Fernando Sor Biography and Guitar Pieces
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Fernando Sor Biography and Guitar Pieces

Fernando Sor and "The Golden Age of the Guitar" Music historians often refer to the first half of the nineteenth century as "the golden age of the guitar." During this time the guitar enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Audience assembled in masses to see the great guitarists in concert. Professionals and enthusiasts alike engaged in spirited debates over the nature of the guitar and its players. This period saw the circulation of the first magazine devoted to the guitar, the Guilianiad (which despite being named after the well-known virtuoso Mauro Giuliani promoted the talents of many guitarists). Mostly significantly, the guitar found its way into the homes of the middle class. Due to a flourishing market for guitar music aimed toward amateur players, many of them women, the sound of the guitar was heard everywhere including the streets, in the salon as well as on the concert stage.

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Fernando Sor and "The Golden Age of the Guitar" Music historians often refer to the first half of the nineteenth century as "the golden age of the guitar." During this time the guitar enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Audience assembled in masses to see the great guitarists in concert. Professionals and enthusiasts alike engaged in spirited debates over the nature of the guitar and its players. This period saw the circulation of the first magazine devoted to the guitar, the Guilianiad (which despite being named after the well-known virtuoso Mauro Giuliani promoted the talents of many guitarists). Mostly significantly, the guitar found its way into the homes of the middle class. Due to a flourishing market for guitar music aimed toward amateur players, many of them women, the sound of the guitar was heard everywhere including the streets, in the salon as well as on the concert stage.

Among the most-praised musicians of the golden age of the guitar was Fernando Sor. With the age's excitement for the guitar in full bloom. Sor burst onto the scene when his compositional and performance skills were fully developed. Everywhere he went he was received with unabashed enthusiasm and lauded with the highest honors. Like all guitarists of his time, Sor played upon a guitar that wss much smaller and weaker in tone than today's instruments. However, armed with his crude, diminutive guitar and fueLd with an immense musical passion, Sor created music that towered above his contemporaries and today stands as an enduring monument to his devotion, dedication and love for the instrument.

SOR'S EARLY MUSICAL DEVELOPMENT

When Sor first began his musical lessons under his father in Barcelona, Spain, the guitar was not popularly recognized as a concert-instrument. Sor's family held more conservative expectations for their son, hoping that he would pursue a career in the Spanish military. Sor's earliest formal schooling was at the monastery ay Montserrat. The monks actually provided Sor with a fair amount of musical training, even though they were unable to provide any lessons on the guitar. At the monastery's famous choir school, Sor learned about singing and the fundamentals of musicmanship. Despite the cirriculum, Sor maintained his passion for the guitar while at the monastery, so that when he left he continued to pursue the development of his talents upon the instrument.

Sor did end up pursuing a military career, and eventually received a military commission, all the while never abandoning his musical aspirations. While stationed in Madrid, Sor enjoyed the patronage of the Duchess of Alba, who supported many musicians and artists including painter Francisco Goya. The Duchess brought Sor under her wing and compared to other patrons of the arts; instead of requiring him to compose exclusively for her court, she lavished him with a room in her house, books and other supplies, and let him study and compose whatever he desired.

SOR AS A SPANISH EXILE

In 1813, Sor left his native Spain, due to a rather uncomfortable political situation. He and many others (including Goya) had allied themselves with the French cause during a period of French occupation. When the Spanish overthrew the puppet king, Joseph Bonaparte (Napolean's brother), afrancesados such as Sor found themselves in a difficult position and were forced to leave Spain. Sor relocated to Paris, which in the nineteenth century was the European hub of artistic and intellectual activity and home to many towering figures including Hector Berlioz, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac and Eugene Delacroix.

Although opera virtually dominated the Parisian musical climate in the first half of the nineteenth century, the guitar enjoyed an immense popularity. In fact, Paris showed more of an interest in the guitar than any other European city. Parisians were extremely receptive to Sor's arrival, keeping him in great demand as a composer and a performer. Later in life, Sor was also in great demand in Paris as a teacher. Paris was Sor's home for a large part of his life and was the city where he composed the majority of his guitar works.

After his intial move to Paris, Sor traveled extensively throughout Europe. He visited Germany, Russia and England with major stops in Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, St. Petersburg and London-Sor was the first and only guitarist to have the honor to perform with the London Philharmonic during its first one hundred years. In 1826, while in St. Petersburg, he was called upon to compose a march for the funeral of Tsar Alexander. In the late 1820, he ceased touring and spent the rest of his life in Paris. Due to political tensions, Sor was never able to return home to his native Spain.

SOR'S COMPOSITIONS

Although Sor composed music for a variety of mediums, his most enduring works are those for the guitar. His hundreds of guitar compositions generally fall into three categories; works intended to satisfy the public's demand for technically undemanding yet pleasing music suitable for the salon or home, works designed for one's technical improvement on the instrument (etudes, lecons and the like) and large works designed for Sor's own performances.

An event which cemented Sor's position as one of the most respected guitarists of the day was the publication of his Methode pour la guitare ("Method for the Guitar") in 1830. The book is an exposition of Sor's beliefs on proper guitar technique and musicianship. The underlying tone of Sor's presentation is one of the utmost thoughtfulness, assiduousness and sensibility. In his book, Sor constantly reminds the reader that the precepts he advocates are the results of critical thinking. At the very beginning of his book, Sor boldly asserts an anti-dogmatic stance by stating that the contents of his book are based on his own reflections and experience and do not blindly follow anyone else's maxims. The book contains relatively little music-indeed, it was more likely intended to illustrate Sor's approach to the instrument than to serve as a primer. On the whole, the book serves as an illuminating insight into Sor's musical aesthetics and into his criticisms of contemporary guitar playing.

In addition to guitar works, Sor was a composer of seguidillas (Spanish songs modeled on the dance of the same name), Spanish patriotic songs, piano pieces, ballets, operas and other large orchestral works. Outside of his guitar music, Sor enjoyed the most success with his operas and ballets; his ballet Cendrillon was performed over one hundred times during the 1820s. Sor's last large orchestral work was a Mass in memory of his daugther, who suffered an untimely passing during the summer of 1837. Perhaps Sor's most unusual musical endeavor was the composition of a few pieces for an unpopular instrument called the harpolyre, an invention of English musician J.F. Salomon. The harpolyre was basically a triple-neck acoustic guitar, with a total of 21 strings of various materials. Understandably, the sensation of this musical oddity died in 1831 along with its inventor.

THE LEGACY OF FERNANDO SOR

Sor was not the only nineteenth-century composer with a passion for the guitar. Carl Maria von Weber, Franz Schubert and Hector Berlioz all played the guitar. Unfortunately, these great composers left extremely little, if any, music for the instrument. (Many of Schubert's early songs were initially conceived with guitar accompaniment; however, Schubert later reworked the accompaniments for piano. In his Grand traite d instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes  ("Great treatise on instrumentation and modern orchestration"), Berlioz goes so far as to include the guitar in his concept of the ideeal orchestra. Nevertheless, the guitar never seemed to make its way into Berlioz's orchestral works.)

In addition to Sor, those who left the most indelible mark on the instrument during the golden age of the guitar were other guitarist-composers; Dionisio Aguado (a close friend of Sor), Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi and Mauro Giuliani. Sor stands out among his contemporaries due to the fact that he was the only guitar-composer whose works consistently remained in favor with audiences and performers.

One of the most incredible aspects of Sor's guitar compositions is the fact that they are simultaneously well-crafted musically yet perfectly suited to the instrument. The exquisite craftsmanship of his music most certainly is due in a large part to his formidable training by the monks in Montserrat. Divorced from the instrument, Sor's harmonic progressions, melodic lines, textures and voice-leading make perfect sense. Even so, the music sings on the guitar with a brilliance and a vitality unattainable with any other instrument

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