Sor, Fernando

The guitar used be called a tavern instrument; one that could not meet the demands of classical music. In the early nineteenth century, Fernando Sor set in motion the quest that continues today, to raise the guitar to the greatest musical level possible. Sor was one of the most prolific composers for, and promoters of, the guitar as a "concert" instrument, in the last two hundred years. He, and others like him paved the way for Andrés Segovia to emerge and bring the guitar to the immense popularity, and respect it enjoys today.

Fernando Sor was born into a fairly well off and respected family, sometime in February of 1778. The exact date is not known, but it is known that he was baptized on February 14, 1778 in Barcelona, Spain as `José Fernando Macarurio Sors’ (Jeffery Sor).

Based on his family’s social standing Sor was expected to follow a military career and he did, but he also fell in love with music when his father introduced him to Italian opera. This was to be a great influence on his later musical compositions.

Sor’s father was also the one to introduce him to the guitar. By the time Sor was eight he was already an accomplished guitarist and musician. His talent was so prevalent at such a young age, it earned him acceptance into the monastery at Montserrat when the new Abbot heard of his musicianship.

Sor was sent to study music and courses to further his military career at the monastery of Montserrat. His parents did not expect him to pursue music as career, but to enter the military or attain an administrative post.

After his father died, when he was about eighteen, his mother could no longer afford to continue his studies at Montserrat and she withdrew him. Sor returned to Barcelona where he received a commission in the `corps de Villa franca’ from General Vives. This post must have been rather fortunate for Sor since it provided him with the opportunity and the time to write an opera and some early guitar music. Jeffery points out that Sor most likely received his promotion to full lieutenant as a result of his performance on the piano and guitar. This leads to the assumption that the Spanish army fully supported and encouraged music. Sometime around the turn of the century, after spending four years at the military school, Sor left and moved to Madrid. Here he found his first patron, the famous Duchess of Alba who was also the patron of the famous Spanish painter Goya. The Duchess was rather different from other aristocrats who supported the arts. Instead of pressuring him to write exclusively for her. She gave Sor a study in her house and let him work on his own pieces at his own speed.

In 1808 at the height of Napoleon’s reign, the French army invaded Spain. This was the period when Sor began to write more guitar music. Of the pieces that are left from this period, most are nationalistic and written for voice accompanied by guitar, or for solo guitar. These songs were written to provide support for the Spanish army and his fellow countrymen; despite popular belief Sor was a devout Spanish patriot. After the Spanish armies were defeated Sor accepted an administrative post with the new French government. This period of his musical life is very sparse composition wise. This might be because Sor did not like that he had to serve under an alien government. Sor was a practical man though, and he did what he had to.

A few years later, the Spanish army finally defeated the French and drove them out. Sor felt compelled to leave his home country, as did many other Spanish artists and aristocrats who had somehow befriended the French. He never returned to Spain again.

After leaving Spain in 1813, Sor followed the French back to Paris. This was to be his home for the rest of his life. Paris would also be the city where he composed the major portion of his guitar works, over one hundred are known to exist.

Besides being an excellent composer Sor was also a performer of the highest caliber and technical ability. His talent was so sought after that it took him throughout Europe and Asia to perform for some of the highest nobility of the day. He traveled to Russia and some of her sister countries playing in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, and Warsaw, in Moscow, he premiered his ballet "Cendrillion", it turned out to be a success with both the public and the critics.

Sor also travelled to London, where he lived and worked from 1815 to 1823. While in England, he was well received for his operas and piano compositions, he also had four of his ballets produced in London. A local critic had this to say of his vocal compositions, "Mr. Sor’s vocal compositions have gained such favour that a new set of arietts, from his pen, causes almost as much sensation as the publication of a new novel by the author of Waverly." (Repository of Arts March 1, 1820) 

Fernando Sor was probably the most well known guitarist in what has been called "The First Golden Age of the Guitar". As mentioned before Sor traveled throughout Europe quite a bit, and everywhere he went, the guitar’s popularity spread like wildfire. After his death the guitar fell into obscurity again for almost two generations, and Fernando Sor was almost forgotten.

Although he wrote many other types of works for many mediums of performance including: piano, opera, and ballet, Sor is best remembered for his guitar studies, and other guitar works. They form an integral part in the study, and performance at concert level, of the guitar.

Unlike his contemporaries, Dionisio Aguado of Spain, and Fernando Carulli of Italy, Sor wrote for the music first and the guitar second. Both Aguado and Carulli wrote many pieces for the guitar. Their pieces were mostly to build technical ability, and musically were unable to stand on their own. On the other hand Sor’s estudios and etudes not only provide technical value. They are also able to provide musical fulfillment, as evidenced by any of the numerous recordings available today. He also had an incredible gift for composing memorable melodies; as the masters Beethoven and Schubert did. In fact Sor is considered the "Beethoven" of the guitar in Spain.

Sor has received many praises during his life, and after his death, but this one from William S. Newman, sums everything up about Sor’s musical genius in one short quote: "The creative worth of Sor’s guitar sonatas is high. The ideas, which grow out of the instrument yet stand up well enough apart from it, are fresh and distinctive. the harmony is skillful and surprisingly varied, with bold key changes and with rich modulations in the development sections. The texture is naturally of interest too, with the melody shifted from top to bottom, to middle, and frequent contrapuntal (two separate melody lines combined) bits added. Among the extended forms, the first allegro movements still show considerable flexibility in the application of `sonata form’, especially in the larger number of ideas introduced and recalled. For that matter, the style still goes back to that of Haydn and Boccherini, especially in the first movement of Op. 22, which has all the neatness of syntax and accompaniment to be found in a classic symphony, and its third and fourth movements, which could nicely pass as a Minuet and Rondo by Haydn."

Sor’s greatest outpouring of music was after what some would call a retirement. Around 1827 he decided to stop touring the world and spend the rest of his life in Paris. It was during this period that Sor wrote most of his memorable music: the ninety seven different studies, and the "Theme and Variations on Mozart’s the Magic Flute Opus 9", which is probably the most recognized and difficult piece to play written by Sor. To perform this piece, the player must have achieved the uppermost levels of technical and musical virtuosity.

It was also during this period that Sor composed, what even today is considered, the most complete and practical method book for the guitar. In 1830 Sor published "Methode pour la Guitare", which Grunfeld calls his "... crowning achievement ... the most remarkable book on guitar technique ever written." In this masterpiece Sor includes feelings on the playing position of both hands, the use of the right hand fingernails, proper stroke for the right hand, playing position and the correct way to hold the guitar to maximize control and strength, and minimize tension.

Sor also performed in public quite often during this period, but just like his composing his playing was becoming more and more limited to just the guitar, which had always been his favorite instrument since childhood. In fact Sor loved the guitar so much that he spent the last years of his life passing on his knowledge of the instrument, not only for generations to come with his method book, but also personally through private lessons. When Sor first arrived in Paris the guitar almost became an overnight success, and people throughout the city became interested in it. Upon his permanent return to Paris Sor was in great demand as a teacher. Although Sor seems to have had many students, especially in Paris, either Sor and his students did not keep records, or they have been lost with the passage of time; therefore relatively few knowledge exists about his students. Of the few that we do know about one of the more famous ones is General San Martin, the Liberator of Argentina.

Two of his other students, that we know of, were mentioned in his "Methode pour la Guitare". They were Mary Jane Burdett and Miss Wainwright, both of whom were young English girls. It seems that Sor greatly admired both of them as guitarists, since he mentioned them in his study book.

The last two years of Sor’s life must have been a very sad time for him, for he lost his daughter in the summer of 1837. Sor was greatly saddened by this and seems to have gone into a state of depression, as evidenced by the last great symphonic work written by him, a Mass in honor of his daughter. It is recounted by Eusebio Font y Moresco (apparently a local journalist) that Sor himself played excerpts from this mass, on a piano, over his daughters grave as a thunderstorm gathered and it began to rain.

Two years later, at the age of sixty, Sor died. Leaving behind a legacy that has continued for almost two hundred years. The world of classical guitar owes much to Fernando Sor, for he took the guitar from the depths of obscurity and ignorance, to new heights never achieved or thought of.

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