There was a vast amount of music written for guitar in the 19th century, but very little of it survives in print. Reams of material sit gathering dust in Europe’s libraries, and but for the efforts of a small number of publishers, we have access to only a small number of the guitarists, and usually only the most famous, except for occasional pieces by others.
Quality of 19th century music varies considerably, often due to profit-oriented publishers who gladly catered to the mass amateur market. Not unlike today.
Fernando Sor is very critical of publishers in his Method for the Guitar:
“When I arrived in France, people said to me, ‘Make us some easy tunes:’ I was very willing to do so; but I discovered that easy meant incorrect, or, at least, incomplete.
A very celebrated guitarist told me that he had been obliged to give up writing in my manner, because the editors had openly declared to him ‘It is one thing to appreciate compositions as a connoisseur, and another as a music-seller: it is necessary to write silly trifles for the public. I like your work, but it would not return me the expenses of printing.’” (Sor)
Makaroff points out the same problem in The Memoirs of Makaroff:
“After each piece, I asked (Mertz) the same question and received the same answer — “Not published.”
“Why don’t you publish them? Why keep this wonderful music from your admirers? Why do you allow the guitarists to feed on the tasteless compositions of Bobrovich and Padovetz and constantly remain hungry for want of musical beauty?”
“I will tell you,” said Mertz. “First, on seeing these, the publishers would say it was too difficult, that I would have to rearrange them. That would spoil the compositions. Second, as long as these compositions remain in my briefcase, they remain new; and are mine for my own concerts. Within six months after publication, they would become old. Further, they would become distorted and mutilated by those miserable guitarists who can only scratch the strings of the guitar.” (Makaroff)
Some composers were able to sneak in a few jewels despite this, and Sor in particular seems to have gotten away with publishing whatever he wanted, though he certainly published many amateur-oriented works.
Often the only known pieces by many of these composers are the ones that they wrote either as simplified amateur pieces, or studies for the advancement of particular aspects of technique. Sor’s most popular pieces are his charming studies, but they do not represent the quality of his full compositions. Sor also wrote many full-scale concert works of exceptional quality. It is a shame that most professionals continue to recycle the same tired war horses of repertoire, rather than to bring out the best pieces of the era which are not widely recorded. The quality of the music has nothing to do with its popularity.
The notion of copyright and intellectual property is arguably a modern legal construct. It was common to compose sophisticated and serious compositions around familiar folk melodies in times past. Going back further in time, the great jazz musician Dave Brubeck pointed out on an August 2003 NPR broadcast, that even J.S. Bach took drinking songs and set them to sacred text, as in “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” – the original lyrics of the bawdy drinking song were “I cry into my beer stein, my love has gone and left me…” As Brubeck states, everybody in church would know the tune. Likewise, in the 19th century, it was common practice to arrange popular songs. The melody of “God Save the King” for example, is found in the middle of works by Sor and Hortezky, and snippets of popular operas are found within hundreds of works. Back then, these themes were as familiar as television program themes, nursery rhymes, and so forth. Audiences no doubt were more attentive when they recognized the melody.
Copyright laws were not as repressive back then. Anyone could write their own theme and variations on a popular melody. Today, one cannot write a theme and variations on “Theme from Star Wars” without significant legal constraints, written permission, royalties, etc., with the result that nobody is arranging much popular music today like they did then (although copyright may have been enforced within borders, across countries there were generally no protections for authors).
As explained by John McCormick in his article Songs with Guitar from the Age of Napoleon:
“In the late eighteenth century, there was no distinction between “serious” and “popular” music. The closest approximation of this concept could only be drawn from the time of royalty, when serious musicians were dependent on the whims and tastes of their royal employers… Demand for their music was most often associated with a specific event—a wedding, a coronation, a banquet or for the entertainment of a visiting dignitary. None of these touched the average person of the day unless it was part of a specifically staged public event.
In the Age of Napoleon, the free market was more like a free-for-all for everyone involved in music. There were no copyright laws, for example. Anyone could publish anything that might sell, whether it was already being published by someone else or not. Under such circumstances, composers had no control over the fate of their music, once it was sold to a publisher, even to the extent of merely correcting typographical errors. Nor could they benefit from arrangements of their music done by a person hired by the publisher, a very common practice with music for which there was a demand. In addition, there were no restrictions on publishers “stealing” from other publishers. There are countless instances in which a given work of a composer appeared in numerous editions put out by dozens of publishers in as many countries. They each, in turn, issued arrangements of popular works for what now seems like rather bizarre combinations of voices and instruments. This was especially true of operatic arias, since opera, especially comic opera containing a generous dose of political satire, was the most popular music of the day.. If a particular opera succeeded in becoming well known, arias were extracted for publication in whatever form would sell to the public. In all of this, the composer had no say and reaped no benefits.
On the other hand, composers were free to publish with whomever they wished. One publisher rarely held them to a binding contract. It was, of course, to their advantage to maintain loyalty to the publisher who was most consistently supportive. If their works became popular, it was this publisher who paid them the most money in hopes of preventing them from changing horses.
Under the circumstances, composers were always heavily involved in self-promotion. This generally took the form of performing their own music in concerts. Unlike concert programs of today, in which the performer presents works by a variety of composers from different periods, the performer was most often the composer, and the program was made up entirely of his or her own compositions. Very rarely did a performer present works by other composers. There were also occasions, especially in Vienna, when concerts were sponsored by wealthy patrons that involved the participation of several performers, all of whom presented samples of their works.”
Operatic Aspects of Interpretation
This was the golden age of Opera, and much of the music is either operatic fantasy, theme and variations, or influenced by the opera. Opera was as common and popular as the movie theater is today. It was not “high culture” but rather simple entertainment for the masses. Verdi’s operas incited such passion, that riot broke out on one occasion.
The music should be interpreted as operatic. This means exaggeration of expression, tonal color variation, extreme dynamics, passion, melodic ornamentation, and emotion: all the elements of opera. Sor’s method and other period methods go into great detail of how to mimic various instruments, and obtain sound effects. The music will go from dramatic tear-jerking grief, to whimsical and bouncy. Also, if you are not going to use the guitar’s resources, namely strums, tone color and such, you might as well play the piano: it has more volume, is easier to strike the notes, and you can play more notes at once with greater voice independence.
Most people I know have never listened to opera and do not particularly like it. However, if you are going to play this style of music correctly, suck it up and buy yourself an opera CD in order to better understand 19th century guitar interpretation. In fact, most of the guitar music emulates the major composer of the time: Rossini. The amount of pieces based on Rossini themes is truly incredible. As a professed opera hater, my outlook changed after getting a copy of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubador) in order to better understand the Mertz Opern Revue solo – in fact, it began to really grow on me. I suggest getting Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” – anybody who has ever watched television will instantly recognize many of the melodies, and countless 19th century guitar pieces have “borrowed” melodies from this opera. Stick to one opera CD, and listen to it many times until the melodies are familiar. Then go apply this style to your early romantic guitar performances.
In addition, music of the day was not usually played straight off the page as in a “recital.” Performers were expected to improvise or compose their own variations intermixed with the written variations. Also, performers were rated based on their ability to apply ornamentation to the melody line, just like the operatic vocalists of the day whose music the guitar imitated.
The melody line of the guitar can be regarded as the opera singer. The guitarist’s proper interpretation should encompass operatic elements. Operatic vocal practice of the day is explained by John McCormick in his article Songs with Guitar from the Age of Napoleon:
“In fact, the practice of ad-lib melodic ornamentation was probably practiced since the beginnings of opera as a form. Staged performances were often used as a showcase for singers who were capable of displaying the greatest range and flexibility. By the eighteenth century, their very careers had come to depend entirely on their ability to dazzle their audiences. Their vocal displays normally included improvisation of lavish melodic ornamentation, often so extreme that it rendered the work of the composer nearly unrecognizable. One manifestation of this trend was the phenomenon of the castrato, a voice type that began in the church and migrated to opera. This was a voice of incomparable power, range and agility, ideally suited for the times.”
Obviously you don’t want to go too far over the deep end in your interpretation, or play sloppy. The performance foundation should be based on careful control and accuracy. This is equivalent to adding good ingredients and a base to soup. The operatic, emotional interpretation is akin to adding “seasonings” or “spices” – too much spice, and the soup is inedible; not enough, and it is bland. The ability to balance control with passion, in just the right amounts, is what separates an “acceptable” yet boring academic performance from a master virtuoso that truly excites the audience.