Thursday, May 14, 2015

some general thoughts on the triviality ascribed to early 19th century guitar sonatas and a proposal about their thematic catalog

One of the things Wenatchee The Hatchet's been doing over the last four or five years has been studying the early 19th century guitar masters, particularly their approach to sonata form.  Something that has been interesting to observe has ben the disdain or indifference of non-guitarist music reviewers toward music by these masters.  Consider this old Starobin recital review by Tom Service before the new millenium:

The rarefied pleasures of a classical guitar concert seem more at home in an intimate salon or sitting room than the wide open spaces of a concert hall. In David Starobin's performances, feather-light trifles by Giuliani and Regondi - composers justifiably neglected outside the guitar-playing fraternity - were swamped and swallowed by the Wigmore Hall.

Or take a more recent recital review (still 2013) of Marcin Dylla

... The rest of the evening was milder by comparison: a pleasant sonata by Anton Diabelli that breezed in and out of the ears without much fuss, ...

Now the Diabelli F major is a beast to play and for a guitarist it's no small accomplishment to play the F major.  In fact Dylla recently played the Diabelli Op. 29 F major sonata and gave the most amazing and compelling interpretation of the work I've ever heard in my life. 

But for non-guitarists they probably can't appreciate just what a fantastic job Dylla has done with a sonata like that because it's already defined as a trifle.  Robert Craft, if memory serves, once wrote something to the effect that the second and third rate composers have a value in letting us know why we treasure the first raters.  Thus Vivaldi, Craft asserted, gave us his own pleasures and let us more deeply appreciate Bach.  The F major Diabelli isn't going to rise to even lower-order Haydn, but it's still worth hearing.

But what is it about the guitarists of the early 19th century that even their most ambitious and serious works come off as trifling?  Wenatchee The Hatchet's been incubating a theory about that.  We're talking about themes with firm, repeating cadential patterns.  We're also looking at themes that, particularly in the case of Carulli, can quickly begin to feel interchangeable--you could move one theme from one place to another across his Op. 21 sonatas and might get the same effect.  The themes also tend to have a character in which they could be endlessly recursive.  What kinds of music out there have that set of qualities.

Dance music, maybe?

Of course Baroque music was often based in dance forms and yet much of that repertoire, particularly by Bach, is considered profound.  Let's cast about for something younger rather than older.

How about ragtime?  Wenatchee the Hatchet proposes that with minimal effort and thought you could take a sonata theme from the early 19th century guitar sonata literature and transform it into ragtime. 
Since earlier this year we looked at Sor's Op. 29, etude 17 as a case of sonata form, why don't we play with that?  You can look at the earlier analysis of Sor's Op. 29 over here.

And with that in mind, here's a little thrown-together ragtime canon on the first theme from Sor's etude.  Teachers are always admonishing to "show don't tell", so while Wenatchee The Hatchet can tell you there's a case to be made that you can turn sonata themes into ragtime showing makes the case easier.

So, after the break, a guitar trio that's a ragtime canon on a theme by Fernando Sor.

It's more to demonstrate the possibility of turning the theme into a ragtime strain than a serious attempt at canon, in case any reading composers or music teachers are already skeptical.

A trifle, such as it is, and a trifle that can possibly help explain why so many non-guitarists don't take the sonatas of the early guitar masters all that seriously.  It's not like ragtime is considered the most "profound" or "serious" music out there.  But that early 19th century European guitar sonatas can be easily re-composed after the style of an early 20th century American popular piano style is fun.  The boundaries separating what many consider drastically different styles of music are more malleable than some might initially recognize.

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