Sor. teaching, and the Enlightenment, an essay by Brian Jeffery

The following essay can be considered especially relevant to Sor’s Method for the Spanish Guitar, and to his Complete Studies, Lessons, and Exercises.

When Fernando Sor wished to know why his fingers differed in their strength, he examined a skeleton. Having done so and discovered the cause, he then established principles regarding the use of the fingers.

That is the process which he continually uses in his Method for the Guitar: first empirical observation, then reasoning and deduction, and finally the conclusion or establishment of principles. What is interesting and what makes his book stand out among methods for all instruments is not only the fact that he uses such a process, but also that he continually reminds us, again and again, that he is using the process and why he is doing so. He is a teacher not only of the guitar but also of the very arts of reasoning and of teaching.

Here, for example, are his words at various parts of the book:

En écrivant une Méthode, je n’entends parler que de celle que mes réflexions et mon expérience m’ont fait établir pour régler mon jeu. (In writing a Method, I am speaking only of that method which my reflections and my experience have made me establish in order to govern my playing.)

La Musique, le raisonnement, et la préférence que je donne en général aux résultats sur l’étalage de la difficulté, voilà tout mon secret. (Music, reasoning, and the preference which I generally give to results over the appearance of difficulty, that is all my secret.)

Je le répète encore, je n’entends nullement dire ce qu’il faut faire, mais ce que j’ai fait, et par quelles raisons. (I repeat again, that I am not in any way saying what should be done, but rather what I have myself done, and for what reasons.)

Ce ne sont point des préceptes que je donne, ce sont des recherches dont je fais part.  (I am not giving rules, but am sharing my investigations.)

(Quotations are from Sor’s Méthode pour la Guitare (Paris, 1830). The English translation of it, from 1832, is available in reprint from Tecla.)

Against Reason (he says) stands Authority. Je n’établis rien par autorité. (I do not establish anything according to authority.) You should not accept something just because your master did it (Mio maestro faceva cosi,which he quotes in Italian); rather, you should use reason to discover for yourself what the true principles are which underlie what you are examining. He describes an apt pupil as one who not only a dû raisonner but also doit aimer le raisonnement et le préférer à l’autorité (one who must have used reasoning … must love reasoning and prefer it to authority.) In praising an actual pupil of his, Miss Wainwright, he says that she had le raisonnement juste (correct reasoning).

Those are the words of a child of the Enlightenment. They underlie scientific method as we still know it today: not to accept blindly what has been said, but to examine the facts, the data, to apply reasoning to those data, and then to come to conclusions. They are the words of a believer in reason, in the power of man to use reason to discover things and to change them, and in science. Not by coincidence Sor says that music is a science: la musique est la science des sons (music is the science of sounds) and a musician is celui dont le solfège serait l’art de classer (he for whom solfeggio can be the art of classifying). The musician must have knowledge, must observe, must use reasoning – and of course must have feeling. J’aime la musique, je la sens (I love music, I feel it) says Sor.

Looking more closely at the Method, we see the application of those principles. On the one hand we find lucid and easily flowing passages of writing such as the Introduction, and on the other we find whole sections, some of them very long, which are written as scientific demonstrations and which most people today will find hard to read. Sor explains why they are necessary. For example, at the beginning of the book he says that his experience with actual guitars made by Panormo in London and Schroeder in St Petersburg has shown him that a bridge of a certain shape gives the result that he wants, but that his experience nevertheless cannot dispense him from giving a demonstration. He then launches into a complex demonstration set out in terms derived from geometry. In other words, not only is Authority without validity, but also even experience cannot have full validity on its own but must be accompanied and supported by the reasoning which will show precisely why it is that experience in a particular matter gives the results that it does.

It is possible to give a date to this way of thought, because Sor tells us a story about it from his youth, specifically saying that he was sixteen at the time, that is to say that it was about the year 1794. He says that he had examined the position of the left hand on the guitar, and, applying reason, he could see that there were great advantages in placing the thumb fully behind the neck where it could give support to the fingers which pressed perpendicularly on their side. He also saw that to use the left hand thumb to finger notes on the sixth string would deprive the fingers of that support. So he asked un guitariste assez renommé (a well known guitarist) about this, who instead of applying reason, sought to invoke the authority of the teacher and of experience. Authority was being opposed to Reason, as we saw before, and Sor did not accept that: only Reason could have validity.

That is the idea which underlies the whole of the Method, and because we can trace it so far back in his life, we must conclude that he acquired it at that time.

So what was happening when Sor was sixteen? It was just about at that time that he was coming to the end of his time at, or had just left, the monastery of Montserrat, where he had gone as a pupil in about 1789 or 1790. We know from his biography in Ledhuy’s Encyclopédie (reprinted in full in my book Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist, second edition, Tecla, 1994) that his education there had a very strong influence on him, so it is fair to guess that the emphasis on reason is not unconnected with his time there. Of course those were the very years of the French Revolution, for the year of the Revolution itself, 1789, was just when his education began. And he tells us what happened. From France, as refugees, came many French clergy, and the young Sor came to know them well. He wrote: une grande partie du clergé français émigré en Espagne furent incorporés à la communauté de Montserrat (many of the French clergy who emigrated to Spain were incorporated into the community of Montserrat), not just a few, but une grande partie. And Sor learned French, three times a week, from the exiled French Archbishop of Auch. Did he acquire his way of thought from those French exiles?

Now, the cult of Reason in which Sor believed so strongly certainly played a large part in the thought of those who brought about the French Revolution. But it can hardly be that French clergy fleeing from the Revolution could themselves have been ardent supporters of the principles of that revolution. Yet Montserrat was no ordinary monastery. In our own century Montserrat has not merely looked backward, nor indeed blindly forward, but has kept an intelligent and intellectually clear and humane view of the politics of its times, through all the difficulties which Spain has faced in our time. Perhaps we may say the same of two hundred years ago: instead of merely opposing the new ideas, perhaps even then, at a time of suffering and exile, it was possible for them to be seen clearly at Montserrat. And after all, even though scientific method received a big boost in the French Revolution, the revolutionaries had no monopoly on it and in any case it was hardly new. One way or another, whether Sor’’s teacher Padre Viola thought along those lines, or whether it was the French émigrés who taught him, it does seem that it was at that time that he acquired the way of thought which never left him.

Moreover, it has been recently discovered that his ancestry was in fact French: that his ancestors came to Barcelona from a village in the French Pyrenees. And when he was a young man in Barcelona, a very fashionable young man-about-town indeed, he took on the French manner, so that he was described as looking more like a Frenchman than a Catalan. It has also been recently discovered that when Sor was a young officer in the Spanish army, he in fact trained as an engineer, so he did actually have a solid education behind him in these things. (See Josep Maria Mangado’s book La Guitarra en Cataluña, 1769-1939, Tecla, 1998, chapter 1.)

Interestingly, the Method shows not only a scientific way of thought but also many references to different kinds of science itself. We find anatomy in discussing the hand, body position, and the vocal organs; geometry, in drawing and describing lines and angles of strings and fingers; engineering, in describing stresses and pressures in instruments; physics, in the oscillations of strings; and medicine, in comparing scientific medicine with that which is merely experience-based (to the detriment of the latter).

La soumission aveugle de la raison dégrade l’esprit humain (blind submission on the part of reason degrades the human spirit), writes Sor in his Method. And related to that idea of the degradation of the human spirit through blind submission, we find another side to his thought: liberty and human rights. Those ideas were closely associated with reason, not only in Sor’s thought but also in the thought of the French revolutionaries, and after them in the thought of those who drew up the American Declaration of Independence and then on to the principles which derive from them today. In some ways Sor’s thoughts about human rights are familiar to us today, because they derive from the ideas which were current in those movements at that time and which still continue in strength today. The one exception is nationalism, which has its expression in Sor but which is losing strength today. He sought to teach and to persuade, not only in his overtly didactic method, but also in songs which he wrote about three different political situations.

First, when Sor was thirty, he composed several patriotic songs to do with Spain’s War of Independence against France. Vivir en cadenas, que triste vivir says one of them: to live in chains, how sad a way to live; let us fight. Another of those songs has words which are specifically attributed to him; Paroles et musique de Mr. Ferd. Sor l’an 1812 (words and music by Fernando Sor, 1812) so that not only does his music support the ideas, but he himself wrote the ideas in the first place. It is a reflective poem, in which the name of Spain recurs again and again. It is a question of doing what is best for one’s country against the foreign invader. (Both songs are printed in full in Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist.)

Another song by Sor against what he perceived as an unjust situation is Le dernier cri des Grecs composed in about 1828, in support of the struggle of the Greeks to obtain independence from the Turks. The words indignes fers (shameful bonds) are used, recalling the word dégrade above: the chains in which the Greeks live are indignes, or, one could say, degrading.

Finally, an amazing new work of Sor has just come to light, this time a hitherto completely unknown song against the slave trade, for voice and guitar. It is entitled Appel des Nègres aux Français, the appeal of the Negroes to the French, to free them from their condition of slavery. This song, like the two others, shows him doing something about a situation which he perceived as wrong. And in its concern for human rights, it takes its place in a whole complex of ideas among which was the enthusiasm for reason which drives the Method for the Guitar. (The Appel is available from Tecla. See Appel des nègres aux français.)

When we look at the past, it is a complex question to ask whether or not people consciously expect that it shall conform to the thought of today. Its very difference often gives us a rich experience, for example if we look at ancient Egyptian or Assyrian art. However, Sor’s thought was closely and wholeheartedly bound up with the complex of ideas which has survived so strongly to our own day, and for that reason it speaks directly and strongly to us. Indeed, it speaks the more strongly to us because it is enriched by another aspect, feeling, which we still rightly consider important: music is not only a science, says Sor, but je la sens, and others agreed: “Mr. Sor feels what he has to say, and that feeling is not merely true, it is deep and intense”, wrote a reviewer in London about a new set of arietts by him. No doubt he is liked by musicians today especially because of that feeling, which enriches his music, his teaching, his Method, his studies and exercises, – and indeed the whole personality which led him to compose not only those things but also passionate songs urging people to assist others in their struggles for what we today call human rights.

Brian Jeffery