July 1939
volume LVII
number 7
page 480

Ferdinand Sor

By George C. Krick

FERDINAND SOR, one of the most renowned guitarists of all history, has been acknowledged as also the greatest composer of original music for guitar. Born in Barcelona, February 17, 1780, he died in Paris, July 8, 1839. His musical talent showed itself quite early, for at the age of five he composed little pieces, which he performed on the violin or guitar. Musicians who came in contact with the boy soon recognized his genius, and his parents were persuaded to place him under a teacher for instruction on the violin and violoncello. So remarkable was his progress that after a few years he entered a monastery of his native city to receive a thorough general education including lessons in harmony and composition. Young Sor soon discarded the violin and violoncello, owing to his becoming fascinated by the guitar, and from this time it commanded his undivided devotion.

When at the age of sixteen he left the monastery his teachers had every reason to be proud of him, for he astonished musicians by his unrivalled technical proficiency in guitar playing and his profound knowledge of harmony and counterpoint. He became a member of an Italian opera company in Barcelona, which afforded him opportunity of becoming acquainted, in a practical manner, with the art of song and instrumentation. Inspired by this association, he wrote an opera, "Telemacco," which had great success in Barcelona and later in London.

Sor now journeyed to Madrid, where members of the aristocracy became interested in the young artist, and here he composed several symphonies and quartets, some church music and a number of Spanish songs. After the outbreak of war between Spain and Portugal we find him as captain in the Spanish army, and, several years later in Paris, where he resumed his artistic career, associating with all the musical personalities of that period.

In London

In 1809 Sor went to London, where his extraordinary skill on the guitar and his beautiful original compositions created a furore. Up to this time the Spanish guitar was scarcely known in England and, this new instrument presenting, in the hands of an artist, a new phase in tonal art, was hailed with delight by the elite of society. Teaching and composing now kept Sor fully occupied, and these years in England represent the most prosperous and successful period of his career. In 1817 he appeared as soloist in a concert of the London Philharmonic Society, at the Argyle Rooms.

While Sor was popularizing the guitar in England, Giuliani was doing the same in Austria and Russia, finally going to London where there was great rivalry between the two artists. Each of the great masters had his partisans and there were Sor Clubs and Giuliani Clubs. But eventually both left London, Giuliani traveling to Italy, Sor to Paris and later to Russia. There he wrote a funeral march for the obsequies of Alexander I and he composed also the music of the Ballet "Hercules and Omphale." Returning again to Paris and London, he wrote the music of the ballet, "Le dormeur Eveille," and the fairy opera, "La belle Arsene." In 1831 Sor, with the violinist Lafont and the pianist Herz, performed Hummel's trio, the "Sentinelle." The "Harmonicon" of February 1831 stated: ''Ferdinand Sor stands at a vast distance from all other guitarists, both as a performer and composer."

Ill health now forced Sor to restrict his public appearances; and, hoping that a change of climate might help him, he returned to Paris but to no avail; and, after a painful illness, he died on July 8, 1839.

Ferdinand Sor was a composer of distinctive genius. Aside from those already mentioned he wrote numerous works for the theater-operas, ballets and pantomimes, amongst them "The Fair of Smyrna," ''Le Seigneur Genereux," "Le Sicilien," "Gil Blas," and "Cendrillon." Of these "Gil Blas" and "Cendrillon" were quite popular for many years and were produced at the Royal Opera, London, and also in Paris.

As a composer for guitar, Sor stands above all others. One critic of that time wrote: "What Mendelssohn is to the piano, Sor is to the guitar." Others have spoken of him as "The Beethoven of the guitar."

Up to the time when Sor came upon the scene, most so-called sonatas and other works for guitar contained long passages in single notes with occasional basses on open strings, although Carulli, Aguado and Giuliani had already cut loose from this system and had greatly improved the method of writing for guitar.

Sor, with his thorough training in harmony and counterpoint and experience in instrumentation, soon found that the guitar was capable of producing three and four part harmony; and his original compositions for guitar show the hand of the master. Upon his method are built the modern school of Tarrega and others. Without the study of Sor's "Etudes" and other guitar compositions, the present day guitarists cannot expect to reach the top.

His "Method," the result of many years of observation and teaching, is a remarkable work containing numerous examples of technical nature and a great deal of text, giving explanations of everything pertaining to their execution. His four volumes of "Etudes" cover almost all phases of guitar technic and at the same time are melodious and from beginning to end contain nothing but beautiful harmonies. The first one of these "Opus 6" (12 Etudes) was evidently too difficult for beginners and he later on wrote "Opus 31" and "Opus 35," each consisting of 24 Etudes. A student will do well to begin with "Opus 35, Book 1," then "Opus 31, Book 1," follow these with "Opus 35, Book 2," and "Opus 31, Book 2," and after these are thoroughly mastered, one is ready for "Opus 6," and later for "Opus 29," 12 Etudes of considerable difficulty. Of his "Fantasias" the Opus 4 is perhaps the easiest one, but withal quite effective. The second, third, fourth and fifth Fantasias, Opus 7, Opus 10, Opus 12 and Opus 16, require more advanced technic. The "Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Opus 9" is one of the most effective of concert numbers and can be found in the repertoire of all the leading guitarists; this is true also of several of the Minuets in "Opus 11." Other numbers of outstanding merit are Grand Solo Opus 14, "Sonata, Opus 15," "Grand Sonata, Opus 22" and "Second Grand Sonata, Opus 25." The "Opus 22' is undoubtedly his greatest work and demands the utmost technical proficiency and musical insight from the artist. While at first a student may find the music of Sor rather difficult, he will soon discover that the left hand fingering employed will prove logical and practical.