This is a short account of the life and music of Fernando Sor, based on my book Fernando Sor Composer and Guitarist, together with some new discoveries incorporated here.
Fernando Sor was born in Barcelona in 1778 in a well-to-do family and was sent as a child to be a chorister at the monastery of Montserrat, where he received a wide-ranging musical education. He then became a young army lieutenant and fought in the short war of the 1790s against the French, as well as becoming celebrated in Barcelona as a performer and composer on the guitar. It was there on 6 May 1802, for example, that he played in a concert what may well have been the piece that later has become famous, his Grand Solo: “he played one of his inspired pieces of music, with such sweetness and dexterity of the fingers that it seemed to us that we were listening to a pianoforte in the variety of expression, sometimes soft and sometimes loud, with certain scales that he performed, never missing one note on his well-tuned guitar in the toccata which he played to us first, with many variations and musical modulations”. He visited Madrid, where the Duchess of Alba helped him and where he lived for a time in the house of the Russian ambassador. At this time he composed many seguidillas which were short songs for voice and guitar with pithy and amusing texts.
In about 1803 Sor was appointed to be the administrator of the royal playing card factory at Macharaviaya near Málaga, where he spent the next few years, having also a house in Málaga itself. Recently a document has come to light in the national archives in Madrid which details the inquiries which the Spanish Inquisition made into Sor at this time because of suspicions that he might have held opinions about religion which were not the ones which he was supposed to hold (it seems that in the end they found him not guilty). This highly detailed document gives us wonderful glimpses into his warm and generous nature and his great sense of humour. I wrote an article about this new document which was published in Soundboard.
French troops arrived in Spain in 1808. King Charles IV of Spain abdicated and the heir to the throne, Fernando Prince of Asturias, who adored Napoleon, renounced all his rights to the throne and ordered his subjects to accept the new king Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother). But absolutist forces immediately declared opposition to Joseph, declared themselves to be the patriots, and set in motion a vast effort of propaganda, soon aided by vast subsidies from Great Britain which at that time was at war with Napoleon’s France. Sor helped them by composing the two most famous anti-French songs of the war, “Venid, vencedores” and “Vivir en cadenas”. In January 1810, however, King Joseph entered Seville to universal acclamation, which meant that now the whole of Spain except Cadiz was united under Joseph, and Sor, who was already in the south, like almost everyone else there except in Cadiz took the oath to Joseph, who not only held power but also offered constitutional and enlightened government.
But the British under Lord Wellington won and those who had served Joseph were imprisoned or exiled. Sor and his wife Joaquina went first to Paris, then to London for seven years where his daughter Caroline was born but it seems that Joaquina died. Then Sor with his young daughter went to Paris again, then Russia, and finally lived in Paris giving many concerts and composing and publishing a great amount of music especially for guitar solo and for guitar duet. He also published a method for the guitar which has been called “the most remarkable book on guitar technique ever written”.
Throughout his life he was always in touch with other Spaniards. About six weeks before he died in Paris in 1839 a young composer, pianist and writer from Barcelona named Eusebio Font i Moreso visited him at his apartment just off the Rue Saint Honoré and wrote a moving account of his visit, which I publish in full in my book on Sor.
During his lifetime he also composed in many other genres, especially ballet music, and some arietts of the highest quality for voice and piano, of which I published a complete edition. Today these arietts are still, alas, almost unheard, but it would be wonderful if enterprising singers and pianists could perform them.
Brian Jeffery: Fernando Sor Composer and Guitarist
“Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist” is available in printed form from Tecla Editions. You can read extracts here from chapters 1, 3 and 5.
Read extract from chapter 1
Read extract from chapter 3
Read extract from chapter 5
España de la guerra, the Spanish political and military songs of the war in Spain 1808 to 1814, a new book by Brian Jeffery of 2017 about the songs of the war, of which Sor was the principal known composer
Sor: The Complete Studies
Sor: The Sixteen Easiest Pieces
Sor: The New Complete Works for Guitar in eleven volumes
Sor: Seguidillas for voice and guitar or piano
Sor: Seguidillas Book 2 for two and three voices and guitar or piano
Sor: The complete Italian arietts for voice(s) and piano
Sor: Appel des nègres aux français (a song against the slave trade, for bass voice and guitar)