Few works of the guitar repertoire have such an intense autobiographical reference as the Fantasie Elegiaque op.59 by F. Sor (from now on FE). Indeed, it was written and first published in Paris in about 1836 and dedicated to the memory of Madame Charlotte de Beslay, one of his most beloved pupils, who died during the birth of her firstborn, who that birth survived instead. Yet observing the dimensions, depth of thought and extraordinary musical qualities of this piece, we cannot fail to think that, perhaps, this charming woman has been for him much more than just a 'pupil’. On the other hand, Charles, Charlotte's husband, was often absent from home due to his job as an officer in the French army (although he only dealt with administrative affairs and did not fight in the trenches). This situation surely gave time to his wife and the musician to develop an always closer relation, cemented by their common interests. One can therefore reasonably suppose that at a certain point a feeling of tenderness, and perhaps even love, might have blossomed between them. At the moment, no one can say for sure if the child of that fatal birth might have been the result of that intimate relationship, however, there is no doubt, for me, that this brilliant and talented young woman has been Sor's last and great love (indeed, he will die some years after the composition of the FE in 1839). So, the problem is now: how can I support my theory in default of official documents which could prove it? For this challenge I will show you what an incredible display of musical culture and emotions Sor put in this piece. He clearly wanted to create something special, great and unique. Something one wished to leave as a sign of an immense love for its dedicatory. Let’s make first some considerations.
The first is that even today a relationship between a young woman (moreover married and belonging to the high society) and an elderly foreign guitarist-composer would cause a huge scandal among conformists, with serious consequences for their social and professional lives. It is therefore more than understandable that there are no official documents (reliable letters or declarations) in this regard. Therefore, the idea that guided me was that Sor, in consideration of his youth studies (which we will explain in the next chapter), had left an encrypted message in the music itself through which he could declare, one last time, his love to Charlotte. A message that only he could understand. My research on Bach's Chaconne, which is also a Tombeau composed for the death of a beloved wife, has illuminated me in this regard (perhaps matter for another blog?). But which kind of education did Sor get? We can start the journey through the astonishing world of the FE.
The early years
Sor can be considered a unique case within the great guitar composers of his time. In fact, his education took place, in first instance as a choir boy, in the Escolania of the Montserrat monastery (near Barcelona), in an area surrounded by mountains and at the same time mystical and fascinating panoramas (I was lucky enough to visit it a few years ago and I can still feel the strong impression who exercised this place on me).
In this school the most talented Catalan youth of that time was educated not only in singing but also in the study of the 7 liberal arts (divided into Trivium and Quadrivium), in a sort of 'all round full immersion' into the human knowledge known till then:
The 7 liberal Arts:
In this stimulating intellectual environment, the 12 years old Sor was trained not only by composing motets in the old style but also by studying, among other arts, the 'grammar, that is the art of inventing and combining symbols'. This also included the study of 'intellectual games' such as that of gematria, a practice which consisted of replacing a letter with the ordinal number of the cabala alphabet that it occupied. The names, thus also notes (whose names consist of letters), could then turn into numbers (adding the individual values of the letters) and vice versa. The value obtained is called gematric value. This indicates a rare degree of intellectual refinement that Sor acquired in his early years of study, the ability to play with words, notes and numbers. The most famous examples of composers who were also familiar with this art of transforming are perhaps J.S.Bach and D.Shostakovic, with their legendary ‘personal’ Themes-motto, which became in the case of the Russian genius a kind of obsession:
(The German pronunciation of the E flat note is 'es', for this reason ‘S’)
La Fantaisie as a funeral oration
Strengthened by his studies of the great classics of rhetoric, Sor built the Fantasy by following the construction of the funeral oration to the letter, as it had been handed down from the time of Cicero. Its 5 parts coincide perfectly (both from the point of view of the emotional content and its translation in musical terms) with the 5 parts of the FE:
Funeral oration Fantaisie Elegiaque
a) Introduction (this person is dead) à Introduction (E minor)
b) Personal statement (mourning) à Operatic Aria (E minor)
c) Increase to despair (repetition and intensification of b) à repetition of b with more intense melodic and rhythmical figures
d) Consolation (the dead lives in bliss) à G major part
e) Conclusion (similar to the Introduction) à Coda (from the Amin triplets)
In addition, Sor used in this masterpiece all possible musical rhetorical figures known from the 'Seconda Pratica' apt to express pain, despair, anger, consolation, desolation, disbelief in the face of such extreme and irreversible events as death. Let's see some of them.
The beginning and the woeful chord
The diminished seventh is a harmony which, due to its indefinite and dissonant nature, has always evoked dark atmospheres and uncertainty. Putting it at the beginning of a piece in the classical period was a shocking stylistic gesture (even if harmonic false beginnings are already found in the forecasting century) and it clearly delineates the emotional sphere in which the piece will develop. By the way, don't you think that the first bars resemble surprisingly the first ones of L.van Beethoven's op.111?
Passus Durisculus (PD)
The PD (notes in red) has always been the most intense and frequent musical figure to express feelings of sorrow (its translation is in fact can be either 'a slightly harder passage' or 'suffering passage'). It consists of an ascending or descending chromatic series of 6 sounds. An extraordinarily touching example of PD is Dido's Lament from "Dido and Enea" by H. Purcell. For guitarists who are reading this blog, think of the two Dowland Fantasies, the "Farewel" and the "Forlorne hope".
This is an onomatopoeic rhetorical figure used to represent the heartbeat. The presence of the silences (in blue) generates a 'sobbing' interruption that defines the type of affection and the 'reason' (pain, stress) of the alteration and irregularity of the heartbeat. This rhetorical figure, called 'suspiratio', increases the sense of despair. The same figure, however without the suspiratio, was used by W.A.Mozart in his immortal Don Giovanni to depict Zerlina's heart full of love (Vedrai carino) and Mahler in the beginning of his moving 9th Symphony to describe his infirm heart.
The minor sixth which resolves to the fifth has always exerted a particular charm in the tonal era. It is an interval that expresses a sense of acute pain, just as acute is the need that resolves on the fifth degree. It has something penetrating and sweet at the same time. All pieces written in the form of the Tombeau employ it as the most important interval, melodically and harmonically as well (think of Mertz's Elegie, for example).
The scream of pain
Here too the onomatopoeic nature of the figure is more than evident. The two acute C in rapid succession stand out clearly, in crescendo, after the figure of the heartbeat in the low register. It should be noted that before and after the ‘C’ Sor put two very important pauses, as expressive as the two chords that they divide. Performed with sensibility, they create an extraordinary sense of anguish at this point of the passage.
This rhetorical figure indicates a sudden and unexpected change of harmony to represent an equally unexpected change of mood. Although it is not as traumatizing as the change in the transition from the Exhibition to the Development of Schubert's Sonata D.960 (Fmaj à C # min) or like the change Emaj à Gmin with which Orpheus is informed of the death of Eurydice (Monterverdi, Orpheo), however, after the section in Gmaj, the chord of Fmaj in its root position is very unsettling and somewhat mysterious and unnatural. It is the end of the consoling moment (the Gmaj part) and we must return to the harsh reality, the one in which a loved one has left us forever (the Amin triplet part).
At the end of the Introduction we find a truly moving figure, that of the death knell, which precedes, significantly, the Marche Funebre.
This figure is mainly used on stringed instruments, in which it is possible to perform the ‘campanella’. It consists of a note repeated monotonously on an open string (which represents the repetitive and monotonous sound of the death bell) and a voice which, generating a Passus Duriusculus, goes over the note of the open string until it reaches its own octave (in our case G), creating with this (due to the color in high positions) an anguished and 'introverted' sound, which adapts perfectly to the feeling of despair it must represent. Bach left us an epic example of this figure in the last section of his Chaconne:
Searching the secret message
I wanted to elaborate on these details to show how much love and knowledge Sor has placed in this piece. And yet we still haven't found what we started the search for. We found an extremely refined use of rhetorical figures, an extraordinary mastery of the form of musical funeral oration, but so far, no secret messages ...
For years I wondered where and in which form Sor could have encrypted it. One day, of all people, the person closest to me unexpectedly and involuntarily handed me the keys to the explanation of the arcane. To make you participate too, I will have to explain something personal in advance. I am living since 8 years with a beautiful woman from Barcelona. I'm Italian, together we speak 6 languages. Sometimes our conversations seem like a psychedelic version of Esperanto. Once, in the first months we were together, in a moment of innocent intimacy, responding in Castilian to a phrase of mine, she said: yo también, mi sol. In English 'me too, my sun(shine)'. I was electrocuted. Not only because it is always nice to know that you are still loved by your woman, but also because two words, as a musician, immediately attracted my attention: mi sol, my sun(shine). This expression is used in Castilian, but also in German (Mein Sonnenschein) and in almost all languages, only between people who have a very strong relationship of intimacy and/or love. It is used between mother-daughter (son) or wife-husband ... or between lovers. What a coincidence that in Latin notation the 2 words correspond to two musical notes! MI and SOL, e.g. E and G. A light suddenly came on in my head. I took the sheet music of the Fantasia and opened it on the last page. Here, on the most intense moment, Sor wrote on a hypnotizing, simple motif just two words: "Charlotte!", "Adieu!":
These are the only words written in the whole piece, which have no relation to music (like tempo indication or title). The two notes of which this motif consist (which clearly recalls the beginning of the Marche Funebre) are just MI SOL, only MI SOL. I can't believe that it could be a coincidence. We saw what kind of strong humanistic education Sor had received from the monks of Escolania. We know that he was familiar with such intellectual ‘games’. Do you remember the example of Bach and Shostakovic?
Well, Sor used the same process to secretly tell Charlotte once again how much he loved her. Maybe he already knew that she would be the last love of his life. Here is what perhaps Sor would have liked to openly write at the end of his moving epitaph:
This interpretation would also explain the choice of the tonality, E minor. Indeed, only in this tonality it would have been possible to use the name of the notes for building that short but powerful expression.
Sometimes, as we see, love does not triumph. However, it leaves us wonderful works back which, like Fantasy, stand as a monument and support for all those who have irreparably lost someone or something that gave meaning to their lives. For all of us who have experienced such a thing, this Fantasia offers us consolation and beauty.
"Love cannot express the idea of music,
while music may give an idea of love."
I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use and interest to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!
My warmest thanks to Mercè for her lovely thumbnail and the clue to the hidden message :)