Fernando Sor - reflections on Op 6 (part 1)

Like all musicians, I was subjected to the usual run of studies (or if your teacher is being fancy about it, ‘études’) in my early training as a guitarist. Most of these are, it has to be said, pretty tedious, but the studies of Fernando Sor form an exception. I’ve always used two or three of the more challenging pieces as warm-ups or for specific technical purposes, but more recently I’ve come to appreciate the simpler pieces, for altogether different reasons. This essay and a handful of subsequent ones will explore these reasons, paying particular attention to Sor’s first published set of studies, his Opus 6. It will be part appreciation, part reflection, part performance notes, and might also give some insight into the workings of a musician’s mind (well, at least this musician’s mind).

Op 6, nos 1 (D major) and 2 (A major) (or, how to turn 76 bars of eighth-notes into a compelling musical experience)

Opening the first page of the book, the first two studies look … bland, innocuous, uninteresting, unchallenging? Each is the same — a melody in even quarter-notes, an off-beat accompaniment. But the melody is the lower part of the first, the upper part of the second: even at first glance these are definitely a pair of pieces that — somehow — play off each other: if we look at them like that, how does it change how we play each individually?

This kind of pattern-based study — where a single texture or figure is maintained throughout the piece — is a stock-in-trade of the genre, particularly suited to the guitar (think — chord shape plus right-hand pattern). But digging deeper, and getting beyond the initial disappointment (for I think that’s the only word that fit my initial reaction to seeing those marching ranks of eight-notes), you realise that something much more subtle is going on under the surface in the first study. The melody doesn’t play out as you expect it to — sure, the first phrase is the ‘regulation’ eight bars, but it’s not simply 4+4: the first sub-phrase seems to end at the start of the fourth bar, the next takes us to half-way through the sixth, then — as if to set things straight — a perfectly conventional two-bar cadence completes the phrase, the melody deciding at this point that it wants to be a bass line.

What happens, then, if you think of the line as being played by a cello? Can you sustain and phrase the line as a cellist would, in broad arcs traced by the movement of the bow?

Can you do this at the same time as keeping the accompaniment in perspective, yet hearing — and making heard — the two notes of each accompanying chord as distinct voices (I sometimes think that the way Sor handles the inner lines in his harmony is what really sets him apart from his contemporary guitarist-composers — but then I remember that he also wrote better melodies, had a richer textural and rhythmic imagination … you get the idea). Can you make the accompaniment completely even in tone, dynamic, rhythmic values - in particular, avoiding cutting notes off when a change of harmony means changing left-hand position between beats?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes. You can do all these things, and if you do, what looked to be a boring chug through 44 bars of eighth-notes turns into a compelling and beautiful meditation that surprises us by breaking out of expected bounds (remember the irregular phrasing of the opening?) and by helping us hear the instrument in a new way (I don’t know of another gorgeous, romantic, 44-bar cello melody for the instrument).

The second study inverts the first in more ways than one. The melody here is in the upper part. The piece is exactly sixteen bars long (8+8, both parts repeated), the phrases built up regularly in balanced units of one, two, four bars. It’s slower - Andante Allegro as opposed to the first piece’s Allegro Moderato (and there’s a delicious symmetry in the two tempo indications). But even here there’s a subtlety. Although both pieces are in common time, the second study starts half-way through a bar. The first bar is an upbeat — which means that the melodic structure — sub-phrases of 4 beats — contradicts the metrical structure. I hear guitarists play the piece as if it were written like this:

Which is both wrong, and dull.

One way overcome this is to emphasise the contradiction, by making the phrasing and metrical weight very explicit:

This is mannered, over-the-top romantic, and actually, quite fun. Once or twice! Having done this, the challenge is to bring the piece back to complete regularity — no rubato, a very steady pace, and the phrasing implied subtly by weight and dynamic. Doing this underlines the contrast with the first study (where a more generous attitude to tempo and rubato might be taken).

I like to play the melody with the ring finger (a) of the right hand throughout — inauthentic, as Sor states in his method that he uses this finger rarely, and then usually for chords. However, it’s a good work-out for tone and control for what’s usually the weakest of the right-hand fingers. Play the off-beat accompanying parts with either i and m together or p/i where a string intervenes, and make sure that each of the off-beat chords is exactly the same length, shortened so that the following melody note is the only thing sounding when it’s played. As in the first study, this is a real 3-part texture, so pay attention to the way the bass and middle lines move — bars 12/13 in particular.

None of the problems posed by these first two pieces are what you’d normally associate with the concept of a ’study’. There’s no challenge to dexterity, to physical strength or endurance. Any guitarist with a year or two of tuition could play the notes. Which means that there is no reason — no reason at all — why we can’t play these pieces perfectly. Every time. Anything that gets in the way is just our inability to focus and pay attention — our lack of mindfulness. And that’s increasingly why I’m both attracted to these pieces as part of my practice routine, and happy to play them in recitals. There is, of course, a fundamental musicality to all of these pieces without which this approach would be meaningless. I can’t think of another composer of the era whose music deserves such attention (though there are individual works by Carulli, Giuliani, Aguado and others which benefit).

So - two down, ten to go. I’ll ask for patience in advance — I’ll complete the series, but it won’t be quick! At some point (and given sufficient encouragement) I’ll record the set and post them here or on YouTube. Let me know what you think, and watch this space!

Online resources

Guitarists are well served online for copies and information on Sor. I’d stongly recommend downloading and playing from one of the early prints of the studies: once you become accustomed to the conventions of nineteenth-century music engraving it’s a pleasure to use these old editions, though you’ll sometimes have to make decisions about obvious misprints.

  • Hebe Online — part of Brian Jeffrey’s Tecla Editions. Many of the shorter studies available for download here in modern engraved versions
  • The Rischel and Birket-Smith collection at the Danish Royal Library — follow the link on the page to search, alternatively here’s a listing of composers and works , with links to the documents. An amazing collection of more than 1200 nineteenth-century publications. Includes two printings of Sor’s Op 6 in Simrock’s edition, the earliest of these is here.
  • Scottish guitarist Rob McKillop hosts a small site dedicated to the authentic performance of nineteenth-century guitar music . Videos, sound recordings and thoughtful and informative essays.

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