Sor, Fernando (1778-1839)

Variations Op. 9 by Fernando Sor performed by Ana Carpintero

Leading classical guitar theorist, composer and performer, sometimes referred to as the ‘Beethoven of the guitar’ and author of the score of the first Cinderella ballet (performed in London in 1822), Fernando Sor was baptised in the cathedral of Barcelona on 13 February 1778 as Joseph Fernando Macari Sor. He was brought up in a well-to-do family with a long tradition of involvement in trade and the military. His father, Joan Sor was a talented amateur musician who developed in him a taste for opera and for playing the guitar and the violin. It is said that after attending only once a representation of the Italian opera Giulio Sabino in 1783, at the tender age of 5, he composed a trio that soon transcended family circles to be praised by local professors of music who demanded to meet him. As a result, he began to receive music lessons from the first violin of the cathedral of Barcelona, the priest Josep Prats. After the unexpected death of his father in 1790, he was placed under the guidance of the godfather of his younger brother Carlos, Cayetano de Gispert y Seriol, a leading doctor in Law, regidor in the municipality of Barcelona and a well-known violinist. He may have been responsible for enrolling Fernando Sor as a chorister at the monastery of Montserrat, where he received a wide-ranging musical education under the guidance of the master Anselmo Viola (1738-1798) and the organist Narciso Casanovas (1747-1799). During that period he was also in contact with the archbishop of Auch, M. de Latour-du-Pin Montalban, then living in exile from the French revolution and who may have taught him French.

In 1794, Sor left Monserrat to join the army as a volunteer with the rank of lieutenant in the militia, fighting in the short war against the French known with the various names of the War of the Pyrenees, War of Roussillon or War of the Convention. After the Peace of Basel (22 July 1795), he returned to Barcelona where a year later he began studies at the Real Academia de Matemática (Royal Academy of Mathematics) while at the same time pursuing a successful career as a musician. His first authored opera, Il Telemaco nell’Isola di Calipso, premiered on 25 August 1797, received much acclaim. He visited Madrid, where the Duchess of Alba and the Duke of Medinaceli helped him to navigate through the Spanish royal court, eventually finding for him an administrative position in the duke´s estate in Catalonia. Sporadically, from 1802 to 1805, he took residency in the Madrid home of the Russian ambassador Ivan Metveyevich Muravyov-Apostol (1762-1851. At this time, he composed his sonata for guitar solo later known as Grand Solo and many seguidillas (short songs for voice and guitar with witty texts).

In 1803, Sor was appointed inspector of the Real Fábrica de Naipes (Royal Playing Card Factory) at Macharaviaya near Málaga, where he spent the next few years, giving occasional concerts at the home of the US consul, M. Kirpatrick and keeping contact with a great number of leading musicians, likely including Federico Moretti (1769-1839). Soon after  Napoleonic forces crossed the Pyrenees, Sor joined the resistance and wrote a song ‘Venid, vencedores’ (Come in, victors) that the Spanish Patriots sang when they entered Madrid on 23rd August 1808. He fought in La Mancha and in Aranjuez with the regiment of Cordovan Volunteers and received the rank of captain. His regiment had its own musician and gave concerts – something that was rather common in the Spanish Army as music was considered an essential part of military life. Yet when the French captured Andalucia, at the end of 1810, he followed the example of many others who believed Joseph Bonaparte’s power to be permanently established: he abandoned the resistance and took the French oath. In 1812, the switch in alliances was rewarded with the powerful position of principal commissary of police of the province of Jerez. During this period he requested permission to gest married, but remains unclear to whom and whether he did or not. Within a little over a year, however, he found himself chased by the Patriot, eventually joining retreating forces to France where he lived in Paris.

In 1815, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Sor settled in London with a lady known as his wife and with a daughter named Carolina. Soon he became acquainted with the Duke of Sussex and the Prince Regent; these as well as other relations with key members of British high society such as James Duff, fourth Earl of Fife (1776-1857), facilitated the publication of over fifty works, including a celebrated set of studies now known as op. 6, the Variations on a Theme of Mozart, and many other works for ballet, notably Cinderella performed by the ‘Andalusian Venus’, Maria Mercandotti (c. 1800-?) at the King’s Theatre in London on 26 March 1822, and an array of songs for voice, piano and guitar. Among his British publishers were Clementi, Monzani & Hill, Farkner’s, Chapell, Rutter & McCarthy, Ware and Evans, Birchall, but mainly the Regent’s Harmonic Institution, later known (following the crowning of George IV) as the Royal Harmonic Institution.

It was in London where he met the dancer Félicité Hullin who would become his sentimental companion for a few years. Nothing is known about the fate of his alleged wife, but in 1822, Sor and his daugther moved to Paris with Hullin whom he accompanied to Russia in 1824 where she took the role of prima ballerina in the Royal Moscow ballet.  Within two years, he was back in Paris, withouth Hullin but with his daughter. He earned his living as a teacher of guitar, including at a school for girls  ran by Madame Migneron. Between 1827 and 1839, he gave a number of concerts, including a duet with Dionisio Aguado, a close Spanish friend of General José de San Martín (1778-1850), the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru who at the time also resided in France and to whom it has been said Sor gave guitar lessons. He published his famous Méthode pour la guitare  (Paris and Bonn: Simrock, 1830) and other works considered as the finest works ever written for beginners on the instrument. Two years after the death of his daughter, he died after a long illness in Paris on 10 July 1839.

 Sources: Adolphe Ledhuy, Adolphe. Encyclopédy Pittoresque de la Musique (Paris: H. Delloye, 1835), 154-167; Brian Jeffery, Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarrist. (London: Tecla, 1997); Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor: Aportaciones biográficas’ in Luis Gásser (ed.)  Estudios sobre Fernando Sor (Madrid: ICCMU, 2003), 15-61; Richard Pinnell, Ricardo Zavadivker; The Rioplatense Guitar: The Early Guitar and Its Context in Argentina and Uruguay (Westport, Conn.: Bold Strummer, 2006), 22; Brian Jeffery, ‘Fernando Sor nei guai con l’Inquisizione spagnola’, Il Fronimo, nº 159, July 2012, 35-41;  Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor (1778-1839): Documenti inediti. Riflessioni e ipotesi’ (First part), Il Fronimo, nº 172, October 2015, 45-54; Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor (1778-1839): Documenti inediti. Riflessioni e ipotesi’ (Second part), Il Fronimo, nº 172, nº 173, January 2016, 18-31; Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor (1778-1839): Documenti inediti. Riflessioni e ipotesi’ (Third part), nº 174, April 2016, 33-43; Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor (1778-1839): Documenti inediti. Riflessioni e ipotesi’ (Fourth part), nº 175, July 2016, 9-24;  Josep Maria Mangado, ‘Fernando Sor (1778-1839): Documenti inediti. Riflessioni e ipotesi’ (Fifth part), October 2016, 35-45;  Graciela Iglesias-Rogers, British Liberators in the Age of Napoleon: Volunteering under the Spanish Army in the Peninsular War (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 115.

Author: Ana Carpintero

(translated and enlarged by G. Iglesias-Rogers)

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Thematic categories: 

The Arts ; Exile and Migration; War and the Military

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