Sor, Fernando – Method for the Spanish Guitar, preface to the Tecla edition

Sor’s Method for the Spanish guitar is a wonderful book, transcending the subject of guitar technique to deal with harmony, mathematics, sonority, composition, and above all music as an art. It has been called “easily the most remarkable book on guitar technique ever written” (Frederic V. Grunfeld, The Art and Times of the Guitar, New York, 1969, p. 182). It also includes details about guitar construction and makers. The present edition is an unaltered reprint of the English translation made by A. Merrick, the organist of Cirencester, and published in London by Cocks & Co. probably in 1832.

Here are some details about the genesis and publication of the method, adapted from my book Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist (London, Tecla, second edition, 1994).

We first hear of the method in 1828. In that year John Ebers, manager of the King’s Theatre in London, published his book Seven Years of the King’s Theatre, in which he speaks of “the extraordinary Spaniard, Sor, who is known to be the most perfect guitarist in the world … He is now about to publish a work in Paris, on the guitar; on the teaching of which instrument his notions are quite original” (p. 163).

Perhaps Ebers had received a copy of the printed prospectus advertising the work and inviting subscriptions.  No copy of this prospectus is known to survive, but it was listed in the Bibliographie de la France, and from details given there we can reconstruct some of the publishing history of the book. It reveals something of a lack of business sense. The prospectus was listed in May 1828. The book was to be published by Sor; the price was to be 30 francs, or 15 francs to subscribers; and the subscription list was to be closed on 1 July 1828. Now, from the Bibliographie de la France we also gather that the Méthode itself did not appear until late in 1830, that is over two years later; and the price in the end was 36 francs.  From the number of footnotes in the book, it seems that Sor rewrote a lot of it, perhaps even at proof stage, like Balzac.

That first French edition appeared in Paris in 1830 under the title of Méthode pour la Guitare, par Ferdinand Sor. It is the only version known to have Sor’s direct authority. Now extremely rare, it was never reprinted; indeed, an early biographer of Sor (Baltasar Saldoni in his Diccionario de Efemérides de Músicos Españoles, I, Madrid, 1868) says (he does not state on what authority) that Sor destroyed the plates. The title-page of the French edition says that the book is the “Propriété des Editeurs”, who are named as Sor in Paris and Simrock in Bonn (and there is a space for London, but it is left blank; on one known copy, now in Madrid, Sor himself has filled in by hand “Johaning et Wathmore” (i.e., Johanning & Whatmore). The Méthode, then, was published by Sor rather than by a commercial publisher, and this at a time when guitar methods were being published in large numbers and a man of Sor’s celebrity would have had little trouble in finding a publisher had he so wished.

By June 1831, when it was listed in Hofmeister’s Handbuch der musikalischen Literatur, Simrock in Bonn had brought out a parallel French and German edition.

In 1832 (to judge from the plate number) Cocks in London published the English translation by A. Merrick which is presented here. While the German and the English translations are fairly faithful to the original French, there is no reason to suppose that Sor had any control over them.

After Sor’s death, a pupil of his, Napoleon Coste, did a disservice to his friend’s memory by bringing out a travesty of the original called Méthode complète pour la Guitare par Ferdinand Sor, rédigée et augmentée de nombreux exemples et leçons … par N. Coste. This was translated into Spanish, and it may still be in print and still using the name of Sor; the reader should be warned that it bears little resemblance to the original. Later in the century, in 1897, Frank Mott Harrison published in London a Method for the Guitar by Ferdinando Sor, a work of small value which says (of course wrongly) that the original was written in Spanish. Mercifully, this is at least now out of print.

When the book was at last published in 1830, Sor was 52 years old. He had had a varied life, many successes, many failures, a good deal of buffeting by fate, and a variety of amatory experience. He had composed many different kinds of music: seguidillas and patriotic songs, Italian arietts, ballet music. But throughout all this, one constant factor had been the guitar. He had played it in his childhood; the seguidillas usually had guitar accompaniments; in England his most important public appearance had been as a guitarist, at the Philharmonic Society; while from 1814 onwards the number of his guitar publications increased steadily year by year. The Méthode pour la Guitare shows that Sor recognized the importance of this instrument in his work, that he was prepared to devote more time to it and less to the other many and various genres that had occupied him before, that he was prepared to establish himself now as a guitar teacher and not as a would-be composer of operas and ballets. And the result is that his method is a profound work, written by a man who had spent his life in music as a whole and not merely in the limited corner of it that is the guitar. The book is extremely detailed, always reflective and never dull.  It shows a man who knew not only Haydn but also Molière, not only the guitar but also the piano and voice.

Enthusiastic reviews of the Méthode appeared in the Revue Musicale, XI (1831-2) and in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 1832, both of them praising its seriousness and value.

The English text here has been carefully checked against the French original, and has been found to be on the whole a faithful translation.

This reprint is made from a copy in the collection of the late Robert Spencer, by his kind permission.

Brian Jeffery


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