this popularity that this is therefore Sor’s best, most profound solo guitar work? Certainly, if we apply the same standard to Beethoven’s piano works we would have to say that "Fur Elise," "Minuet in G" and the "Moonlight" Sonata Op 27 # 2 are Beethoven’s greatest solo piano works. The "Waldstein" Sonata Op. 53 would certainly be distantly left far behind. And forget the great Sonata in C minor Op. 111!

But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this. It was not so long ago that the music loving public simply did not know, or had even heard, performances of the vast majority of Beethoven’s piano works. Indeed it was not until the late great Artur Schnabel regularly performed and recorded all the sonatas, variations, concerti etc. in the 1930's - 40's that it became universally apparent to the average concertgoer just how wonderfully deep and inspiring this great music was! What has all this to do with Sor? It was about 25 years ago that I decided that instead of superficially reading through Sor’s music in the then recently published facsimiles of Sor’s "complete" works, that I should instead seriously study at least some of them. I ended up choosing his 12 minuets and 2 sets of variations of Op. 11. The results were astounding. What I had once dismissed as trivial, I found to be the work of a great and noble mind! This, of course led to the same serious study of many other works and ultimately to Sor’s entire body of solo guitar music. (I then proceeded to record all this music between 1983-1994.) I now say without embarrassment that Sor was a master composer for the guitar. Practically all his music is worthy and much is music of the highest order. What about Sor’s "Mozart" Variations Op. 9? Certainly it is a fine set of virtuoso variations and a great crowd pleaser. But is it Sor’s greatest work? I believe the answer is no - not by a long shot. There are many other works that I feel are far superior, in construction, inspiration and profundity. To name a few: Fantasia Op. 12, Fantasia Op. 16 (On a Theme of Paisiello), Introduction, Variations and Finale Op. 20 and Morceau de Concert Op. 54. These and most of Sor’s other works are largely unknown and unperformed today. In a sense, Sor’s solo guitar music is today in a similar position to the pre-1920 position of Beethoven’s piano music!

Mr. Cotsiolis’ above comparison to Beethoven is unfortunate, as is the evident description by the 19th century French critic, Fetis of Sor as "The Beethoven of the Guitar." Indeed I believe such comparisons are not only futile but can serve no possible purpose. Certainly Beethoven is today correctly recognized as one of the greatest musicians of all time. Yet it is my belief that if say, pianists, had a similarly comparative attitude they probably would not perform and record the quality works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin! Likewise singers would not perform the wonderful songs of Schubert even though he is a far greater composer of lieder than Beethoven! This brings me to a point. How fine a composer would have Beethoven been for the guitar had he chosen to write for it? Probably severely flawed. His dramatic and heroic aesthetic, along with his requirement of a large dynamic range, simply was incompatible with the small delicate voice of the guitars of his time. Even the pianos of his time were too small for his grand, thunderous conceptions and that is evidently why he often literally tore up those pianos during his performances - breaking strings, hammers etc! And, I believe for similar reasons he chose to write very few lieder - again the form and style was simply too miniature and delicate for his particular aesthetic. Sor, on the other hand, found a way to write effective, profound, melodic and beautiful music for the guitar. He alone amongst guitarist-composers managed to write numerous grand and majestic large works - fantasias, sonatas, variations and other works for both solo guitar and guitar duet. These coupled with his beautiful miniatures - etudes, minuets, siciliennes, waltzes etc. make him perhaps the greatest of all composers for our instrument.

Mr. Cotsiolis mentions certain contemporary composers that "highlight the thousands of colors of the guitar." By saying this he somehow insinuates that such composers as Sor and Giuliani were somehow not interested in highlighting the coloristic possibilities of the guitar. Unfortunately this view is also shared by far too many contemporary guitarists, yet, in my opinion, this could not be farther from the truth. Sor, in his method, writes specifically about using the coloristic possibilities of the guitar in terms of the imitation of various orchestral instruments etc. Other methods from the period strongly advocate such coloristic and expressive effects as portamento, arpeggiation of chords etc. In short, guitar composers from that period thoroughly expected their music to be performed as expressively as possible, using all these possible expressive devices of the guitars of their era even though they rarely specifically notated them in their scores! It is therefore unfortunate that the interpretive art of the last sixty or so years has been largely dominated by a rigid, legalistic fidelity to the score mentality - perhaps partially in reaction to the excesses of some of the lesser artists of the first half of the 20th century! If a portamento, metallic color or other expressive device is not specifically called for in the score, a modern performer will often be criticized for taking such "liberties" and/or "eccentricities." Indeed many modern performers have become something of "junior executives" to the "chief executive" critics and musicologists who very literally "defend" that score. And the consequential result is often a bland, colorless, "restrained" performance. This is often somehow rationalized by the belief that this sort of "fidelity to the score" is respecting the composer’s personality and intentions! It is my opinion that these sorts of performances, rather than the actual level of inspiration in Sor’s music itself, has led many to view Sor as something of a 3rd rate composer rather than the masterful composer that he was.

Epilogue
I wrote the above some time ago and did not submit it because I realized that I was unfairly critical of Mr. Cotsiolis and other’s opinions of Sor. I have no right to be. Although I have never heard Mr. Cotsiolis perform, I have heard from others (whose opinions I respect), that he is indeed a very fine guitarist and musician. As one who has spent my lifetime studying (and struggling with) this ornery instrument called the guitar, I can have nothing but respect for someone else’s mastery of it! And I also remember that I also at one time had a similar opinion of Sor! Indeed, many years ago I was largely introduced to his music by the marvelous recordings and performances of Segovia and Bream. Consequently I believed that his only worthwhile music was that which I heard them play! (I was born in 1942.) Indeed I spent much time superficially reading through other pieces of Sor - always coming to the same conclusion until long after Jeffery’s facsimile editions first appeared in 1976! By 1982, however, I had seriously studied and performed his entire Op. 11 and other works, and my opinion of Sor’s other works had greatly changed to the point where I believed that the best of his music was largely unheard and unperformed. I then vowed to perform and especially record his entire solo output so that others could hear all this music in quality and expressive performances. (I made a point of memorizing and studying every piece for at least one year to more fully digest it’s beauties before committing it to the permanence of tape.) My mission, therefore, is to do what I reasonably can to convince others of the high quality of Sor’s music (rather than to criticize others who presently have views similar to my own predjudicial views of yesteryear!)

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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