The terminology of: studio, esercizio, étude, lesson, etc, in early 19th century guitar music, by Brian Jeffery

[This is an article which I wrote for the EGTA Journal in 1994.]

Puzzling titles

Some early nineteenth-century guitar publications have puzzling titles. For instance Giuliani’s opus 1 consists almost entirely of what we would call exercises, yet in the original edition it is called “Studio”. His opus 48, on the other hand, looks very like a collection of studies, but is entitled “Esercizio”. Why is this? And why those Italian singulars rather than the plurals studi and esercizi?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “study”, among other things, as “a state of perplexity (obsolete)”. Appropriate enough for studies, I suppose, sometimes. Then I looked for a definition of the musical sense but the OED gave no musical definitions of its own, preferring only to refer to Grove 3 of 1883. So in order to bring it up to date, let us look at the modern Grove 6. It says:

“An instrumental piece, usually of some difficulty and most often for a stringed or keyboard instrument, designed primarily to exploit and perfect a chosen facet of performing technique but the better for having some musical interest. Though a study was at one time the same as an exercise, the latter term now usually implies a short figure or passage to be repeated ad lib, whether unaltered, on various degrees of the scale or in various keys. The distinction is illustrated by Schumann’s Studien, op. 3 (1832), which are preceded by short Übungen based on technical difficulties found in the studies themselves. Before the nineteenth century both terms were used more loosely. The origins of the concert study can be traced to Liszt’s youthful Étude en 12 exercises (c. 1827).”

Early guitar collections using either of the words “study” or “exercise” in their titles include:

Usual modern name:Original name:
Giuliani Exercises, op. 1Studio
Giuliani Exercises, op. 48Esercizio
Sor Studies, op. 6Studio
Sor Studies, op. 29Études
Aguado StudiesEstudios

Other examples are Carcassi’s Études Mélodiques, op. 60, Legnani’s Gran Studio, op. 60, Regondi’s Studies and Coste’s Études de genre, op. 38.

All these contain music of a variety of kinds, some astonishing and some delightful; some hard and some apparently for beginners; some in conventional idiom and some unusual in style or in remote keys. What in fact is the nature of these collections, where do they fit into their time and what is the significance of their titles? In a way, the crux of the matter lies in the definition and what we make of it. Nowadays we often suppose that a study will be at a high level of technique and also of musical quality, whereas we feel that it is not necessary for exercises which may be either easy or hard and do not need any musical quality as all. There is also the idea that studies, as well as exercises, may be composed as sets rather than as isolated pieces. Some studies are, of course, works at the highest level of creativity such as Chopin’s Études or Liszt’s Transcendental Studies.

Giuliani’s opus l

It was in 1812 that Giuliani’s Studio per la chitarra, op. 1, was published in Vienna. The title used the old word “studio” meaning a collection of didactic pieces. Clearly the modern sense of the word “study” is not present, for Giuliani’s celebrated op. 1, as is well known, is strictly for beginners; there is nothing here of the high level of virtuosity or musical composition which Giuliani himself had actually achieved, as we know from his other works of the same period. The Studio per la chitarra contains many simple exercises of a technical nature followed by twelve charming and simple pieces. But it is certainly not a collection of studies in the sense of a set of pieces at a high technical and musical level. We are still in the time when, as Grove 6 says, study and exercise were equivalent.

Giuliani’s opus 48

Nevertheless, it was Giuliani who produced for the guitar the first nineteenth-century collection of what we might be tempted to call studies, not in his op. 1, but in his op. 48, which appeared in the next year, 1813. This collection contains twenty-four pieces of high musical accomplishment with a technical element. The work is clearly designed as a unity. The level of difficulty is fairly constant at a medium to high level, and the keys are deliberately varied so that the collection can be performed as a whole. Rightly, this is one of Giuliani’s most enduring works, played by guitarists without a break since his time. But it was not originally called “Études” nor even “Studio”. Instead, the title page of the original edition called it Esercizio contenente 24 Pezzi della maggiore difficoltà. Here again we have an Italian word in the singular where we would use the plural.

Sor’s opus 6

The next collection in time, Sor’s op. 6, followed on the other side of Europe a couple of years later, first published in London in about 1815 as Studio for the Spanish Guitar. Historically, it is interesting that the first edition, like Giuliani’s op. 1, also has as its title the word “Studio”. That immediately links it to the eighteenth century tradition of a collection of pieces with some technical intention. But what a technique! The high speed thirds of Study 6, the unceasing octaves of Study 10, the repeated downward slurs of Study 3; the way in which these are set out, are focused on, while at the same time keeping them fully within the bounds of the musical structure of each piece, had no predecessor as far as the guitar was concerned. The approach is quite different from Giuliani’s. At the same time, we can see that virtuosity as such was not the sole aim of the collection because there are perfectly easy pieces here such as the well-known Study 8 or the study in sixths, Study 9. The collection stands as a complete work of art, while at the same time we can say, looking at it historically, that it takes the eighteenth-century tradition and adds to it. It has the same title as Giuliani’s op. 1 but is of quite a different nature. In Sor’s own numbering, op. 6 consists of the twelve “studies” nos 1 to 12. Incidentally it dates from some twelve years before the work by Liszt mentioned in Grove.

Sor very probably knew Giuliani’s work, because of the very close cultural, political and economic links which existed at the time within Europe. It is true that the railways were not yet built, and that the Napoleonic Wars had not yet ceased, but there is plenty of evidence of rapid travel and rapid transmission of knowledge at that time. A major work such as Giuliani’s op. 1, as well as the news of his very high reputation in Vienna, must have been known to Sor when he was in Paris from 1813 to 1815, and in London from 1815.

Whether Sor was influenced by Giuliani’s op. 1 or op. 48, however, is a very different matter. My own feeling is that he took his own path, derived from his very different training and different musical idiom.

Aguado’s Estudios

The next set in order of chronology is a somewhat isolated one, the Estudios of Aguado, first published in Madrid in 1820. The original edition was lost for many years and copies of it have only recently been rediscovered, but in fact many of the same pieces are well known to guitarists, for they appeared in later publications, especially in his own method of 1843, albeit often in altered form. Quite a lot of them have undoubted musical merit, but some are a bit of a mixed bag; some of them have splendid musical ideas but others are rather plodding. They were published in 1820 as a single collection, but it may be doubted whether they were ever intended to form an entity for performance in any other context. Moreover there are forty-six pieces in all, which is a large number, and contrast of keys is not observed from piece to piece. On the whole this collection must count as one of the earliest set of études or studies in guitar literature, but it cannot, I think, be included among those collections which could be usefully performed as a whole in a concert. In overall construction and in vivacity and fire, Sor and Giuliani surpass it.

Sor’s opus 29

Sor’’s second book of studies, op. 29, was first published as Douze Études in Paris in 1827, that is to say some twelve years later than op. 6, having probably been composed or at least prepared for publication in Russia; and although Sor himself seems to have considered it as a further instalment of his op. 6, giving it consecutive numbering, nevertheless if we look at it I believe a different atmosphere can be discerned. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? All works of art show changes with time. How often has a writer – Montaigne, for example – taken something which he wrote years before, changed it, but often unwittingly written into the new text the new spirit of his time? Theoretically it is possible that the twelve pieces of op. 29, although published much later than op. 6 were in fact composed at the same time as them; but I don’t think so. They seem different. It does not matter a great deal. Whatever the case, we have here a second fine collection of twelve “studies” (they are Etudes 13 to 24 in Sor’s own numbering). The technical difficulty of some of the music is great and the musical accomplishment is high. Once again the keys are deliberately varied, implying that the studies were intended for performance as a set. The late Leif Christensen recorded op. 6 and op. 29 as sets, and, in my own opinion, this is one of the chief features of all three of these collections (not including Aguado), that each seems to have been created not as a collection of isolated pieces but as a unified set.

Other Pieces and Successors

What of the other pieces of Sor and Giuliani which are on occasion referred to as “studies”? Here again the crux of the matter is the definition of terms. What is a study? Within limits, the precise definitions are up to us. In Sor’s case, there are pieces which he published called “leçons” or “exercices”, and while most of them can undeniably be distinguished by their lower technical level from the studies of op. 6 or op. 29, yet many of them are just as advanced and, when considered individually, have no clear stylistic line dividing them from the studies.

My own feeling is that it is best simply to keep the composer’s own terminology, using “studies” for what he called “studies”, namely op. 6 and op. 29, and considering these as unified sets as he seems to have done, while using the original terms, “lessons” and “exercises” for the rest.

Then there are Giuliani’s other pieces such as 18 leçons progressives, op. 51 – charming pieces, not very hard, and not called studies – , and Studi dilettevoli, op. 98 and Études instructives, op. 100, this time both of them bearing the name “studi” or “études”, but essentially the same type of piece as his op. 51. All admirable in their way but not concert pieces. And Carcassi’s op. 60: these are called “études” and charming though they may be, many of them are not very difficult or demanding. For more sets of études or studies in the more advanced sense we must wait until the next generation, with the 25 Études de genre, op. 38 of Sor’s pupil, Coste, and works by Legnani and Regondi.

Whether we call them exercises or studies, the fact remains that Giuliani’s op. 48 and Sor’s op. 6 and op. 29 are all splendid collections, combining technical interest with high musical achievement. May we not hear them as sets more often in the concert hall?


Giuliani’s Studio per la chitarra, op. 1 is available:
– as a facsimile of the original edition as Volume 1 of Giuliani’s Complete Works (TECLA 801), or
– in a modern edition as part of Giuliani’s Complete Studies(TECLA 105).

Giuliani’s Esercizio op. 48 is available:
– as a facsimile of the original edition in Volume 6 of Giuliani’s Complete Works (TECLA 806), or
– in a new separate modern edition from Tecla as Mauro Giuliani: 24 Exercises for Guitar, op. 48 (TECLA 2536), or
– in a modern edition as part of Giuliani’s Complete Studies(TECLA 105).

Sor’s op. 6 and op. 29 are included in Sor’s Complete Studies, Lessons, and Exercises for guitar (TECLA 101).

Carcassi’s Etudes op. 60 are published by Tecla separately (TECLA 345).

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