How Fernando Sor Helped to Elevate the Guitar's Role in the Music Community
Although the guitar’s origin dates back over 3000 years, its status as a serious musical instrument was questioned by the vast majority of studious musicians for centuries. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the guitar’s role as a concert instrument started to rise. Respectable compositions for the instrument were sparse. “Despite the large output of compositions by guitarists themselves, the instrument’s repertory was limited because none of the great composers had written for it. With the exception of the compositions of (Fernando) Sor and (Luigi) Guiliani, the quality of most guitar music did not compare with the vast library of fine music available for other instruments.”
The guitar’s role in folk music and various forms of popular music also helped to weaken its reputation within the music community. Although, with the influence of great classical Italian composers like Mozart and Haydn, one of the most prolific composers for the guitar of all time, Fernando Sor, was able to vastly expanded guitar repertory and bridge the gap between the guitar being a folk instrument and a concert instrument. This paper explains how Fernando Sor used his knowledge of the guitar and training in the Viennese classical tradition to redefine the guitar’s role as a concert instrument with emphasis on the history of his Moonlight Etude, Op. 35, No. 22.
Fernando Sor (1778-1839) was born in Barcelona into a military family. As a child, he was exposed to Italian opera by his father. By age five, Sor was already singing the arias from Viennese Classical-style operas, playing guitar, and receiving instruction on violin. This early exposure to Italian composition heavily influenced his own compositions throughout his life and later served as material to incorporate into his studies and etudes. After his father passed away in 1790, he began studying at the monastery in Montserrat, Spain. Harmony, counterpoint, and composition were his main areas of study. It was during this time that Sor was influenced by the guitar music of Moretti.
When he was 17, upon his mother’s wishes, Sor left the monastery and returned to Barcelona to join the military. After four years of service, Sor decided to stay in Barcelona and commit his time fully to music. He received his first success with the opera, Telemaco. Soon after, he moved to Madrid where he was commissioned by the Duchess of Alba to study Italian scores and improve his skills on the guitar and piano. After the Duchess’s death in 1802, Sor worked with the Duke of Medina-Celi for a short time. During this period he composed symphonies, string quartets, and secular songs.
However, in 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and Sor once again found himself in the military. When the French left Spain in 1813, Sor moved to Paris and was able to continue his musical career. He began composing music for ballets and guitar accompaniment for voice. Two years later, he moved to London, where he stayed until 1823. During his stay in London, Sor performed concerts all over England for voice and guitar and became a member of the Philharmonic Society. He also produced several ballets and composed around 42 Italian arietts.
In 1824, his ballet, Cendrillon, was performed in Moscow. He stayed there for two years composing ballet music, French songs, seguidillas, and various instrumental works. Upon his departure from Moscow in 1826, Sor returned to Paris and focused almost entirely on guitar pedagogy. Though his main focus was on teaching and performing, he also composed numerous etudes, exercises, and guitar duets. This is the time in his career when Sor truly began to broaden the concept of “Concert Guitar.”
It was during this time in Paris that he wrote his famous ‘Méthode pour la Guitare.’ This guitar method was his attempt to educate amateur guitarists and offered a variety of exercises for the improvement of technique, musical vocabulary, and fretboard unification. Before Sor had introduced the idea of utilizing the full range of possibilities of the guitar’s fretboard, the guitar was an instrument used primarily for accompaniment. His concept of using the guitar fretboard’s design to accompany himself while playing melody simultaneously is exemplified significantly in the etudes he composed between 1826 and 1830. These studies were written with the intent to clarify what mastership of the guitar really meant. They contain exercises for playing “arpeggios, chords, repeated notes, legatos, thirds, sixths, melodies in the higher register and in the bass, interwoven polyphonic structures, and stretching exercises for the fingers of the left hand.”
There is no doubt among the scholarly community that the influence of Viennese Classical-style composers is directly demonstrated in these etudes. Even though Sor was a Spaniard and never studied in Italy, he was well aware of the work being produced there. In The Development of Western Music, Marie Stolba states that during the first half of the nineteenth century, French interest was principally in opera comique. This attracted Italian opera composers to Paris. When Sor returned to Paris in 1826, he was surrounded by these composers. So, just like all of his contemporaries, he used this influence to expand his musical vocabulary.
After moving back to Paris in 1826 and focusing entirely on the guitar, Sor began, “gradually taking on the role, no longer primarily of the composer, but of a teacher.” 1828 was a busy year for Fernando Sor. His Op.31 was published in the first half of the year. It was a set of twenty-four studies. Later in the year, he published another set of twenty-four studies, known as the Vingt Quatre Exercises. The vast majority of these studies and exercises exhibit typical characteristics that he inherited from Italian composers. Among these studies is Sor’s Moonlight Etude, Op. 35, No. 22 in b minor. The harmonic content of the Moonlight Etude predominantly consists of triads (See Example 1.) This excerpt taken from the development of the piece shows the use of broken, eighth note triadic figures that are commonly found in the music of Mozart.
The form of the Moonlight Etude is comparable to the typical Haydn sonata form. It develops not in the dominant, but the relative major of b minor, D major. This could possibly be for the ease of playing D major on the guitar due to the availability of an open D string to use as a bass note. The eighth note rhythmic motion blends the melody into an Alberti-like accompaniment. The open strings and held notes within compositions allows even amateur guitarists to play the simple, Mozart-like melody while playing chords as well.
The refined simplicity of the composition makes it effective both as a performance piece as well as an etude. The performer never has to change positions on the fretboard. This aspect is extremely important when considering amateur guitarists and helps to reinforce Sor as an effective guitar teacher. The minimalism in his writing and mastery of the guitar permits the performer to play the piece fluidly without any awkward shifts along the fretboard. This also allows the performer to focus on utilizing proper technique as well.
This accessibility for amateur guitarists was greatly needed by the early 19th century. Until the method books of Fernando Sor and other prominent figures, such as Dionisio Aguado (1784-1839) and Mauro Giuliani (1778-1829), the guitar was reduced to accompanying singers and dancers as a folk instrument. It was not seen as an instrument worthy of solo concert performance. After Fernando Sor died in 1839, guitarists had to wait for the next generation of great guitar innovators to come of age before the guitar could be fully realized as a respectable instrument. Taking up where Sor and his contemporaries left off, Francisco Tárrega (1854-1905) immensely impacted the evolution of modern guitar. Like Sor, he transcribed music of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn. Another protégé of Sor’s was Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), whom, using the concepts of Fernando Sor, brought the guitar to its peak during the 20th century.
By employing different techniques and concepts of fretboard dimension, Sor proved that the music of Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical-style composers could be performed on the guitar. He pointed out that the guitar is an instrument of both melody and harmony and expanded its repertory tremendously, setting a precedent for future generations of guitarists. Joe Pass, Chet Atkins, Martin Taylor, Pat Metheny, Tommy Emmanuel and Birelli LaGrene are just a few of the guitarist that took mastery of the guitar to unprecedented heights outside of the Classical/Baroque realm. Although most of Fernando Sor’s professional career did not center on the guitar until he arrived in Paris, his early experiences studying Italian opera and composing Italian ariettas provided him with the knowledge and influence to be able to pass those traditions on to amateur guitarists. In return, Sor helped to progress the guitar’s role in concert music and left a lasting impression.
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