Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sor's Op. 29, etude 10 in E flat major--an elegant and efficient sonata form hiding in plain sight in a dozen etudes

For years I have heard and read the axiom that the guitar is by its nature ill-suited to a musical process as complex as what we call sonata form.  This is nonsense.  I've been demonstrating that this is nonsense all week but this little exploration of a sonata form in E flat major composed by Sor should really settle the matter forever.  Whether we look at this etude through the scholarship of Charles Rosen, or William E. Caplin, or Hepokoski & Darcy this etude in E flat major is a sonata form.  It's also beautifully made, I dare say it's the most compelling sonata form Sor ever composed and it is also, fittingly, the most "textbook" of Sor's sonata forms.  Why wouldn't it be, nestled so comfortably in the middle of Sor's Op. 29 etudes?  I've written about this etude before, but since this week has been devoted to discussing sonata forms in early 19th century guitar literature it's worth writing about again.

You'll be able to peruse the score with some in-score commentary after the break.

That Sor composed a traditional textbook sonata form in E flat major in his Op. 29 etudes should forever put to rest any erroneous conclusion that the six-string guitar is unsuited by nature to a form as complex as a sonata form.  This etude also lays to rest any proposal that the guitar is unsuited to sonata form because of the limitations guitarists have regarding key signatures.  A self-contained sonata form in E flat major is as challenging a key as you can get for the guitar in standard tuning.  If I were to pick one sonata form for guitarists to study to understand what is really possible for our instrument this would be the one example I would pick (assuming, for sake of rhetorical effect, all the other fairly good sonata forms are somehow off limits).
Sor begins with a laconic two-step theme with two simple four-measure phrases.  As is typical for Sor the resolution of Theme 1 into its authentic cadence simultaneously becomes the beginning of a modulating transition.  These modulating transitions in Sor can sometimes be so long as to dwarf the length of his actual themes and that's what we get here.  Sor's modulating transition spans some two-dozen measures to get him to a Theme 2 in B flat major that's a mere eight measures long.  This is not the Sor of the Grand Sonatas by a long shot.  There's a precision and economy at work here that is remarkable in comparison to Sor's earlier sonata forms.  While the Grand Sonatas Op. 22 and Op. 25 get more scholarly press it's Sor's Op. 29 sonata forms in the etudes 5 and 10 that highlight just how brilliant he could be at composing for is instrument.  It would be on the basis of these Op. 29 sonata forms and not the Grand Sonatas that Sor should be regarded as a Beethoven of the guitar 

But then Sor's development sections are still small and not very developmental, still somewhat placeholders anticipating recapitulation.  As is typical of a Sor developmental passage we get an extension or prolongation of arrival at a fairly obvious half-cadence to tonic gesture.  Given the key we're dealing with is E flat major Sor could be forgiven for not roaming freely and broadly in developing his thematic ideas but then we've seen how short his thematic groups really are.  Nevertheless, this is one of Sor's most charming and efficient explorations of sonata form.  The dominant pedal climax of the development leads inexorably to a recapitulation of Theme 1 that sounds just like it should.  Sor moves through a new through-composed non-modulating transition and gets us to the Theme 2 material, now in E flat as we should expect for a sonata form. 

This is another sonata form from Sor where, with just a few modifications to the style, we can see a ready capacity to shift from early 19th century Romantic to early 20th century ragtime.  Even the key signature is a pretty ragtime friendly key.  A guitarist willing toreconceive this work could recompose it as a ragtime/sonata fusion.  There might even be someone who has alreadydone that by now but that's some other topic of no more than passing concern to us here.  ;)

So, fellow guitarists, I submit that we've overlooked two fine examples of sonata forms in the existing guitar literature by not recognizing two of Sor's Op. 29 etudes for being the sonata forms they truly are. Whether this inspires guitarists to keep experimenting with sonata form is hard to say but we can at least show from Sor's work that a sonata form in E flat major was possible and that Sor found it desirable to compose a sonata form in E flat major.  Both for the sake of promoting further appreciation by guitarists of the legacy of our instrument's literature and for the sake of promoting to musicologists and scholars the existence of a small but still significant body of sonata forms written for the guitar, highlighting the sonata forms that have been hidden in plain sight in Sor's Op. 29 etudes has been worth some extended discussion.


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