Wednesday, December 28, 2011

an overview of structural concerns in the sonata forms of Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli

I know, I know, I mentioned earlier that I was basically done for 2011 in terms of blogging but I'm not, really.  I still have a lot of writing I want to do but as yet incomplete holiday family plans have sidelined my original writerly plans and I've been gearing up for more composing work.  The sonata for double bass and guitar I finished this month was a start; the movement for my sonata for tuba and guitar was getting some momentum going; but I still want to finish my entire cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  That won't happen until 2012 by now.

But I did finish 12 studies in harmonics earlier this year and I have finished a sonatina for guitar in D major inspired by one of my nephews.  Along the way I have spent some time immersing myself in the sonata forms of the early masters of the instrument in the Western tradition.  Thus Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Anton Diabelli (yep, the Diabelli associated with the famous Diabelli Variations). 

A few general remarks about my impressions of these masters.  Angelo Gilardino has written that not even Sor and Giuliani were able to fully balance musical values and an idiomatic command of the guitar.  While many guitarists play the etudes and shorter works the actual longer-form works by Sor and Giuliani only seem to get tackled by a few and classical guitarists seem to generally lack interest in these works as performance pieces or as pieces to listen to.  I could be completely wrong here but in my experience, such as it is, specialists and completists tend to be the ones who dig into the Grand Sonatas of Sor or Giuliani.  it takes even more specialization and interest to go dig up the guitar sonatas of Diabelli!  

I don't wish here to recycle the debunking of folklore about Beethoven disliking Diabelli's music when the reality was Diabelli had good connections and was a trustworthy engraver and all that.  Instead I'd like to tackle a subject I have been giving thought to since I read Gilardino's remark years ago about Sor and Giuliani not quite balancing musical value and idiomatic command of the guitar.  By "musical value" I go on a limb and say that Gilardino is referring to musical form and thematic economy of development.  This is something that has been a hobby of mine for some fifteen years and having compared the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani to those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven I think I can explain why non-guitarists have had so few reasons to pay attention to the sonata forms of guitarists.

But first a digression into Charles Rosen's famous book on sonata forms.  He remarks on the wide variety of structural components and approaches that can be taken in sonata form at some length. He also establishes that it was not even normative to always recapitulate the first group from the exposition but that it was normative for the recapitulation to stabilize the harmonic trajectory of the first movement form as a whole.  It is true that many of the best sonata forms recapitulate group 1 and then group 2 but we construe this from the examples of the best of the best, not the average.

Without wishing to completely diminish the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuiliani I would venture to say that they represent the average against which Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven can be understood to be the best of the best the Classic era formal innovators had to offer.  At the risk of providing no examples and trusting you know the literature extensively I could pick any quartet from Haydn's Op. 76 and tell you that it displays a higher and deeper and more varied thematic economy and structural integrity than Sor's best sonata forms.  I am about to tell you why I think this.

Having amassed scores for the sonata forms of the early guitar greats Sor's sonata forms come closest to approaching the archetypal sonata form but they differ from the sonata forms of the Viennese masters in some basic ways. The first and most important difference is that Sor's sonatas lack the contrasting thematic and textural character changes in the exposition that are normal in Haydn or Mozart quartets or piano sonatas.  Even when Haydn employs monothematic sonata forms he retains a higher level of contrast.  It could be suggested, in all fairness, that the guitar is not even close to reaching the variety possible in homophonic or polyphonic textures available to the string quartet or keyboard.  This would be true, but it would also be true that Gilardino was on to something in pointing out that Sor and Giuliani did not balance musical form with idiomatic command.

The Sor Grand Sonatas have, compared to Haydn or Mozart forms, very short development periods.  Though Sor recapitulates his thematic groups in the C major sonata in a normal way the ideas are not particularly well-developed within the development section proper.  The C minor sonata form leads attaca into a dance movement in C major.  The second group is recapitulated in the sonata form while the first group is not quite ever brought back.  Here I confess that Sor seems to have made the mistake of trying to drag out a "grand" form for as long as possible to mimic the bigness of Beethoven.  It would have been better to have aimed for Beethoven's economical development of thematic material, which is why I believe Sor's Op. 14 and Op. 15b experiments in sonata form are more compelling.  They are also, fittingly, closer in mood and scale to lighter works by Haydn or Mozart.

Giuliani's Op. 15 is his most satisfying sonata form because he has his first and second group recapitulating in a "normal" way.  He also developes his ideas more thoroughly in his development section than Sor does in his Grand Sonatas.  But Giuliani in his Grand Overture and his Op. 150 sonata displays a habit that Charles Rosen has described, that of recapitulating group 2 and 3 but omitting 1 in a recapitulation.  This can be done for sensible reasons and even Diabelli drops group 1 from the recapitulation of his first movement in his Sonata in F major for guitar.  But this is where I think the guitar composers become average rather than ingenius like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  It's true that you "can" drop the first theme and merely transpose group 2 and 3 from the exposition down into the tonic key but by doing this what Giuliani and Diabelli lose is the non-modulating transition.

The non-modulating transition is what allows the recapitulation to take on its structural and emotional force.  Diabelli and Giuliani particularly create expositions in which group 1 is in the tonic key while group 2 and 3 are in the dominant key.  To recapitulate only groups 2 and 3 without group 1 in the tonic key is a perfect example of placing idiomatic command of the instrument over a concern about musical values in sonata allegro forms.  To put this rather crudely, recapitulating group 2 and 3 in the tonic key in a recapitulation for the guitar just means you play as open chords the stuff you were probably playing as barre chords in the exposition.  You just knock it down X number of frets and there you go.  Bingo bango.  It makes the piece easier to play but at the expense of completely ignoring the conceptual and artistic point of the recapitulation in Classic era sonata form!

Giuliani does at least have pretty tunes and flash going for him.  He sounds very pretty.  He's easily the flashiest of the trio and while this can make his solo works exciting he can, as listeners discover, lean on the technique a wee bit too much.  On the other hand, what I like about Giuliani was his interest in composing chamber works in which the guitar would be joined to a flute, a violin, or violin and cello.  Each of the "big three" from the early period of the classical guitar has great strengths that offset what I personally consider to be some weaknesses, but the strengths are not always going to be evident if you only search through the solo guitar literature written by Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli respectively.

Sor gets the epic scale of lower-end Beethoven or ambitious Haydn, which is fun, but his epic gesture tends to be sheer scale.  For contrapuntal ingenuity and beauty of material his etudes consistently outstrip his sonata forms (particularly if we're talking about the Op. 6 and Op. 29 etudes compared to the Op. 22 and Op. 25 sonatas).  For what it's worth I think Sor displayed the greatest command of counterpoint when he bothered to write counterpoint. The Op. 14 and Op. 15b sonatas are pretty satisfying, though, as I was writing earlier. 

Diabelli, of the three, displays the most concern about musical form as a goal unto itself and this is why though his sonatas are not as immediately appealing in the ways that a sonata by Giuliani or Sor might be they reward more repeated listenings and study.  To put it in a rather starkly unfair way of the three guitarists and given what I've been able to study about their respective approachs to thematice development and musical form it does not surprise me Beethoven gave us a Diabelli Variations rather than a Sor Variations or Giuliani Variations.  Diabelli's ideas are not always the most inspired but they have the advantage of inviting expansion and development!  If you don't believe me it doesn't matter, Beethoven has already proven the point beyond all doubt!

As a guitarist I would like to say that non-guitarists have all sorts of compelling reasons to listen to the sonatas of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani.  I'm afraid I can't really say that if the argument is to listen to the best music of that time period.  But I will take up an idea forwarded by Robert Craft about Vivaldi in the context of Bach, the first rate composers are first rate because they show the greater invention and mastery they attained in contrast to second rate composers, but that does NOT mean we shouldn't appreciate and find value in the second rate. That sounds elitist and, well, Robert Craft was friends with Stravinsky so perhaps there's no point in sugar-coating elitism in the arts.  What I mean to say here is that if Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven represent the apotheosis of sonata form as art and as intellectual/spiritual exploration Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli represent the average.  It is still valuable to study the average to come not only to a fuller appreciation of the great but to also appreciate the reality that most people are average yet unique. 

Now if you have been inspired by this essay to go find the scores and listen to the music I want to make sure I don't disappoint you.  Anthony Glise has recorded all of the Diabelli guitar sonatas.  The recording is no longer in print but if you go to Anthony Glise's website you may be able to purchase both his CD (what's left of the production run) and his wonderful compilation of the complete sonatas of Sor, Giuliani and Diabelli.  Mel Bay printed the book several years ago and it was one of those books to grab while it was in print because if you try to go buy it now you're in for a surprise at how expensive it often is! As comic book nerds might say, there's a time to go buy the latest issue now and not assume it will just get collected into trade paperback format! 

Fortunately, however, the majority of works by Sor and Giuliani have been in the public domain for so long finding facsimiles of the scores is not difficult.  For Diabelli you are not going to be nearly that fortunate. You WILL at some point have to part with your money to get those scores.
The Glise recordings may also be found in places like this if you dig around a bit.

And because all this music is centuries old finding performances of the works on YouTube will be pretty easy.  The works from Sor are Op. 14, Op. 15b, Op. 22, Op. 25
The works from Giuliani are Op. 15, Op. 61 and Op. 150
Diabelli, Op. 29, 1-3

Armed with these opus numbers and a few visits to Naxos and other labels and you should be able to compile a decent set of recordings and scores once you dig up the free facsimiles or can, say, get ahold of Glise's formidable Mel Bay collection.

So this probably "will" be my last entry for the year of 2011.  I had thought about saving it for 2012 but in the end my eagerness to write about these things just got the better of me.  I hope someone out there in internet land finds the essay interesting or perhaps even useful. 


Daniel Corr said...

Great article! I stumbled on this wondering if anybody had compiled a list of the complete solo and chamber sonata allegro forms by Giuliani.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks for dropping by. That's a good question. Glise published his wonderful volume of the sonata allegro forms for solo guitar but I don't know if anyone has created a comparable compilation for the chamber works of the same composers.