#27 Fétis, from Paris without love

For many years, I have learned that Fernando Sor was called “the Beethoven of the guitar”. I was always perplexed as to what is the connection between the two composers. Who made that claim?

Quite a few websites mentioned it was François-Joseph Fétis, a famous 19th century music critic, who made such a claim. No one really pointed out in which publication did Fétis make this reference though. So I started looking up writings of Fétis, and came across a translation of his book, Music Explained to the World: Or, How to Understand Music and Enjoy Its Performance from 1830 (the translation published in 1844).

Fétis’s book discussed a lot of instruments, and I went straight to the sections regarding the plucked string instruments: the lute (p.110), the archilute and the theorbo (p.111), the mandore and pandore (p.111-112), the mandolin (and its obscure relative calascione, on p.112), and the guitar (p.113-114). He wrote:

“The guitar appears to have originated in Spain, though it is found in some parts of Africa. It has been known in France since the eleventh century, at which time it had the name of guiterne. It is almost the only one of all the stringed instruments played by snapping, and with fingerboards, which remains in use. The body of the guitar is flat on both sides, it is furnished with six strings, and its fingerboard is divided by frets for the placing of the fingers. In France, Germay, and England, the art of playing upon the guitar is carried to a very high point of perfection. In these later times, Sor Aguado, Huerta, and Carcassi, have made it a concerto instrument, and have succeeded in executing upon it very complicated music, in several parts; but, in Spain, the native country of this instrument, it is used only to accompany the boleros, tirannas, and the other national airs, and the performers play upon it instinctively, by striking the strings, or rattling them with the back of the hand.” (p.113)

Pretty cool to see Fétis mentioning the superstars of the Paris scene around 1830s? Also, the use of rasgueado seemed to be getting a bad rep early on in the 19th century.

In a later section of the book, Fétis wrote:

“The limited resources of the guitar are well known. It seems calculated only to sustain the voice lightly in little vocal pieces, such as romances, couplets, boleros, etc. Some artists, however, have not limited themselves to this small merit, but have sought to overcome the disadvantages of a meagre tone, the difficulties of the finering, and the narrow compass of this instrument. Mr. Carulli was the first who undertook to perform difficult music on the guitar, and succeeded in it to such a degree as to excite astonishment. Sor, Carcassi, Huerta, and Aguado, have carried the art to a higher degree of perfection; and if it were possible for the guitar to take a place in music, properly so called, these artists would, doubtless, have effected that miracle; but to such a metamorphosis the obstacles are invincible.” (p.234)

Even though Fétis held Carulli in high regards and acknowledged Carulli as the “grandfather of the guitar” in the 1830s Paris scene, he bashed the guitar relentelessly…!

In the biography, Fernando Sor: Composer and Guitarist by Brian Jeffery, there are many accounts of how Fétis thought Sor had chosen the wrong instrument. For instance:

p.105, Fernando Sor- Composer and Guitarist, Brian Jeffery

The missing word there should be “instrument” (is it just my copy that missed the last word(s) of the paragraph?)

As usual, my original task was not solved, and the process opened many unexpected doors. Fétis’s account of the guitar reminded me of a similar entry by another French music critic, Heitor Berlioz (to be continued).

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