Back around the 1970’s a trend started affirming that the classical literature for guitar (I mean Sor, Giuliani and several others, just in case you ignorants don’t know what I am talking about) was passé, because 1) it was not up to the standards of Beethoven or Mozart (they had no idea who Haydn was), 2) it did not modulate enough, 3) it was formally weak, 4) it all sounded the same. In fact, an article on a guitar magazine at the time dared to call Sor “Fernando Bore”. I am not making this up. Today, this trend not only continues, but it has become some kind of accepted and dominant thought. It is time to FIGHT IT. Classical guitarists of the world, unite!
OK. Let’s take the objections one by one.
I start with the second one. If richness of modulation was the only criteria of quality, any jazz standard is better than Bach’s Ciaccona, or the first movement of Brandenburg III, or the initial choir of St.Matthew’s Passion. Not to speak of the “Arietta” of Beethoven’s op. 111, which is basically C and G7. Boring. Really, these Bach and Beethoven, difficult to know what they thought they were doing, such really unsophisticated people.
As many people who wrote in guitar magazines at the time came really from jazz or rock, and had little knowledge of (serious) music, it is not surprising they thought in this way, but I doubt they could be taken seriously. It’s like those people who think Rossini was a lightweight because he did not write symphonies, and the only thing they know about Rossini is a couple of arias from the first act of the “Barbiere”. The funniest thing is that the accusation is basically false (see Giuliani op.105, Introduction, for a start, see Sor’s Fantaisie Élégiaque, see the Legnani Caprices, see whatever you want) but, of course, if you don’t know the works you are bashing, and neither do the readers, no problem.
About the first objection: a work must be judged on its own terms. Sor or Giuliani or Aguado or Legnani or Mertz or whoever were not writing music because they wanted to be Beethoven. They had no interest in becoming epigons. They just wanted to write good music for guitar, because that was what they played. And when in good form, they are pretty good. Yes, not all of their production is at maximum level, but also Ludwig van wrote some pretty weak pieces (I don’t know if you’ve heard “Wellington’s Victory” recently). In their own time, they were in no way considered marginal. Look how Berlioz remembered Sor, many years after the latter’s death, in his treaty on instrumentation. Look at the reviews of the concerts of Giuliani and Legnani. And those critics were not writing in guitar magazines, blinders-wearing ignorants of the wide and wild world of music. Yes, almost all the reviews, excepting (curiously) some of Legnani, said basically “great musician, miserable instrument”, because the notion that the prejudice against the guitar not being capable of doing “serious” music could possibly be wrong could not enter their thick heads. It always seemed an exception when they heard good music played on the guitar. (Have you reread some of the reviews of Llobet’s or Segovia’s concerts? Why does it seem that we are writing on water?) But even so, it was a part of the world of serious music.
There is also that thing about “formal weakness”. I have no idea about what would be the point here. Those ho had a good command of form (basically Sor and Giuliani, who had a good non-guitaristic musical education) are comparable to any of their contemporaries and beat the heck out of quite a few of them. Those who didn’t, never tried to compose formally ambitious works, and should be evaluated in their own terms (Legnani, Aguado). Incredibly, even such a revolutionary piece, formally speaking, as Sor’s op. 25, a goodbye to the sonata form in the vein of the latter Ludwig van, has been misunderstood too.
“They all sound the same” – only when badly played. If you massacre a Beethoven sonata, and we have never heard it well played, it won’t sound so good either. If you give to Sor, Giuliani or the others the same attention and respect a good pianist would give to LvB, believe me, you will be surprised. Each of them had a very characteristic style. It’s like saying that all books are the same because they have approximately the same shape. Look inside and you will see it is not quite the same. Here, there are a lot of problems to be considered, which I am not going to mention now because I am doing some serious work on them elsewhere, but knowing the performance practices of the time is a must, and trying to use the technical paradigms of each composer is basic too (yes, the paradigms were different, because all of them were basically self-taught).
The really terrible thing is that those value judgements, so negative and so categoric, which I mentioned above, were made not only without knowing the complete works (which were published later); it was literally speaking from hearsay, at most taking into consideration some mediocre performance. And if they heard a good performance, they thought only that the player was so fabulous that “he almost made me like Giuliani” (I am not making this up either, it comes from one of my reviews – sorry for quoting it, but it illustrates the point). If you find something in common with the reviews of concerts by Sor and Giuliani I mentioned earlier, it is not an accident. Idiots are still with us. So: let’s defend the family jewels. If we won’t, who will?