Fernando Sor - reflections on Op 6 (part 2)

It’s been more than three months since the first installment of this essay on Sor’s Op 6. The occasional series has turned out to be more occasional than planned, due to work, composing, playing and lots of other things to write about. Better late … here are some observations on the third and fourth studies from Sor’s op 6.

Previously, I looked at the first two studies in the set. They’re surprising pieces: on the surface not very characteristic or characterful, each a rhythmically uniform succession of eighth-notes, but in performance yielding many subtleties of harmony and phrasing, and perfectly balanced as a pair.

The third and fourth studies are more subtly a pair, but their most obvious feature is clear. They are – suddenly and dramatically – characterised by strong and memorable patterns: one might almost call them “hooks”. This contrast – between the textural simplicity of the second study and the skittish staccato chords and off-beat accents of the third – is a great moment in performance. Op 6 features many of these sharp contrasts in texture and mood between pieces: this is a great reason to perform the set as a whole rather than cherry-pick individual pieces.

Study no 3 in E major: Of Schubert and the Shaggy Dog

Like much of the study literature, the piece is built from a single idea which combines a musical pattern with one (or in this case, two) consistent technical themes:

The technical challenges: firstly, even, well-placed and balanced chords followed by rests. Avoid letting them ring on except where notated (the distinction between the short chords and the one or two places where chords and notes in the texture are sustained is one of the main musical points of the study), conversely avoid also playing them as short as possible.

Secondly, a descending or (just twice!) ascending three-note ligado pattern: a specific guitar technique where notes are sounded by the left hand, pulling off or hammering onto the strings:

It’s vitally important to play these in the rhythmic pattern notated. It’s all to easy for the “scotch snap” rhythm to degenerate into something like this:

If this happens, you’ll spoil the joke at the end of the piece (it’s one of the wittiest moments in guitar music that I know, up there with the behind-the-string plucking in Villa-Lobos’ second etude). As a preparatory exercise, try thinking of – and playing – the opening like this:

Keeping this rhythmic precision throughout is one of the keys to making this piece effective in performance.

Two more things to bear in mind about the piece. Like the previous piece, there’s a metrical ambiguity. It starts halfway through a bar, so the phrase boundaries and the metrical pulse are at odds. It’s important to keep this in mind, and avoid the four-square feeling you’ll get if you give the beginning of the phrase a metrical accent. And like all of Sor’s music, listen carefully to the way the inner voices in the chords move. There are some lovely moments in this piece: the descent from B to G# in bars 5 and 6, for example, and the single inner note under the ligado idea which draws light but irresistible notice to the melody in the inner part in bars 6/7.

The middle section of the three-part-plus-coda form turns to the minor, modulates to its related major key, then back. The higher rate of harmonic change, the expansion of range and the turn to the darker minor key give an opportunity for more dramatic contrasts of dynamic: though it’s a standard harmonic and tonal sequence, in miniature this feels to me like some of the dramatic middle sections that Schubert slipped in to some of his otherwise innocent-sounding impromptus. It’s only in this section, too, that Sor inverts the direction of the ligado: just twice, but it’s enough to artfully break the pattern (how many of his lesser contemporaries would not have done this!)

The reprise of the opening section isn’t quite the same as first time around – so, tempting as it is to slip back in the middle-voice B of bar 6, don’t. In the coda, the texture opens out: from bar 32 the sustained open E of the guitar’s lowest string signals the approach of the end of the piece. But Sor has one more delicious surprise in store: the ligado motive, having been confined to the top two strings up to now, echoes the top voice in the lowest part of the texture in bars 36 and seven, before wrapping itself around a gently rocking inner voice, alternately on the top and bottom strings of the guitar, like a satisfying punchline to long story, maybe of the shaggy dog variety.

(As noted earlier, if your rhythmic articulation of the motive has become sloppy, you’ll spoil the joke: for all three parts to fit together convincingly, your rhythm here needs to be precise, and if it’s at all different from how it’s been played previously, it will sound as if it’s the ending to a different piece.)

Study no 4 in G: Trumpets and Drums

The third study’s hook was an upper-voice feature: in the fourth, the movement moves to the bass with a drum-like rhythmic figure in repeated notes that appears in all but six of the piece’s 48 bars. With drums come trumpets and military associations: perhaps the opening is an echo of the fanfares that Sor will have encountered in the military career he abandoned for music.

The obvious right hand fingering uses thumb (p) and first finger (i – so p p-i p p), but it’s worth experimenting: middle finger (m) on the second note avoids the temptation of over-emphasising the off-beat (p m-i p p) and makes the second beat of the bar a little more interesting. It’s such a strong idea that it’s tempting to make it the focus of attention in each bar by playing it loud: you should do the opposite, though. Because it is ubiquitous in the piece, it’s not as if a listener isn’t going to notice, and there’s plenty of good stuff happening in the other voices. Left-hand position in the first bar should take both the first and last chords over a barré at the third fret: the extension of the fourth finger to the first-string B shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. And – as always – listen to Sor’s voice-leading: a good way to do this is to play the piece without the distraction of the rhythmic pattern:

Once again, pay attention to the rather precise rhythmic notation. In the opening section, observe the rests in the upper part and the bass. After the repeat, the pattern moves to an inner voice and the rests disappear: the top voices sing in thirds, sliding chromatically, and should be as legato as you can make them:

The climax of the piece comes as the texture opens out to a resonant C-major chord, then a “German 6th” - five notes, which are (authentically) played by tacking the bottom three notes with the right-hand thumb, the top two with first and second fingers. Finally, in a low-key echo of the end of the third etude, this ends with the characteristic pattern of the study relegated to an inner voice, one last appearance sustained into the last sounding chord of the piece:

Although the central repeat mark would seem to indicate that both sections of the piece should be repeated, there’s no corresponding mark at the end of the study in the early published sources (unlike, for example, in the second study). Because of this, and because I think the end feels conclusive first time around, I don’t repeat the second half in performance (though Sor’s practice, or his publishers, isn’t particularly consistent in this regard).

Online resources

(Repeated from part 1)

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.

4 Responses to “Fernando Sor - reflections on Op 6 (part 2)”

  • Daan responded:

    Hello David, I am waiting for part 3 !!

  • paul croft responded:

    Hi David: Just came across these on Delcamp [a site that rarely impresses] and thought your style clear, concise and really helpful to any guitar student.

    Look forward to the rest - like most players I love no. 11.

    [I’m based in Durham, England by the way and am a player and teacher

    Best regards,


  • paul croft responded:

    got a quick flash of my e-mail when I pressed send and think I missed a letter out …?..

    anyway this one is correct - should you ever need it.

  • David responded:

    Hi Dean, Paul,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m bogged down in a project just now - but I _will_ be completing the series. Glad to know someone out there’s following my non-technical posts!

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