Spanish musician Fernando Sor (1778–1839), perhaps more than anyone else, took the guitar from being an instrument of Spanish minstrels and Italian serenaders to being a classical instrument. He has been given only brief mention in standard music histories, but a resurgence of interest in guitar music and in the music of Spain has seen his reputation on the rise. As a young composer he wrote various kinds of music: operas, ballets, songs in addition to guitar music, and he performed on various instruments over his long concert career.
"Everyone knows that M. Sor has extended the domain of the guitar, and that he has guided that instrument to its natural destination in making it an instrument of harmony," ran a review of a new Fernando Sor composition in the Revue Musicale in 1833 or 1834, probably written by the French music scholar F.J. Fétis (and quoted by Brian Jeffery). "A profound musician, gifted with much taste and with the necessary perseverance . . . M. Sor has written for the guitar as no one had written before him." The idea of nationalism in music was still decades in the future during the years of Sor's compositional activity, and his guitar pieces do not sound particularly Spanish today. They fall into a broad category of classical music that followed the graceful examples of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn rather than pursuing the tumultuous innovations of Ludwig van Beethoven. Yet there is, perhaps, a connection to Spain in Sor's music. Sor was an exile, forced from Spain by actions on the grand stage of world events. Yet the older he became, the more strongly he focused on the guitar, an instrument associated primarily with Spain. Perhaps, as he saw his chances of ever returning to his homeland recede to nil, he began to focus on the most distinctively Spanish part of his musical output.
Came to Music Very Early
Sor was born in 1778 in Barcelona and baptized on February 14 of that year. He was a native of Catalonia, a region of the Iberian peninsula that was part of Spain but also a distinct dialect and a strong cultural identity of its own. The guitar was an instrument especially identified with Catalonia. Sor's father played the guitar and also enjoyed another form of major importance in the late eighteenth century: Italian opera. Sor picked up his father's guitar, mastered in quickly, and also sang, wrote songs and instrumental arrangements, played the violin, and even made up his own system of musical notation. Sor's middle–class family had planned on a military career for their son, but it was clear that his musical gifts required nurturing, and he was sent to study music at the Abbey (monastery) of Montserrat. There he encountered music by Haydn and other masters from beyond Spain.
When he was 17 or 18, Sor assumed a post as a lieutenant in the Spanish army. As an officer from a prosperous family, however, he had plenty of time to compose music—at least at first. In 1796 or 1797 he found in the library of a Barcelona theater administrator an unused libretto for an opera on an ancient Greek theme and decided to set it to music. The fully competent Italian opera that resulted ran for 15 performances at the Barcelona Opera and attracted wide notice for its youthful composer. Sor wrote other vocal works and a few lengthy guitar sonatas, visited the Spanish capital of Madrid twice, and attracted as a patron the Duchess of Alba, who had commissioned a number of paintings from Spain's top artist, Francisco Goya. Between about 1804 and 1808 he held an administrative post in Spain's Andalusia region.
Life Overturned by Invasion
Sor's promising career in Spain was interrupted by the invasion of troops from Napoleonic France in 1808. At first Spaniards resisted the foreign incursion, and a number of patriotic songs by Sor date from this period; one of them, the "Himno de la Victoria," was apparently actually sung during a Spanish victory at Madrid. Sor himself saw military action, but also found time to compose romantic songs, called seguidillas, of a lighter nature. This uniquely Spanish part of his output has not been deeply investigated by musical scholars.
After a time, some Spaniards began to see Napoleon as preferable to the corrupt Spanish monarchy under which they had lived. Sor was one of these so–called afrancescados (Frenchified ones), who worked with the French in hopes of generating a more progressive system of Spanish government. Sor served as a police commissioner in the sherry–producing city of Jerez for more than two years, and seems not to have written much music during this unsettled period. When the tide began to turn against Napoleon, the French withdrew from Spain, and in 1812 Sor left Spain for Paris. He made the right decision, for many of his comrades who did not leave were arrested by the new Spanish King Fernando VII.
In Paris, Sor was an unknown foreigner in the midst of a tradition–bound local operatic scene that stretched back for a century and a half. There are gaps in the historical record of Sor's activities between 1813 and 1815; he seems to have been married, although the name of his wife is not known, and a daughter named Catherine or Julia was born during this time. What is certain is that Sor was frustrated by the lack of musical opportunities available to him, and left Paris in 1815 to try his luck in London, England.
In London Sor found support from a network of Spanish exiles, and his fortunes began to improve. He gave concerts, sometimes on the guitar and sometimes as a singer, and he began to make friends among the English aristocracy and to perform in their spacious manor houses. His best–known compositions of his London years were short songs called arietts, written in Italian. A review in the Repository of Arts quoted by Brian Jeffery stated that "Mr. Sor's vocal compositions have gained such favor among the higher order of musical dilettanti, 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 Waverley." A list of the dedicatees of Sor's works revealed names that constituted the cream of London society.
Popularized Guitar in England
The arietts were vocal works, but Sor also began producing a large amount of guitar music during this period. The guitar had been little known in England until the early nineteenth century, but Sor seemed to have almost single–handedly created a market for guitar music and then filled the demand. His most famous work, and one that remained in the established repertory of classical music after his death, was his set of Variations on a Theme of Mozart, published as Opus Nine in 1821. Sor also increasingly often became a featured guitarist at concerts.
He also wrote ballet music, winning acclaim for a ballet called Cendrillon. Partly because dance at the time had no system of notation like that for music, ballet music of the early nineteenth century is mostly little known, and Sor's ballets are rarely if ever performed today. This sphere of his activity did prove to have important personal consequences for Sor, however. It led to his acquaintance with the young French Félicité Hullin, who was perhaps 20 years younger than Sor. They became romantically involved, and in 1823, when Hullin won a place as the prima ballerina of the Moscow Ballet in Russia, Sor went with her.
The trip to Russia involved a grand tour of Europe, with Sor giving concerts all the way. There were extended stops in Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw. In the German capital, Sor made the acquaintance of the publisher Simrock, who had issued many of Beethoven's works and now agreed to publish a series of 21 of Sor's guitar works. After arriving in Russia, Sor remained there until 1826 or 1827, publishing a host of new works for the guitar. Sor himself also experienced success in the Russian ballet world; three of his ballets were staged in Moscow. By this time, however, he was writing mostly for the guitar, and he tended to compose original material rather than reworking his own earlier material or composing variations on well–known tunes.
Some of his new works matched the intricacy of his Variations on a Theme of Mozart and other showpieces he had composed to show off his own skills. But as he began to deal more frequently with music publishers, Sor faced a problem: outside of Spain and Italy, the guitar was still a novelty in much of Europe, and there were few players who could handle his more difficult works. Sometimes he complained that this dearth of good guitarists hamstrung his compositional imagination, but after he and Hullin returned to Western Europe in 1826 or 1827, settling in Paris, he began to take more constructive action by setting down in print the knowledge gained from a lifetime of guitar teaching.
Wrote Guitar Textbook
Sor's Méthode pour la guitare (Guitar Method) was written in the late 1820s and published in 1830. It is still regarded as one of the greatest works ever written on guitar technique, and Sor followed it up with a host of pieces for guitar students in the 1830s. The pieces at the highest levels (often titled Etudes or Leçons) have doubled as concert showpieces for classical guitarists ever since. Between 1828 and 1839 he also wrote 12 guitar duets, a form he had not previously cultivated. All these works expanded the vocabulary of the guitar substantially.
The death of Sor's daughter in 1837 hit him hard, as did the failure of a petition he sent to the Spanish throne asking that he be permitted to return home to Catalonia to live out his final years. (His letter was never answered). Instead, Sor made a living mostly as a teacher in Paris at the end of his life. He suffered for several years from a throat ailment and died in Paris on July 10, 1839.
Sor's reputation lived on for some years after his death. Long articles on his life and music appeared in several French music encyclopedias, and in 1910 a street was named after him in his native Barcelona. In the modernist–inclined early twentieth century, much of his music was forgotten, but a resurgence of interest in the classical guitar later in the century led to its rediscovery. Although his music did not have the flamenco accents associated with nationalist Spanish guitar music, guitarists found that it was unfailingly attractive and technically unsurpassed.
The modern master of the guitar, Andrés Segovia, issued 20 of Sor's etudes in a 1945 edition that remains widely available, and younger guitarists such as Christopher Parkening also recorded Sor's works. His output from beyond the realm of the guitar began to find performances as well, but there remained much to be discovered from this musician who came from outside the main path of classical music's historical march, but found a lifetime of acclaim in the great capitals of Europe.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
Jeffery, Brian, Fernando Sor: Composer and Guitarist, second edition, Tecla Editions, 1994.
"Fernando Sor," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (January 10, 2005).