Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist by Brian Jeffery: extract from Chapter 5

The following passage is taken from Chapter 5 (“Paris, 1826/7-1839”) of the book Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist by Brian Jeffery. It is a translation from the original Spanish of a moving account of a visit to Sor in 1839, entitled “A visit to Sor in the last days of his life”, which was published in a Barcelona newspaper of 1850.

‘The “Revista Musical” in España for 27 December of last year, signed by Eduardo Valaz de Madrano, published a short but interesting biographical notice about the famous Spanish guitarists, Sor and Aguado. The author of this “Revista””, doubtless ill-informed about exact dates, has made an error in saying that Sor died twenty years ago. Only ten and a half years have passed since his death, as the following anecdote irrefutably shows. This eye-witness desires, in telling it with all its details, to bring to light at the same time an interesting period in Sor’s life, which shows that if that artist was worthy of admiration for his great skill and genius, he was no less so for the exquisite nature of his sensitive and tender heart.

In June 1839, he who writes these lines was in Paris in the company of his friend Sr Jaime Battle, the excellent painter whom all Barcelona knows. This gentleman had been asked to pay a visit to the famous guitarist and to give him a present which, following Sor’s own fervent wishes, a resident of Barcelona was sending him. The reader will scarcely guess what this present consisted of; and this incident is worth mentioning, because sometimes in the life of an eminent man there is some circumstance, at first sight insignificant, which is in fact the touchstone to know his heart. But who would have believed that Sor’s heart was so simple, that this eminent artist, after having travelled to various courts of Europe, exciting admiration and applause with his extraordinary ability on the guitar, and having seen his talent as a composer exalted and rewarded, inaccessible to vanity, and candid as a child, should long to possess one of those Holy Week processions, depicted in a long strip of paper, with which children play on their way to school?

Nevertheless that was his wish, and on receiving from Sr Battle’s hands the rolled-up strip of paper, he took hold of it with childlike joy between his own hands, and stretched it out on a table, contemplating with tears in his eyes the figures and different objects which were printed on it.

Many will perhaps laugh at Sor’s fancy; but there is no reason to be astonished. For certain men, what value do certain memories of infancy have, the toys of childhood, the memory of those years of youth, too rapidly passed, in which all was innocence, candour, joy? Was not Sor, then, like them? Naturally simple, apart from society, living with his genius in a world of ideals, a stranger to the business and human ambitions which prematurely parch and dry up the heart if indeed they do not corrupt and pervert it, he kept unaltered and pure the first feelings which sprang forth in his soul. What wonder, then, that turning his eyes to the happy times of his childhood, he should miss them, and should desire to hold in his hands, before dying, one of the favourite toys which would most vividly recall to him those innocent years, quietly spent under the beloved and never forgotten skies of his own country?

The unfortunate Sor, when we visited him, although not very old, was already attacked by the deadly illness which was to take him to the grave. Nevertheless we found him up, and he still had the sweetness and nobility which were the distinctive characteristics of his face; but his chest and throat had ulcers internally, and he could hardly speak. After a brief conversation, very uncomfortable and painful for him, since it was with great difficulty that he could articulate words, he told us how sorry he was that we had called to see him on that particular day, in which he was unable to restrain or contain the bitter pain which penetrated him; and immediately his eyes filled with tears. Indeed, on that day (1) one year had passed since death took from him his adored and only daughter.

She was called Julia, and she was twenty-two years old. Beautiful and young, highly intelligent and with the most remarkable gifts for the fine arts, of a peaceful and affectionate disposition and with a heart which was a model of filial love, she was the joy and pride of her father, who saw in her a comfort and a support in his old age. What flattering thoughts and hopes, frustrated by implacable death!

His wife had died some years ago, and Sor was inconsolable at the loss of his beloved daughter; and there is no doubt that the profound sadness which it caused him shortened his own life. He was telling us these sad things, when an old woman who looked after him brought him some soup, the only light nourishment which sustained his body; in vain she insisted that he should eat it; he took only two or three spoonfuls, and getting up from the chair in which he had been sitting, he accompanied us to an open window which looked onto some gardens. The window-sill supported a rectangular board that extended outwards, on which there was a tiny garden. A number of exquisite white flower pots, of tiny proportions, some with flowers and some with cypress leaves, symmetrically arranged, surrounded a cenotaph of white marble, also tiny, and exquisitely and delicately worked, which stood in the centre. This garden, in which were also other symbols of death, represented the cemetery where his daughter lay. He looked after it, watered it, and doubtless his tears fell on it more frequently than did the rain. Confined to his apartment, the tender and unhappy father, far from wishing to mitigate his grief, constantly encouraged it. All the objects that surrounded him, incessantly reminded him of his beloved Julia. Above the piano was fixed a magnificent portrait of her; the wall opposite was covered with oil-paintings and watercolours done by her; the harp was in the same position where she had kept it, and when the father showed it to us, he stood silently before the abandoned instrument, as though once more the skilful and delicate hands should touch it which in other times had drawn from its strings soft and sweet melodies. Finally Sor, at every moment more grief-stricken, opened a cupboard, took out two or three volumes of manuscript music, and sitting at the piano said that he would play us some parts of the mass which he had composed for the funeral of his daughter.

Never shall I forget the pathetic scene which we witnessed, deeply moved and feeling the tears flowing at every moment down our cheeks. Sor, wearing a loose robe, his head uncovered, raising to heaven his wide and noble brow, his gaze fixed on the portrait, his face full of the most intense grief, his hands on the keyboard, seemed to take up into himself alone the pain of every heart that laments, at a tomb, the lost object of its love. His eyes were two torrents of tears which he made no effort to control. From time to time there appeared on his lips as it were a light smile, as though he saw his daughter open her arms from heaven to receive him. Such must be the smile of the martyr who shows tranquillity and joy at the moment of death. Since the beginning of the visit, a menacing storm had been approaching the city, and burst impetuously when Sor sat down at the piano, sweeping in the darkness through the streets of the vast capital. The room which we were in became dark and gloomy. Hail and rain lashed at the simulated cemetery in the window. The noise of thunder mixed with the sounds of the piano. At the most severe part of the tempest, a flash of lightning fell with a terrifying crash somewhere near the room; we all three rushed involuntarily to the window (a third gentleman was with us) thinking that we would see some neighbouring building collapse; but Sor, unmoving, did not even turn his head, and continued, bathed in tears, his sad and magnificent composition. How could a man with such a heart not be a great artist! How admirable was such an unhappy father, the martyr of the most sublime sadness!

Eventually, seeing that Sor was tired out by his suffering, and fearing that our presence might contribute to increase it, we took our leave of him. He shook our hands fervently, showing the most lively emotion, like an unfortunate condemned man who embraces his friends for the last time. Five or six days later he lay in bed without rising; and having wished to pay him another visit, we were obliged to return without having had the good fortune to see him. These were his last moments. In early July, he had already gone to be united with his daughter.

In the “Revista Musical” mentioned above it is stated that Sor died “in a state little removed from penury, and lacking in the most indispensable necessities.” I do not know what his financial position was at his death, but I am able to state, for the satisfaction of his friends and admirers, that the third-floor apartment which he occupied was very comfortably furnished, even with a certain fastidiousness, and that nothing in it gave the appearance of the home of a man in a state of penury or indigence, whether he owed his comforts to charitable friends or protectors, or whether he was able to procure them by his own resources. However that may be, what is certain is that this eminent man ended his days, like other artists and his compatriots, in a foreign land. What does this show? It shows that they were born in an ungrateful country that does not reward the merits of its artists. Spain gives them birth; another land develops their genius, stimulates it, and rewards it. In foreign countries, applause, respect, laurels; in Spain, disdain, indifference, oblivion. Even if not those Spanish artists who have vainly made praiseworthy efforts to make known the fruits of their genius and to obtain the fame and esteem that they deserve, at least let those young composers speak who in the last four years have given their works to the theatre of Barcelona, the second capital of Spain, which with such pomposity has taken to itself titles which could be disputed. Who speaks the names of Dominguez, of Cappa? What stimulus have these two distinguished composers found among those who should encourage them? What reward did the offspring of their talent find? Artists of Spain, who feel in your spirits the call of genius, if you are inspired by a noble love of glory and desire to conquer the laurels and crowns which you deserve, cross the frontiers of your country; for the rewards which your country destines for you are indifference, discouragement, and perhaps penury.’

Barcelona, January 1850

Eusebio Font y Moresco

(1) We do not remember the exact date, only that it was in the period from June 13th to 23rd.

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