This is an extract from Chapter 1 of the book Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist by Brian Jeffery, discussing Sor’s Seguidillas for voice and guitar or piano.
There is a fine painting by Degas of the Catalan singer Lorenzo Pagans who is mentioned in the first paragraph. The painting is reproduced in many books on Degas and is also on the cover of Songs for Voice and Guitar from Tecla.
Extract from Chapter 1 (“Spain, 1778-1813”).
As well as these patriotic songs, Sor also composed other songs in Spanish, nearly all in the form of seguidillas boleras. They are mentioned in Ledhuy’s Encyclopédie, where they are called ‘boleros’; and in the late nineteenth century the Catalan singer Lorenzo Pagans used to sing them. In 1881 Antonio Peña y Goni wrote:
Por mi parte, he oído varias canciones españolas, originales de Sors, cantadas por Pagans en Paris y puedo asegurar que la originalidad y frescura de la melodía, el interés armónico y la viveza del ritmo aventajan con mucho á las de Manuel García e Iradier. Débense sobre todo á Sors algunos boleros que son verdaderas joyas.
(‘For my part, I have heard several Spanish songs by Sor sung by Pagans in Paris, and I can vouch for it that the originality and freshness of the melodies, the harmonic interest and the vivacity of the rhythms are much superior to those of Manuel García or Yradier. Above all we owe to Sor some boleros which are veritable jewels.’)
But these ‘veritable jewels’ remained lost until in the course of my research I found eleven of them–not in Spain or in Paris, but in London. They are in manuscripts that were collected in Spain in the earliest years of the nineteenth century, two in the British Library (MSS Egerton 3288 and 3289) and one in a private collection (that of Robert Spencer). There is in addition one more in a printed source published in Paris in 1814. Despite extensive research, none has been found in Spain.
This is a major new aspect of Sor’s achievement, representing the contribution of a gifted composer to a living and popular tradition. Nine of the twelve have guitar accompaniment, two have piano, and one has alternative guitar and piano accompaniments. I published an edition of all twelve in 1976, which is still in print: Fernando Sor, Seguidillas (Tecla Editions, 1976). Since that edition (which has been reprinted twice) these songs have been often performed and recorded. One of them is reproduced below. It is called ‘El que quisiera amando’, and here are its words and a translation:
El que quisiera amando
Vivir sin pena,
Ha de tomar el tiempo
Y si te aborrecieren
Haga lo mismo.
(‘He who wants to love and yet live without problems, must just take time as it comes. Take someone to love; and then, even if they hate you for it–just take time as it comes. ‘)
What exactly are seguidillas (or boleros)? One of our most important sources of information is an article by Sor himself, called ‘Le Boléro’, which he wrote for Ledhuy’s Encyclopédie. It is reproduced in facsimile in the edition just mentioned. In it, Sor begins by explaining how seguidillas are related to the bolero. A seguidilla is a type of poem, which may be set to music. If it is set in such a way as to suit the dance known as the bolero, it is called a seguidilla bolera or seguidillas boleras (or simply, in the musical sources, boleras or voleras). This is the terminology used in Spain before the French invasion of 1808. However, outside Spain after the invasion, the one word that everybody knew was ‘bolero’, and this is why Sor called his article ‘Le Bolero’, why elsewhere he called his own songs boleros rather than seguidillas, and why Peña y Goni in 1881 also called them boleros. It is principally a later usage rather than the original one.
Sor sets out the history of the dance, the bolero. The first seguidillas that were danced to, he says, were Seguidillas Manchegas (i.e., from La Mancha), ‘à cause de leur mouvement plus vite que celui des Murcianas, et surtout des Sevillanas’ (‘because of their tempo, which was quicker than that of seguidillas from Murcia or, especially, from Seville’). This dance was adopted by the ‘bas peuple’. Then a young man nicknamed bolero, ‘the flyer’, because of his agility, added faster steps and in order to fit them in used the slower music of the Seguidillas Murcianas, while still (says Sor) beginning his dance with eight bars of the Manchegas. The dance was named, after him, the bolero. This form of the dance became very popular, especially in theatres where it was danced during the entr’actes, as Sor says he witnessed in Barcelona in 1797. But it soon became very complex, grotesque, even lascivious, and fell out of fashion; yet at the same time the songs that were associated with it became more favoured:
Au fur et au mesure que cette danse perdait de sa vogue, les Seguidillas que l’on y chantait furent généralement adoptées, et elles sont encore aujourd’hui à la mode, sous le nom de Boleros ou Seguidillas Boleras.
(‘At the same time as this dance lost its popularity, the Seguidillas that were sung to it came to be generally adopted, and they are still fashionable today, under the name of Boleros or Seguidillas Boleras.’)
This passage is important because this is the stage to which most of Sor’s seguidillas probably belong.
The next step (says Sor) was the rehabilitation of the dance, in about 1801, by a dancer named Requejo. He is said to have come from Murcia. He made it slower, more dignified and graceful, and replaced the guitar with a small orchestra. This was the form of the bolero that was in vogue when the French invaded in 1808. But the professional dancers had fled, and those who remained and danced for the invader added gypsy steps to it. The French added some of their own; and the bolero that conquered Europe was unrecognizable.
M. Coulon a éprouvé plus de difficulté à instruire mademoiselle Mercandotti, Espagnole [the famous dancer], qui dansait déjà le Bolero dans le véritable genre caractéristique, que si elle n’eût jamais rien appris.
(‘M. Coulon had more difficulty in teaching Mlle Mercandotti, who as a Spaniard already danced the bolero in the characteristic style, than if she had never learned anything at all.’)
We saw that Sor composed ‘boleros’ in Barcelona in 1798 and about 1802-3, and in Madrid in about 1803-4, and that they were much in demand. This coincides exactly with the statement above, that after about 1797 seguidillas boleras became very popular in Spain while at the same time becoming dissociated from the dance, and very probably this is the stage to which most of Sor’s seguidillas belong. They are related to the dance yet independent of it. They can hardly date from before about 1797, when Sor as a young man of nineteen was just beginning his career in Barcelona; and (except for one published in 1814) they certainly date from before his exile in 1813. Therefore they are products of the late Spanish baroque, a period of which Manfred Bukofzer wrote: ‘Here [in Spanish secular music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] we have one of the very few examples in baroque music in which the influence of folk music on art music is more than wishful thinking’ (Music in the Baroque Era, London, 1948, p. 175). Sor’s seguidillas reflect just such an influence: they are the contribution of the greatest guitarist of his age to a popular tradition which is still alive today.
The text of a seguidilla usually had seven lines, and sometimes only four. The first four were called the copla, and the last three the estribillo. A strict metrical form was observed in which the lines always had alternately seven and five syllables. The rhyme-scheme, however, was looser than the metre: the second and fourth lines had to rhyme together, and the fifth and seventh, but either rhyme or assonance would do, and the other lines might or might not rhyme together. Here is an example:
Las mujeres y cuerdas
De la guitarra,
Es menester talento
Flojas no suenan
Y suelen saltar muchas
Si las aprietan.
(‘Women and guitar strings: you need talent to tune them. If they’re slack they don’t sound, and lots of them, if you tighten them too much, break.’)
So short a poem, like the limerick in English or the haiku in Japanese, must make its effect in a small space. It often does so by playing on words. In the above example, templar refers both to women and to guitar strings. The subject-matter is nearly always amorous. Either a mood is set, generally a sad one, or a humorous point is made. Sor says of the poems: ‘En effet, les paroles en sont généralement très spirituelles’ (‘Indeed, the words [of seguidillas] are generally very witty’).
Such brevity has a long tradition behind it, going back to the court lyrics of the Spanish Renaissance, to certain medieval poems throughout Europe, even perhaps to the very oldest of all Romance love poems, the tiny kharjas of Moslem Spain (see, for instance, Peter Dronke’s The Medieval Lyric, London, 1968, pp. 86-91); and similar coplas are still being written, composed, sung, and collected today. The imagery is traditional too. One of Sor’s songs, ‘Si dices que mis ojos’, is a love lyric but uses religious terminology, just as did the Spanish Renaissance court lyric: the woman says ‘If you say that my eyes kill you, then you’d better make confession, take the sacrament; for I’m on my way …’
The music of seguidillas, like the text, is short. But repetition is used, according to certain fixed permutations of words and musical sections, just as it had been centuries before in the Spanish villancico, the French rondeau, or the Italian ballata. In Sor’s seguidillas, the repetition scheme is nearly always the same. And the rhythm is always triple. Other musical features are characteristic but not invariable. Thus, within the basic triple rhythm, triplets are common. A favourite melodic interval is the descending augmented second: for instance, C sharp to B flat, or D sharp to C natural. An instrumental introduction is frequent. And the accompanying instrument most favoured is the guitar, though the piano is also found. In seguidillas of this period, a solo voice is usual, though there are some duets and trios.
These features are found again and again in seguidillas composed in Spain at this time. They occur in seguidillas by Moretti; in anonymous songs of a simpler and more primitive type than Sor’s; and in more advanced anonymous ones (examples of all of these are in the British Library, MSS Egerton 3288 and 3289). But the situation changed. The bolero caught the imagination of Europe and became part of the Spanish aura of Romanticism, an aura that produced such works as Hugo’s Hernani or Bizet’s Carmen. It was danced and sung everywhere in Europe, and examples were composed and published outside Spain by Sor and many others. Its popularity culminated in the most famous bolero of all, Ravel’s Boléro for orchestra (1928). And in the boleros published outside Spain in the nineteenth century, the style changed. The guitar yielded to the piano as the favourite accompanying instrument; duets and trios with piano accompaniment became more frequent; the characteristic repetitions were abandoned, and more and more the songs betray that they are no longer the genuine product of a culture on its own ground. Sor played his part in this later diffusion, by composing and publishing both arrangements of his old seguidillas and what appear to be new ones, under the name of boleros.
The early songs were distributed not in printed editions but in manuscripts. In Spain at that time it was customary to have music copied by a scribe, in an establishment called a copistería, and the three manuscripts in which Sor’s seguidillas are found show every sign of having been copied in this way. Though they are all three now in London, they certainly originated in Spain, in one case in about 1813 and in the others by 1819 at latest.
Sor’s sophisticated yet simple accompaniments respect and delicately support the texts. They show an awareness and appreciation of these elegant, brief, and witty poems. The running triplets in his ‘Las mujeres y cuerdas’ gradually rise to suggest the idea of tuning a guitar (or, in this poem, a woman).
How far are Sor’s seguidillas original compositions, and how far arrangements of popular songs? We cannot know the full answer without much more research on this neglected period, but the evidence suggests that the concept of originality is not relevant to this still pre-Romantic period. Sor took his place within a tradition, rather than using its materials to make entirely new compositions. The various different versions that are known of his songs demonstrate this fact. Sometimes versions are known in which the words are the same but the music different; sometimes versions in which the music is the same but the words different, and sometimes both words and music are similar but changes have been made (one of Sor’s songs exists in a version for two voices instead of one and with piano accompaniment instead of guitar). It seems that interchanges were made readily; that there was little attempt to preserve existent material intact; and that this rich tradition allowed for continual new creation and adaptation. Sor’s seguidillas spring directly from that rich tradition.