The Life and Music of John Dowland
“Dowland to thee is deare; whose heauenly tuch Vpon the Lute, doeth rauish humaine sense”1
John Dowland led a very interesting life and also produced some of the most amazing music to come out of the renaissance. He was considered the one of the best lutenist of his time, and his compositions and publications greatly influenced Europe. His legacy has remained to this day, and much of his music is still being learned, performed, recorded, and enjoyed. Even the rock star Sting recorded several of his songs. Not much his known about his earlier life, but there is an abundance of information on Dowland and his music in his adult life. This paper will discuss, and attempt to give a clear presentation on, Dowland’s life and music.
There is not much information on Dowland’s early life, but he did make statements in his publications that he was born in 1563 and studied the “'ingenuous profession of Musicke' from childhood”2 Many historians believed Dowland to be of Irish decent, but Thomas Fuller, an antiquarian, believed that he was born in Westminster. Fuller also thinks it possible that he might have been related to the Dowland’s that were recorded in the parish of St Martin in the Fields.3 Since Dowland claimed that he had studied music since childhood, it is very possible that he was apprenticed to a lutenist in his formative years. When he was 17 (around 1580) he was "in France servant to Sir Henry Cobhan who was Imba(ssador) for the Quenes ma(jes)tie"4; meaning he was apprenticed to the lutenist and ambassador for the Queen Sir Henry Cobham. It is not known how long the apprenticeship lasted, but some believe it may have lasted until 1587.5 After, Dowland attended first Oxford University and then Cambridge University to further pursue his interest in music. He successfully completed both programs and proudly stated in his first publication, "Batcheler of musicke in both the Vniversities". He then unsuccessfully applied to fill a post as a court lutenist in England in 1594. This rejection is something that will continue to happen throughout his life, and will become his greatest ambition.
After he was turned down for the lutenist post, Dowland decided to seek fortune and fame elsewhere. There are a couple reasons why one such as talented and musically adept would be turned down, but this will be discussed later on. The first place Dowland went was Germany where he studied with lutenist Gregorio Howet of Antwerp and the singer and instrumentalist Alessandro Orologio. By 1596 he was at the Kassel court, and soon returned to home hoping, not successfully, to finally get appointed a court lutenist. In 1597 he published his first collection of music The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute. The book was enormous success and eventually was published at least four times. The book was also very influential, not only in composition, but in publication. It was the first to date published collection of lute songs. It also used the “table layout”, which presented the full score, as opposed to single parts.
This allowed the performers to play the song with any instrumentation they saw fit.6 With the success of his first publication, Dowland was finally getting the recognition he wanted. With the exception of his own country, where he still couldn’t get the gig as court lutenist he so very much wanted.
In 1598 the court of Kassel asked Dowland to return, and of course, he did. He soon took a post at the Danish court, and was a lutenist for Christian IV of Denmark.7 It is not really known how things went over there, and it’s possible things went either way. Dowland had a very interesting personality, which will be discussed in more detail later on. Between the dates of 1603 and 1604, Dowland did return to England to publish Lachrimae, his only consort work. The work was dedicated to Anne Queen of Denmark, because it was started in her native land. Dowland stayed in Denmark until 1606 where he found himself broke, or in debt, and was forced once again to return home. With the success of Lachrimae, Dowland became one of the most popular lutenists in Europe, and was know by reputation alone8. So upon his return home he must have been shocked to discover the lack of interest in his music. He was still denied the position even though King James I had taken the throne, who also happened to be the brother-in-law of Christian IV of Denmark. This continual rejection from his home land must have been extremely frustrating to Dowland.
However, being ever so stubborn, he continued to reside in England and continue to perform and publish his music. Then finally, the dream and passion that he worked ever so hard for became complete. In 1612 he was appointed a court lutenist in England. After almost 20 years of rejection, frustration and disappointment, John Dowland had finally met his ambition. Although, he might not have enjoyed it as much as he would have in his youth. The times were changing and so was the music. Dowland’s music was no longer hip and exciting; many younger musicians were seeing it as old and dated. Most of the styles (forms) that he had helped to become so popular, such as the fantasy, pavan, and galliard, where becoming less popular.9 In addition, it was somewhat common for composers of this era to include prefaces in their publications, as a counter to their critics. Dowland however, pretty much threw a fit with his a preface called “To the Readers” in the publication of A Pilgrim’s Solace. In it he lists eight foreign cities where his music had been published (bragging) and then goes on a rant about other musicians.1 "(yea and some of them also authorized vnder the Emperours royall priuiledge,)….I againe found strange entertainment since my returne [from Denmark]; especially by the opposition of two sorts of people that shroude themselves under the title of Musitians. The first are some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who though they seeme excellent in their blinde Divisionmaking, are meerely ignorant, even in the first elements of Musicke ... yet doe these fellowes give their verdict of me behinde my backe, and say, what I doe is after the old manner ... The second are young-men, professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselves, to the disparagement of such as have beene before their time, (wherein I my self am a party) that there never was the like of them .”11 This statement clearly shows that Dowland, despite his musical and compositional prowess, had absolutely no control or understanding of the English language. Possibly being the reason he was not presented a court appointment earlier in his career.12 It also portrays an insecure old man who is not capable of dealing with the changing times and bad criticism. It might have been the
negative criticism or maybe the final culmination of his goal to become a court lutenist, but Dowland practically stopped composing after 1612. However, many of his contemporaries still praised and practically worshiped him. He was even awarded an honorary university doctorate. Although, no matter how much praise he was given, it seems that he was incapable of dealing with negative criticism. Leaving his pride greatly injured.
The last years of Dowland’s life must have been bitter-sweet. Having accomplished so much and even gaining his greatest desire, but to feel constantly criticized and neglected from other musicians. In 1625 King James I died, the man who helped Dowland fulfill his self planned destiny. Dowland had the honor of playing at the funeral ceremonies.13 The following year, in 1626, John Dowland also passed away.
Finally, back to what was discussed earlier in this paper; the reasons why it took so long for John Dowland to gain a court lutenist spot. There are many (conspiracy) theories behind this whole ordeal, but the most logical was because he was a Catholic. As a teenager he converted to Catholicism, possibly under the influence of English immigrants while he was in Paris.14 This of course would cause numerous problems, being that England was a Protestant state. During this time period it was considered treasonous to be a catholic in England, so of course Queen Elizabeth I or King James I wouldn’t want him in their court. However, there is almost enough information to believe another theory, and the reason is William Byrd(1540-1623).
William Byrd was a very popular English composer. He was also a militant catholic who had a few brushes with the law. Queen Elizabeth I had no problem with Byrd15, and he even became a gentleman at the Chapel Royal. If Queen Elizabeth would allow a catholic such as Byrd to thrive and make connections in the court, then why would she not want to proudly present one of England’s most brilliant musicians at court? Especially since was a music lover and keyboard player herself. One of the reasons Dowland was denied an appointment in the first place was because there were already four lutenists at court and, possibly due to expenses, there was no need for another. This makes perfect sense. Although, after he discovered he did not get the gig, he publicly complained to Queen Elizabeth I; "I have plaide so long with my fingers, that I have beaten out of play al my good fortune?’ To which she probably didn’t like very much. Two years later when a position finally emerged Dowland returned once again to try out. This time he believed he "becam an humble sutor ... thincking my self most worthiest…many goode & honorable frendes that spake for me". Though Dowland had no delusions and afterwards stated he "was like to goe without it, & that any myght hav preferment but I gest that my Relygion was my hinderance…I hav bin thrust of(f) of all good fortunes because I am a catholicke at home, for I h(e)ard that her ma(jes)tie beinge spake to for me, saied I was a man to serve any princ in the world, but I was an obstinat papist".16
In addition, Dowland claimed to be a melancholy man and an “Infoelice Inglese” (unhappy Englishman).17 After reading many of Dowland’s quotes and opinions of himself a deeper understanding of the man is gained. It might be that Dowland was an emotional unstable person; maybe a little crazy, and possibly someone who the English
royalty did not want to associate with. The real reasons for the continued denial of his court appointment will probably never be known, but this does raise an interesting theory.
After you finish the soap opera of Dowland’s life there is only one thing left to be discussed; his music. Dowland wrote some of the most beautiful music to come out of the renaissance. Dowland was first and foremost a composer of lute-songs, publishing his first collection of ayrs in 1597, followed by a second in 1600 and a third in 1603. He left over eighty secular songs and these included the hits we all grew up with: Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Endite, Fine Knacks for Ladies and Flow My Tears. For the lute Dowland wrote Fantasias, and dance-movements, including Pavanes, Galliards, Almains and Jigs. His music had such a profound impact that it is still relevant to this day. Many of his songs are apart of the standard classical guitar repertoire, and even the rock star Sting recorded an album of his songs.
His music was melancholy, a mood he felt most associated with18. It could be stated that being “melancholy” was the popular thing to do during this time period For his lute songs he would set poems of despair and sin, to music which was dark and sad. Some of his more popular works include: Four books of music that included lute tablature, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, and Flow My Tears.
Dowland wrote and published a series of music books in his life time. The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute (1597) contained 21 songs that could be performed by solo voice, with lute accompaniment. The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres(1600) had different songs but contained the same format as the first. The Third and Last Booke of Songs and Aires (1603) have the vocal and lute music printed on the same page, probably so the vocalist could accompany their self on lute.19 Although the title of the third book suggest that it is the last he will publish, in 1612 he published another book, A Pilgrims Solace. This book was very similar to the others. The music in these books are strophic, meaning the same music was used for all stanzas of the text. Most of the songs used dance rhythms and patterns that were popular in the time. Some of the songs were even arrangements of pre-existing lute dances. Of course, the general mood of these books was melancholy, but that is to be expected of Dowland’s music. All of these books were very successful and helped to establish Dowland as a profound composer throughout Europe.
In addition, John Dowland had a son, Robert Dowland (1591-1641), who was also a lutenist and composer. Robert actually succeeded his father as a court lutenist after his death. In 1610 Dowland’s son published an anthology of music entitled A Musical Banquet2. Included in this book was the John Dowland’s song In Darkness Let Me Dwell, a haunting song. The lyrics are:
In darkness let me dwell; the ground shall sorrow be, The roof despair, to bar all cheerful light from me; The walls of marble black, that moist'ned still shall weep; My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep. Thus, wedded to my woes, and bedded in my tomb,
O let me dying live, till death doth come, till death doth come. In darkness let me dwell.
Most of Dowland’s songs are pretty depressing, but this one is even more so. The lyrics alone give such a disturbing vision that when combined with the music makes it heart wrenching to listen to. Unlike most of Dowland’s works this piece is not strophic, making it a little unusual. When words such as “sorrow” “despair” and “woe” are used the lute “sets off nerve jangling dissonances”21. The vocals are stretched out, while the lute plays a chilling accompaniment, creating images in the mind that are reserved for nightmares. At the end of the song there is an open-ended cadence in Phrygian, leaving a very unresolved feeling with no promise of rest or ease. This piece is Dowland at his best, combining his melancholy with his powerful control of melody and harmony, creating one of the most amazing works to ever be written.
Another popular song by Dowland is, Flow My Tears. Like his other lute songs, the form and style are based on a dance, specifically the pavan. The song was originally a solo lute piece called the Lachrimae Pavan, which was an enormous success. Always willing to cash in even more, Dowland the arranged it as a lute-song. It was first published in The Second Book of Ayres. The idea worked and this became Dowland’s most popular song ever, and some have stated it to be the most popular in England as well. The lyrics are:
Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.
Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.
Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.
From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.
Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.
The song is in a minor key and begins with a falling tear motif, starting on an A and descending to an E by step on the text "Flow my tears". Like other great composers, Dowland borrowed and imitated over’s who he admired, so it is possible that the “falling tear motif” was borrowed from another composer22. Although this song is not as depressing as In Darkness Let Me Dwell, it is still pretty melancholy, and it is a great representation of Dowland’s work. The melody is sophisticated yet simple. Dowland’s mastery of counterpoint is evident, as the lute accompaniment works seamlessly with the vocals, and together they weave a melancholy wonder. After listening to and studying the song, there is no question why this was his most popular.
John Dowland was an amazing composer, and, if all accounts of his melancholy mood are correct, able to portray the world as he saw it through melody and harmony. This made him not only a musician, but also an artist, and his music is some of the best art to come out of the renaissance.
In the time after his death, his popularity has only increased. His music is still studied, performed, and recorded. Most of his songs are now standard repertoire for many classical musicians, of not just the lute, but the piano and guitar as well. Many scholars have attempted to study his life, even to the point of trying to observe all of his movements from birth. His music has been recorded thousands of times, and even found the rock-n-roll star Sting, doing an album entirely of Dowland lute songs. There is no doubt that in the years to come John Dowland’s legacy will continue to grow.
In conclusion, John Dowland was a very interesting man. He was a highly skilled composer, and one of the greatest lutenists of his time. He wrote music that people could became so connected to that even generations long after can feel an attachment. A self described somber man, whose music, reflected the inner workings of his soul and being. The trials he must of went through in order to write such painfully beautiful music might never be known, but his music, much like his life, was stunning and melancholy. Semper Dowland semper dolens.
1. Stobla, K Marie. The Development of Western Music- A History.
New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998
2. Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music- Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 1998
7. Taylor, David. “The Solo Lute Music of John Dowland” Diss. U.C. Berkley, 2005
8. Shepherd, Martin. “Ornamentation in Dowland's lute music” Essay 2008
9. Shepherd, Martin. “Dowland’s Lutes” Essay 2008
1Richard Barnfield, 1598- English poet, stating admiration for Dowland’s music
2 A direct quote from Dowland in one of his publications
3 The information on Dowland’s earlier life was found at http://www.hoasm.org/IVM/Dowland.html
4 Dowland quote
5 Information on apprenticeship found at http://www.classical-composers.org/comp/dowland
6 Information on Dowland’s first publication found at http://www.hoasm.org/IVM/Dowland.html
7 Found at http://www.hoasm.org/IVM/Dowland.html
8 Information found at http://www.hoasm.org/IVM/Dowland.html
1 Information found at http://www.classical-composers.org/comp/dowland
11 Part of the “To the reader” from Dowland’s final publication A Pilgrim’s Solace
12 Tongue in cheek
13 Found at http://www.naxos.com/composerinfo/John_Dowland_26007/26007.htm
14 Found at http://www.goldbergweb.com/en/history/composers/10744.php
15 Found at http://www.classical-composers.org/comp/dowland
16 Dowland quotes found at http://www.classical-composers.org/comp/dowland
17 Term found in Renaissance Music, Atlas, pg. 684
18 Renaissance Music, Atlas pg. 684
19 The Development of Western Music, Stolba pg. 188
2 Renaissance Music, Atlas pg. 684
21 Renaissance Music, Atlas pg. 684
22 Theory found at http://www.classical-composers.org/comp/dowland
The Life and Music of Fernando Sor
Fernando Sor was “the single most important guitarist of the 19th century”1. He is credited for taking the guitar from the hands of Spanish minstrels and Italian serenaders and turning it into a prestigious classical instrument. His music surpassed his contemporaries by not only being technically challenging, but also by having memorable and expressive melodies. Sor was also the premier virtuosic performer of the guitar is his life and dazzled his audiences with his technique and musicality. He lived during the transitional period of the classical and romantic periods and is considered “The Beethoven of the guitar”, though his music has more in common with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn than the tumultuous innovations of Ludwig van Beethoven.2 By taking a greater look into his life, music, technical contributions to the guitar, a greater understanding of Sor and his genius will be attained.
Joseph Fernando Macari Sors was born in Barcelona, Spain sometime in early 1778. The exact date is not know, but he was baptized on February 14 of the same year. 3 His family was a fairly well to do and well respected family. His father was a successful
merchant and enjoyed playing the guitar and Italian operas. Sor would often play is father’s guitar and quickly mastered the instrument. He would also sing, write songs and instrumental arrangements, play the violin, and he even created his own system of music notation.4 Sor’s parents expected a military career for the son, but after his musical gifts were seen he was allowed to study music for a period. He was sent to the Monastery of Montserrat Choir School were he studied violin, piano, and harmony, but not the guitar. The school was renowned for its sacred music education since the 1300's.5 The school also gave him the opportunity to experience music from outside of Spain, such as Haydn and Mozart. It is not know if he studied any thing else besides music, but he did gain good foundation for his musical career. At some point while he was at school his father died and Sor’s family could no longer afford the tuition so he was forced to return home. It was customary at the monastery to give a student who was leaving a gold coin; the coin was to help the family of the student. Sor used the gold coin to buy his first guitar, the instrument that would become the passion of his life.6
After his time at the monastery, Sor fulfilled his parents’ wish of their son having a military career. Sor returned to Barcelona where he received a commission in the `corps de Villa franca' from General Vives. It is assumed that he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant because of his musical abilities on the piano and guitar.7 Being an officer, and from a prosperous family, he found he still had plenty of time for music. One day while exploring the library in the Barcelona Theater, Sor stumbled upon an unused libretto of Greek theme and he decided to put it to music. The opera "Telemachus on the Calypso's Isle" was then created and the 18 year old Sor had tremendous success with it. The opera was performed 15 times at the Barcelona Opera House, and helped to establish Sor’s reputation. Sor also began writing pieces for the guitar at this time as well. Sor had just began his life long career in music.
After spending four years at the military school, he decided to move to Madrid. There 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.8 During this period Sor wrote more pieces for voice with guitar accompaniment and solo guitar pieces.
In 1808, Napoleon decided he wanted to conquer Spain, so he invaded. Sor was very patriotic and was inspired by these events to write nationalistic music. Mainly voice and guitar, these tunes were writing to inspire his countrymen. Although these tunes were probably effective, they were not capable of defeating Napoleon, and the French ultimately won. Sor, being the practical man he was, soon accepted an administration post in the new French government. He wrote very sparsely during this time.9 Some think this is because Sor didn’t like living under a new foreign government.1 Although, it is odd how these events didn’t passionately inspire him to write even more patriotic music. After awhile, Sor became one of the “afrancescados” (Frenchified ones)11, these were people who began to prefer the French government over the old Spanish monarchy. They also worked with the French in order to create a more progressive Spanish government. However, Spain was only ruled by France for a couple more years, until the
Spanish finally ran them out. When the French left several artists, who befriended them, were forced to leave as well. Among them was Fernando Sor, who would never return to Spain again.12
In 1813, Sor, who was now an exile from his beloved homeland of Spain, decided he would move to Paris. Probably because he had grown rather fond of the French, and Paris was the one of the main places to establish oneself as a composer and performer. Paris however, wasn’t exactly what Sor thought it would be. He was having difficult times establishing himself in a tradition-bound foreign operatic scene that stretched back more than a century. Not much is known on him during the period from 1813-1815 (the time he spent in Paris). Some sources say he was married and had a child, but nothing is very certain. Sor eventually became frustrated with the lack of musical opportunities he had and eventually decided it was time to leave. His next destination would be London, England.
Sometime in 1815, Sor arrived in London. He found a network of Spanish exiles, gathered their support, and his fortunes began to change.13 He soon began making a name for himself by giving concerts, either on guitar or singing. This gave him the opportunity to associate and befriend the English aristocrats, and they eventually requested him to perform in their spacious manor houses. During this time he was composing arietts in Italian. One review of his compositions stated: "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."14 Sor was quickly amassing a devoted following and create a myth like status for his compositions and his performances. A list of the dedicatees of Sor's works revealed names that constituted the cream of London society.15 While the arietts were very popular, they were still vocal works, and not really able to highlight Sor’s virtuosic technique on the guitar. Sor now began to produce a large amount of guitar music during this period. In England the guitar was still a relatively unknown instrument, but once people saw it performed on by a master such as Sor, people began to take notice. Sor almost single handedly created a demand for guitar music in England, and he was very willing to fill that demand. In 1817 he performed with the London Philharmonic, he was the first and only guitarist to do that in his life time.
In addition, Sor wasn’t just a one trick guitar composing pony, he was also a successful ballet composer. His Ballet Cendrillon was performed one hundred and four times between 1823 and 1830. he was about to find out that being apart of the ballet community had many advantages. For example, Sor became acquainted with the young French ballerina Félicité Hullin, who was at least 20 years his junior. The two soon became more than just friends and began a romantic relationship. In 1823 she won the potion of prima ballerina at the Moscow Ballet in Russia. Sor decided it was time that he went to Russia as well.
The trip to Russia turned into a grand tour, with Sor doing performances all the way with extended stops in Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw. In Germany, Sor met Beethoven’s publisher, and struck up a deal to get 21 of his works published. The couple’s arrival in
Russia allowed Sor several more musical opportunities. Sor published a lot of material for the guitar during this time, and also was finding success in the Russian ballet world. Three of his ballets were staged in Moscow. This is a testament to his abilities as a composer, and it probably didn’t hurt that he was dating the prima ballerina in the Moscow Ballet. He was also mixing and mingling with the highest levels of Russian society.16 He played for the mother of Tsar Alexander I. When he Tsar died he was asked by Tsar Nicholas to write a funeral march that was played at his funeral. Success was not hard to come by in Russia, let alone Europe, but Sor must have become tired of traveling. In 1827 he retired to Paris and spent most of his time composing and teaching.17
In addition, Paris now held more opportunities than it did the last time he was settled there. During this period other famous guitarist/composers were also living in Paris, such as Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849) and Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841). Sor and Aguado actually lived in the same hotel from 1828-1832. They had met earlier, but they probably “jammed” with each other quite often. Sor dedicated a number of works to his colleague, and they performed at least 3 (known) concerts together.18 He also began taking on many pupils, most of them being ladies of high society. This was also one of the most productive periods of his life for composition on the guitar. Also during this period Sor published “Methode pour la Guitare” , which is considered, even today, to be one of the most comprehensive guitar method books ever written.19
During the last years of his life, Sor gave more performances on the guitar, and his compositions were now primarily for guitar. Even though the guitar had been his favorite instrument since childhood2, Sor’s love for the instrument seemed to increase as he aged. He enjoyed performing, but also sharing his knowledge of the instrument through teaching privately. Because of his fame, he was in high demand as a teacher. Sor did not take records of his students, but on of the most well known was General San Martin, the Liberator of Argentina21. Sor defiantly left an amazing legacy as a performer, composer, and teacher.
The last several years of his love must have been pretty depressing for him. In 1837 Sor’s daughter died, leaving him in a state of unimaginable depression. He wrote his last symphonic work, a mass in the honor of his daughter. According to the accounts of Eusebio Font y Moresco (apparently a local journalist) Sor himself played excerpts from this mass, on a piano, over his daughter’s grave as a thunderstorm gathered and it began to rain22. Two years later, Sor himself passed away, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy.
Sor was a gifted composer and adept at writing in many genres and platforms, but his main contribution was the music he composed for the guitar. Many of the guitar composers of the time were very prolific, but Sor’s work surpasses them. This is because most of his contemporaries wrote music for the guitar, music that could build the performers technique and make them a better player. By doing this, the musicality is ultimately lost (although not the case all the time, but when compared to Sor, it feels that way). Sor wrote music…that happened to be performed on the guitar. This might explain
why the great Andres Segovia criticized for not being one of “vigorous talent”23. Although his music is often very challenging, one doesn’t find the sort of repetitive motions used to build up technique. There are some pieces that have this, but unlike his contemporaries there is always a sense that the music is more important the technique. For example, Petite Piece (op. 44 no. 2) is a very simple guitar study that is made up of mainly arppegiated C and G chords. The piece is in 2/4 and the rhythm is mainly eighth notes with a sustained bass note at the beginning of each arpeggio. The written in right hand fingering is P(pulgar, thumb) I(indice, fore finger) P I A(anular, ring finger) M(medio). (These fingerings are probably note Sor’s, but of the publisher because Sor hardly ever used his anular finger. “I rarely use the third finger of the right hand for harmony, and forbid it entirely from melody.”24) The piece is intended as a study and is very short. The form is rounded binary; A A B A. The A section is in C and there is a half cadence the first time through, then a P.A.C. the second. The B section modulates to G and gives us a P.A.C. at the end. The melody gracefully ascends until the cadence, where it falls rapidly. This helps fuel the cadence, and further reinstating the phrase has ended. This type of writing for the guitar was very uncommon these days. Usually technique studies were more concerned with actually creating something with musicality.
Although Sor was a contemporary of Beethoven and part of his life was during the Romantic Period, I still consider him to be a Classical Period composer. The reasons for this are his treatment of harmony and his melodic phrases. It has been said that Sor’s conservative use of harmony has to do with his understanding the nature of the guitar. “We must remember that the guitar (especially the small 19th century instrument) was incapable of the dynamic range and thunderous sounds of the piano and symphony orchestra. Indeed the increased modulation and color of 19th century "Romantic" harmony seems to be directly related to the increased dynamic range of 19th century piano and symphonic music. Perhaps Sor felt that it simply was not practical to write for the guitar in the same harmonic manner as those contemporary masters of the piano and orchestra.”25 This quote states that since the guitar of yesteryear was unable to effectively the dramatic articulations of the Romantic Period, Sor decided to write in context that was best suited for the guitar. This is a hard statement to prove because Sor didn’t solely write for the guitar, and the ballets and orchestral works he did are very hard to come by these days. Though, if they were compared with the guitar pieces, it would be interesting if he did (or didn’t) use the same vocabulary. It’s hard to believe he didn’t compose using the same classical conservative vocabulary of his guitar pieces.
In addition, one thing that sets Sor apart from those of the classical periods was form. “He wrote only two true classical Sonata-allegro movements (Op. 15b and the finale of his Fantasia Op. 30). His other sonatas (Op. 14, 22 and 25) show considerable freedom and individuality more typical of Romanticism than Classicism. And, in any case, he far preferred the free form Fantasy to the Sonata for his large major works. His miniatures are also very much in the Romantic time-period and style.”26 Sor was attempting (successfully) to use the conservative harmony of the classical period and fusing it together with the free form of the romantic period. This gives a sort of structured freedom to his pieces that allows the performer a freer interpretation of the music. Also, Sor wrote several different types of pieces for the guitar. In his sonatas, the expositions and
recapitulations rarely follow traditional form yet they are filled with strong lyricism and thematic material. He really only wrote two Sonata-allegro movements (Op. 15b and the finale of his Fantasia Op. 30) that followed the traditional form. His other sonatas (Op. 14, 22 and 25) showed a lot more freedom and some might see them form more romantic than classical.27
He wrote 13 Fantasies which were multi-movement large scale works. They usually contained a slow introductory movement, a set of variations and a coda or finale.
Sor also wrote 12 sets of Variations that showed of his invention and lyricism. One of the most famous is; Op. 9 Variations on a Theme by Mozart.
The pieces that Sor is best known for are his etudes. Sor’s etudes are exceptional, and they range from intermediate to extremely complex that require the most virtuosic performances. When compared to the etudes of his contemporaries, such as Cramer and Kreutzer, it is easy to see how amazing they are. Sor had a gift for melody and form and his etudes always reflected it.28 These etudes are a staple in any classical guitarists repertoire, and stand on their own as individual pieces. He wrote 121 etudes contained in six sets.
Sor also wrote 35 minuets. These were all in binary form. They express charm and contain Sor’s beautiful sense of melody and structure.
Sor definitely composed the most beautiful guitar pieces of his time. Although his form could be considered romantic, his lyricism, melody, and harmony screamed classical. The pieces he left behind have such great beauty that they are a celebrated part of almost every classical guitarist repertoire.
In addition to writing great music, Sor also liked to write about/discuss technique. In 1830 Sor published the book Method for the Spanish Guitar. In this book Sor talks about everything that is involved in his technique. This is a very interesting book, because there really wasn’t anything like it. The guitar was still a new instrument and most people were experimenting with different ways to play the monstrosity. There are several interesting ideas he has that have been completely bred out of the modern guitarist technique. For instance, Sor was very adamant about not using his right anular finger (ring finger). His logic behind this was if he used his anular finger it would “put my hand in a constrained position”29 In the book Sor has a drawing of a hand, and it shows the P, I, and M fingers with each fingers contact points touching a line. Since the anular finger is not in the correct alignment with the others, it is there fore (according to Sor) useless. However, he does claim to use when there are 4 voices that must be played. “In this place I should remark that, in a succession of chords, the upper part of which forms a melody which ought to predominate, as the finger, which is to produce it, is weaker than the others, I curve it more in the act of touching the string…I have therefore found it necessary to make it acquire by its curvature the power refused to it by nature, as well from the construction of the bones of the hand as from the derivation of the nerves by which they are actuated”3 I’m not very sure what he is talking about in that quote, but I think he is
saying the anular finger is weaker because of it’s position and he must play harder with that finger to make all the notes even or for the melody to stand out. The anular finger usually plays the top voice in four voices.
Another interesting thing about his technique is that he would use his thumb on four strings (3, 4, 5, and 6). Today’s guitarist rarely uses their thumb on any except the three bass strings that are wound (4, 5, and 6). He would also use the I and M fingers on strings 1 and 2 respectively. He rarely used more than one finger per string, and he preferred, like the jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, to use mainly his thumb (p). “Sometimes I thus employ them, but never on other strings than the first, and,very rarely, the second; and never but for a single repetition, and on unaccented times of the measure, reserving the thumb for the accented notes”31. This seems ludicrous and seems ridiculously hard. Based on the illustration Sor would use his thumb(p) all the way to the 1st string. However it must have worked for him, he did perform with Liszt once.
In addition, another crazy thing about Sor, was that he did not use his fingernails. “Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound: the piano passage can never be singing, nor the fortes sufficiently full.”32 This idea would sound crazy to the modern guitarist because of all the tones that are able to come out using the nails. I happen to like the idea of not using nails, because I am very poor at caring for them. Sor found that this was the best way for him to express himself and get the colors of sound the desired, so it is hard to be critical of his thoughts on technique.
In addition, another interesting way that Sor approached the guitar was the way he held it. “...I have found nothing better than to have before me a table...”33 By this he means, seriously, that he would sit in front of a table, and use the table to hold the guitar while he played it. Several humorous possibilities appear, but it is likely that the table was small and used support some part of the bottom of the body. This is another element of Sor’s technique that is very different from how modern guitarists hold the instrument.
The Method for Spanish Guitar is a great resource and really shows how far guitarists have come in such a relatively short time in terms of technique. Some other interesting quotes I found in the book are; “Regard the effect of the music more than the praise as to skill as a performer…Consider fingering an art…Hold reasoning for a great deal, and routine for nothing….It is the harmony which directs my fingering…I make a great distinction between a musician and a note-player… A guitarist who is a harmonist, will always have an advantage over one who is not…I love music, I feel it...”34 These quotes are from a 52 year old Sor who has been playing for the best part of his life. In this book he not only shares his experience with the guitar and the beastly instrument is to play, but he also shares his knowledge on what it is to be a musician. What it takes to actually take the notes from just dots of ink on paper and turning it into a living, beautiful, piece of art. Although most of his techniques would be frowned upon by most, if not all, accomplished classical guitarists, the ideals he has toward creating music should be something all musicians strive for.
Sor was a man of enlightenment also and in his method book he says:” Against Reason stands Authority. I do not establish anything according to authority. You should not accept something just because your master did it; rather, you should use reason to discover for yourself what the true principles are which underlie what you are examining. Who must have used reasoning ... must love reasoning and prefer it to authority.” 35 Sor was definitely a very interesting man. He wrote a method book, and then told you to figure out what works best for you.
In conclusion, Fernando Sor was the most important guitarist of his lifetime. He created some of the most interesting and richest music the guitar has ever seen. He elevated the guitar from a tavern/bar novelty into an instrument capable of virtuosic possibilities. He wrote a method book to share his love of music and the guitar throughout the ages. The Fernando Sor, his music, and his teachings will no doubt continue to live on for generations.
1. Wright, Richard. The Classical Book, Chanterelle Varlag, 1997
2. Sor, Fernando, and Segovia, Andres. 20 Studies for the Guitar, Hal Leonard, 1995
3. Jeffery, Brian. Fernando Sor: Composer and Guitarist, Tecla Editions, 1977
4. Sor, Fernando. Method for Spanish Guitar, Dover Publications, 2007
1 Wright, The Classical Book
7 Jeffery, Composer and Guitarist pg. 15
8 Jeffery, Composer and Guitarist pg. 18
9 Jeffery, Composer and Guitarist pg. pg. 43
12 Jeffery, Composer and Guitarist pg. pg. 43
14 Repository of Arts March 1, 1820, found in Jeffery, composer guitarist
17 Jeffery Composer and Guitarist 89-90
19 Wright, The Classical Book
2 , Jeffery Composer and Guitarist 94-95
21 Jeffery Composer and Guitarist 97
22 Jeffery Composer and Guitarist 110
23 Sor/Segovia, 20 Studies
24 Sor, Method for the Spanish guitar
29 Sor, Spanish Guitar Method
3 Sor, Spanish Guitar Method
31 Sor, Method for Spanish Guitar
32 Sor, Method for Spanish Guitar
33 Sor, Method for Spanish Guitar
34 Sor, Method for Spanish Guitar
35 Sor, Method for Spanish Guitar