Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sor's Op. 30, Allegretto--the composer's last sonata form

This is a sonata form that forms the finale of a set of variations so at one level it is a sonata form and at another level it can also be considered a kind of mass variation that resolves the variations that have come before it.

Theme 1 is primarily a steady repetition and transformation of a simple cadential turn, as though this entire sonata were going to spin out of what would have been the final cadential gesture of the immediately preceding variation.  Haydn, for instance, was fond of opening large-scale forms with what would have been heard at the time as concluding gestures, so it's not a surprise to witness Sor presenting the start of his finale with a phrase that could be considered the finale closing material of the previous  variation. Because this movement is in 6/8 and is spritely the melodic and harmonic materials never settle on a cadence that firmly resolves in E minor until the close; each arrival within Theme 1 at what could be a firm cadence is immediately transformed into forward momentum by way of a new or modified statement of the initial gesture.  We get an interrupting secondary phrase (gesture 2) and because of the  spinning out of the first gesture when gesture 2 reappears it could be easy to hear it as a continuation of Theme 1 even though it turns out to be a modulating transition (labeled as such in green in the visual analysis of page 1).


The expansive Theme 2 appears on page 2 and its respective phrases and parts are marked out in orange in the visual analysis of page 2.  Here, too, we see Sor continuously upsetting or offsetting the finality of any given cadential resolution in the new key area of G major by way of propulsive rhythms and chromatic weakening of diatonic material.  Even when he arrives at a pretty firm authentic cadence at the top of page 3 this elides the end of Theme 2 as a group with the emergence of a closing theme/coda section.  Only the abrupt stop after an arrival at G major sort of signals the end of the development (see page 3). 


As a lengthy aside the "tell" that Sor is bringing his exposition to a close is in the rising thirds gesture, most readily spotted in the third system of page 3.  Sor uses a comparable antiphonal commentary from inner voices in thirds responding to melodic activity on the treble strings in his Op. 29, etude 5, itself another kind of sonata movement.  That there are relatively few sonata forms composed for solo guitar compared to piano sonatas; and that by and large the closing formulas of these sonata forms highlight guitarist composers resorting to what might be called a limited number of options from a bag of tricks could make it pretty easy for non-guitarists steeped in the piano literature of the 19th century to dismiss these kinds of sonatas as not really sonata forms or as lacking in substance.  For the sake of promoting some kind of scholarly (if highly informal) analysis of sonata forms written for solo guitar I'm  merely going to mention this as a temptation that ought to be resisted if scholarly work on sonata forms for solo guitar can move forward. 

Sor may repeat too much for the taste of some in his themes but what composers like Sor, Carulli, Matiegka and Giuliani do is "finish" their themes whereas composers like Molino, Molitor and Diabelli have in a number of pieces curtailed a process of thematic articulation and differentiation in favor of moving on to the next structural unit.  Sor's compositional approach may be faulted at any number of levels if we're going to compare his work unfavorably to Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven, perhaps, but we should remind ourselves, amongst guitarists, that Sor's reputation as the Beethoven of the guitar did not come out of nowhere and is not, overstated though the case may have been at times, altogether without warrant.

So, now, on to the development.

The development itself is a fraction of the size of either the exposition or the development.  Small development sections can be construed as either basically not existing or as sign of a "sonatina" movement but neither seems particularly appropriate given the size of the form we're dealing with.  It may be better to just note the obvious, that a large-scale sonata movement does not necessarily have a large development section.  Given how intensely and obsessively the thematic materials in the exposition are repeated and revived there's not necessarily a lot of new things to do with the material in the development.  So what Sor does is save modification and expansion of material for the recapitulation, which starts near the bottom of page 3. This is because, as we see in the winding down of the development, the only place to go to introduce something that truly varies from relentless 6/8 activity is to slow things down and to slow down and die away into what turns out to be a recapitulation.  Or, at least, we may infer that's what Sor decided based on what he did.  
Something Sor does in the recapitulation is dispense with the half-dozen repetitions of this Theme 1 material that appeared in the exposition.  He races through the Theme 1 content pretty quickly and moves along to recapitulating Theme 2 material.  But he brings back Theme 2 material in a way that is cut up and re-ordered.  Part 1 is interrupted by Part 2 before the secondary phrase of Theme 2 Part 1 appears at the bottom of page 4.  This, in turn, turns out to be an interruption before Theme 2, Part 2, phrase 1 returns and winds down into a closing coda. 


As we've seen, Sor took the liberty of compressing and rearranging expositional material in the recapitulation for the sake of variety and drama.  Rather than attempt to break down which thematic ideas have what done to them (since Yates has discussed Op. 30 already), it's sufficient to point out that this is one of a number of sonata forms Sor composed that has been widely recognized as a sonata form by scholars.  What this has in common with a number of other sonata forms by Sor is a developmental dynamic in which heavy intra-expositional repetition and expansion of material is offset or balanced by small formal development sections and a substantial reworking of the exposition material in the recapitulation process. 

What I've tried to do here is build a case that beyond the obvious examples of sonata form guitarist scholars have already noted in Sor's output (Op. 14 and 15; the grand sonatas Opp. 22 and 25; and Op. 30) the Op. 29 etudes 5 and 10 are also examples of Sor's handling of sonata form.  Granting that incomplete recapitulations are both possible and may be taken as fulfilling the formal requirements of recapitulation based on Charles Rosen's articulation of recapitulatory function, Sor's output as a whole may be seen to have more sonata forms than scholars have heretofore recognized.  I have yet to see scholars of the guitar point out that the C major and E flat etudes from Sor's Op. 29 series are readily identifiable as sonata forms, so it seemed useful and necessary to point out that I think this is the case. 

If Sor can be shown to have composed a sonata form in E flat major in his Op. 29 etudes then perhaps we can put to bed the old axiom that the guitar is somehow unsuited to the formal and developmental complexities characteristic of sonata forms.  That's clearly not the case if Sor could compose a sonata form in E flat major and Diabelli composed a sonata form in F major.  The trouble here is not that guitarists have not explored what is possible in these forms it's that scholars of the guitar have proven too ignorant of the nuances and possibilities in sonata forms to recognize that the old masters of the instrument from its earlier decades were testing the limits of what was idiomatically possible.  We should also bear in mind that as the last twenty or thirty years of scholarship have shown, if we grant that there are more types of sonata forms than a strictly post-Beethoven "Textbook" sonata form, then we can see what in the past might have been regarded as "substandard" or aberrational experiments in sonata forms for solo guitar to be within what can be demonstrated in more recent scholarship to be well inside the realm of options for sonata forms from late 18th century compositional practice.

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