Ricardo Gallén, guitar (Spain) - Sunday, June 5 at 2:30 p.m.


Fernando Sor (1778–1839)

    Grande Sonata, Op. 25
        - Andante Largo
        - Allegro non troppo
        - [Theme and Variations]
        - Minuetto: Allegro

    Grande Sonata, Op. 22
        - Allegro
        - Adagio
        - Menuetto: Allegro
        - Rondo: Allegretto


Fernando Sor
    Sonata, Op. 15[B]

Leo Brouwer (b. 1939)

    Sonata del Pensador, no. 4 (Dedicated to Ricardo Gallén)
        - Recuperación de la Memoria
        - Iluminaciones
        - Elogio de la Meditación
        - Celebración de la Memoria

Ricardo Gallen performs this afternoon's concert on a copy of a Johann Georg Stauffer romantic guitar by Bernhard Kresse, Germany, courtesy John Dana and Guitars International, USA, and a modern concert guitar by Paco Santiago Marin, Spain.


The word “sonata” is one that all musicians know. Ask them to define it, however, and you may get a momentary blank stare. The reason isn’t that musicians don’t know what to say. Rather, it’s that the definition hops about so capriciously that it’s hard to pin down. “Sonata” is a catch-all term, its precise definition depending on context. Its loosest meaning—derived from the Latin word “sonare” (to make sound)—refers to music that’s intended for instruments other than the voice. That covers a lot of ground, comprising everything from Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1557-1612) majestic sonatas for brass to Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1757) intimate sonatas for harpsichord. But by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this generic term had morphed into something more specific. Although still confined to instrumental music, it now referred to an imposing multi-movement work in which the composer creates a dramatic narrative. Its finest models were first worked out by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. (They, of course, were inspired by composers better known today to musicologists than the general public.) To distinguish it from the more generic meaning of sonata, we currently often refer to it as the classical sonata.

It’s not far off the mark to say that the classical sonata is the musical equivalent of literature. In it, the composer approximates the ebb and flow of a play or novel. As does literature, the sonata introduces distinctive tunes or motives that suggest the characters in a play or novel. And as in literature, these characters are run through dramatic conflict. But one shouldn’t carry the parallel between sonata and literature too far. The story told in the classical sonata is shorn of overt literary meaning. The narrative we sense in the classical sonata isn’t about anything other than music. More accurately, it’s music about music—its logic and flow are inexorably musical. The essential irony of the classical sonata is that it takes literary conventions, effaces their linguistic meanings, and repurposes them to a solely musical end.

This makes the classical sonata one of the most abstract of musical forms. That can limit its surface appeal. For example, in the classical sonata, a tune is seldom intended to be immediately likable on its own terms. Instead, it’s created with an eye toward its musical potential as it unfolds. Indeed, a classical sonata tune may be deliberately banal. Sometimes a simple rhythmic pattern is sufficient, and the pitches themselves aren’t so important. Consider, for example, the theme in the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. The first twelve notes cling sullenly to one pitch. But then Beethoven gradually envelopes this plodding tune with such beauty that it counterintuitively becomes the most memorable part of the entire symphony. (At its premiere in 1813, the audience spontaneously demanded an encore of the second movement.) Still, it takes a keen mind and ear to respond to the cool logic of the classical sonata. This is music aimed at the aficionado rather than the dabbler.

For those who can respond, however, the rewards are great. Unmoored to extra musical conventions, the classical sonata can soar far beyond its more constrained musical brethren. Sonata marches under no particular flag and advances no particular agenda. So while we’ll often find snippets of opera and dance throughout a sonata, we seldom hear a sonata beyond the opening movement of an opera or ballet. Opera shuns anything that doesn’t serve a literary plot, and ballet cleaves to dance. Sonata is a cheerfully indifferent mongrel, and that’s its creative strength. 

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For the guitar, the classical sonata proved a tough nut to crack. That’s because modulation—changing from one key to another—is an integral part of the sonata. The sonata generates much of its narrative flow by beginning in one key, leaving it, and then coming back to it. Indeed, the typical first movement of a sonata is pretty much that above all else. Some instruments are better suited than others for modulation. On the keyboard, for example, modulation is easy. (A piano joke: How do you modulate on the piano? Sit in one spot and repeatedly play the same passage while two burly men shove the piano from side to side.) For guitarists playing polyphonic music, modulation is a dicier proposition. It requires a fearless player and a flexible left hand to do the key hopping in a sonata. So, while the classical sonata thrived among composers for other instruments, guitar composers tended to work the other side of the street, where music obligingly stayed put key-wise.

The Spanish guitarist and composer Fernando Sor (1778-1839), however, was a hardier breed. A thoroughly trained composer, singer, and pianist, he was well versed in the musical trends of his day. He set himself toward raising the standard of music written for the guitar. His 1830 Méthode pour la Guitare is less a method on how to play the guitar and more a manifesto on how to compose for it. In it, he often complains about guitar music that falls easily under the hands but flouts the rules of good composing. It’s not surprising, then, that he confronted the thorny problem of writing a classical sonata for the guitar.

Sor’s Op. 15[B] is an early work, probably composed when Sor was in his early twenties. It’s a single movement that self-consciously follows popular Italian models. Soon after this, Sor would begin a careful study of the string quartets of Haydn. But in this early work he’d yet to fully master the rigorous sonata compositional style. By the way, the Op. 15[B] curious designation reflects a confusion sown by Sor’s early publications—there’s also an Op. 15a and Op. 15c, and all three are completely different works.

His first four movement sonata for the guitar was his Op. 22, Grande Sonata, published in 1825. This too is a relatively early work. Here Sor tries to meet Haydn and Mozart on their own turf. (Not so much Beethoven, as Sor apparently found him a bit too pungent.) One might argue that Sor was a bit too respectful of his models—his Op. 22, Grande Sonata seems a bit diffident in how it ticks off all the boxes for a proper four movement sonata. Nonetheless, it’s a delightful work, even if it doesn’t quite scale the heights of Sor’s models.

With his later Op. 25, Grande Sonata, Sor is more his own man. Here he looks forward to Chopin rather than to the past. (Which reminds us that Sor spent his final years in Paris and almost certainly heard Chopin himself.) Here also he’s more fluid in his handling of modulation, often drifting through keys unfamiliar to the average guitarist. Indeed, Op. 25 begins in C minor—not a comfortable key for the guitar. And finally, Sor is more adventurous in his choice of movements, unconventionally ending the sonata with a graceful little minuet. Curiously, Beethoven ended his famous Diabelli Variations with a minuet. Maybe Sor was warming to Beethoven’s example.

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By the early twentieth century, the sonata was practically a museum piece. Claude Debussy had declared the symphony a dead form, and he might well have included the sonata in his eulogy. But as the century drew to a close, composers seemed to reawaken to the sonata’s old-fashioned gravitas. No guitar composer more ingeniously poured new wine into old bottles than the Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer (b. 1939). Although an early champion of the avantegarde, Brouwer gradually drifted toward a simpler, more direct musical language. Along with this “new simplicity” as he called it, he also embraced the older forms, including the venerable sonata. Indeed in a 1997 interview Brouwer seemed almost nostalgic toward the era that spawned the classical sonata:

“In the past the function of music was very clear: the audience met together, understood the themes, the structural details and the interpretation. There wasn’t a gap between the cultivated and the popular: Bach and Mozart composed popular music. The guitarist-composers like Tárrega, Mertz, Giuliani were very close to the manifestations of popular music which at that time didn’t have divisions. What has happened is that with the brutal development of the 19th century and above all of the 20th century, everything has changed.”

Sonata del Pensador, was written in 2013 and dedicated to Ricardo Gallén. Thus, in today’s program we have the pleasure of hearing Brouwer’s latest sonata performed by its dedicatee. It seems fitting, then, to step aside and allow the artist and his performance to speak for themselves.

- Tom Poore

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