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The Shade of Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor

 Introduction: The first piece I ever wrote for classical guitar was a little ditty called “Spooky Blues.” The premise of this piece was that the guitar is haunted, which causes strange sounds to keep interrupting the performance–and all hell breaks loose at the end. Perhaps that’s what started all of this. 

Part One: An Unexpected Seance

Whenever I sit down to write a piece of music for the classical guitar,  I start with little more than a sheet of blank music paper and a pencil, my guitar, a recording device perhaps, a spark of inspiration, and the hope for good musical weather.

Composing with ghosts 3I am also, usually unwittingly, performing a seance. This is something I only realized after I started making enquiries.

Here’s what usually happens: I play a few passages—first spark, best spark. I soon get excited when some little bit of what I play sounds fresh and new to me. I commit that little bit to the page on the music stand in front of me.

At the same time, attracted from an unknown distance, the unsatisfied shade of a dead guitarist-composer sneaks up, and hangs out, squinting behind my left shoulder.

I’ve determined that it’s often Fernando Sor, who wrote the first piece of classical guitar music that I fell in love with. But I rarely know for sure.

The ghost is drawn by the familiar sound of flesh-and-blood fingers, striving to pluck new forms of beauty from the same six strings that once bewitched him. To him they glow like a beacon: these penciled-in notes on music paper, struggling to find the right shape and form. 

How can I know this is happening for sure? There’s no absolute proof, yet. I could be imagining it all. And the strange encounter I’ll be reporting on in a minute could be a waking dream, a kind of  21st century musician’s spontaneous wish-fulfillment fantasy. Heck, I could be making it up entirely! I do ask that you heed this legal disclaimer before reading on—it was recommended by my lawyer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Nevertheless, after I had the encounter that I’ll describe soon, I know that my friend Fernando is not the only one who pays me visitations. There are others, plenty of others, and indeed the shades, the spirits, the stray thoughts of past guitarist-composers can somehow mix with each other, beyond the veil, and come together in mutual desire as a single ghost.

On the night in question, which didn’t seem particularly special other than that it was my birthday, I was visited by such an entity:  He called himself Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega-Sanz y Sor.

And so, what follows is my best attempt to relay to you as accurately as possible this mysterious incident:


It’s night-time, and I’m home alone, composing, feeling inspired. Where is the music leading me tonight? It could still go in a number of directions. My first musical snippet reminds me of Sor as I play it. The next tentative phrases that I write down have a baroque-guitar flavor—the spirit of Gaspar Sanz, 17th Century guitar whiz? I feel a slight shiver at the back of my neck, the second one this evening. 

I pencil in a melodic flourish, concluding the second line, and notice a hint of late 19th Century romantic Spanish guitar—it reminds me a bit of Francisco Tarrega. I feel another shiver, and my hair feels prickly.

Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor is knocking subtly on the soft barrier separating the inside of my head from the inside of the rest of the universe. Without quite realizing what I’m assenting to, I let in his ghost. The shiver at the back of my neck goes full blaze up and down my spine, and my hair stands on end.  Suddenly I see him, but only out of the corner of my eye. When I turn to look, his form becomes a blur and is quickly gone.

“What the…” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Is someone there?”

The ghost doesn’t say anything for a moment, but then a raspy half-whisper answers me:

You may call me Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor.

The accent is European, but I can’t quite place it—could be Spanish, or French, partly British even. I know somehow that the ghost’s attention is on the music stand, and I turn to look at my fledgling piece. I feel suddenly self-conscious about it.

The ghost sighs, and the paper in front of me seems to glow for a moment.

“When you die, you leave so much undone. Even a great artist can never leave life satisfied—there’s always so much more left to create. ” He says this with deep sadness.

That’s depressing, I think to myself. I remember now that Fernando Sor died of tongue-cancer. And was known to dedicate pieces to “whoever wants them.”

“Only a small portion of one’s vision ever becomes music on paper. And even this, rarely is it fully recognized, deeply heard and felt. The living are mostly deaf—they chase madly after things that don’t matter.” Bitterness, and another deep sigh, giving a brief glow to the music paper. Then the ghost seems to look straight at me. I remain facing forward, frozen. On your deathbed, that is how it can feel.

But after I died, he says, and his voice lightens up, I saw so much more! I saw how much my music mattered. Even that little bit I managed to compose, that it actually mattered!

I feel the lump in my throat get lighter.

From where I sit I can now see how my music inspires the future.  And that’s you, and also many others.

I can tell the ghost has turned to look at the music stand again. Yes, your piece drew us here—it has promise.

My heart thumps noticeably—I can feel and hear it thumping. But I realize I’m not as afraid now. I’m feeling…noticed. Heard. There’s hope in the ghost’s voice, and pleasure. Which makes sense: if some part of Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega and Gaspar Sanz stayed behind, it’s no surprise that they might be waiting and watching in the wings, coming forward to check things out when someone alive tries to pick up and continue where they left off.

I can feel you all, the ghost says softly. There’s a special quality in his voice that’s hard to describe, but it’s as if listening and speaking were the same thing for him. I feel immediate contact with all lovers of the guitar, all of you with your hearts mesmerized by the soundhole’s mysteries, all of you willing to dive in and dedicate yourselves to bringing its music to life.

Suddenly he’s getting sharper, it seems to me. Out of the edge of my eye I can almost see his hands caressing the strings of a delicate ghost guitar. And now it seems he has the look of a dapper 19th Century gentleman, with dark, tousled hair and a white high-collared shirt.  It must be Fernando Sor coming to the fore :

Fernando_Sor bv

It was a lovely moment for me, Fernando says. I felt it when you, a shy, awkward 12 year old first fell in love with my Variations on a Theme of Mozart. You heard it on a scratchy recording, and you played it over and over.  

I remember that moment fully for the first time in nearly 40 years. I’m deeply touched.

I could feel it every time you carried that tune inside you like a candle of joy, while wandering the unhappy hallways of your secondary school.  

I remember this too! Walking around high-school full of teenage angst, and suddenly thinking of that tune. If that music exists, then there’s hope in the world! Other moments start coming to me too, highlights of many hours spent contentedly exploring the charmed landscapes of Fernando Sor’s pieces. Without moving my head,  I try to turn my eyes slowly towards the ghost. As I do so, I see his clothing has changed, and his guitar seems larger. He now has a black goatee, mustache, and beetling eyebrows. He wears a dark bowtie. Francisco Tarrega has come forward.

Tarrega v

I still remember when you played the Capricho Arabe, Francisco says, for your high-school talent show! It was innocent, passionate, and it quite captured the soul of my work. It gave the audience joy.

Ever since then, he continues, I kept an ear on you. And when you started to compose many years later, I was rather pleased.  I’ve been paying you visitations. There’s a chord sequence, for instance, in your Threnody that I would have to say I steered you towards.  And I especially enjoyed working with you on your Variations on a Mongolian Folk Song. Oh, and your Trio Sonatina! Just lovely!

I feel flattered, but also a little miffed—the part of me that wants to take full credit for every note I thought I wrote, that is. But I turn to look at Francisco’s ghost, wishing to thank him as humbly as I can. By the time my head is turned, he’s gone. I hope I haven’t frightened them all away. I turn to play and write some more.

Before long, I feel the presence again, and now the ghost seems even brighter, and lighter. His hair seems curly, silver and wild, shoulder-length. A bright scarf hangs loosely around his neck. I sense the wise and knowledgeable air of an elderly professor—one with a lot of youthful exuberance, that is.  Gaspar Sanz has come forward.

Gaspar seems less interested in complimenting my compositions, but he does seem to be interested in this piece I’m writing. My dear gentleman, I know you are not Spanish by birth but such is never a requirement—only that you are in touch with the Spanish soul while composing.

“I’m…not sure this piece will even sound that Spanish. I just started it.”

Nevertheless, would you like to sample the Spanish soul? he asks.  He offers to play an improvisation on his Espańoleta for me on his original 5-string guitar, “in the 17th century manner,” he adds.

I hear him start to tune—a magical sound, and I nod. “”Please, yes!”

Gaspar Sanz v

The Espańoleta starts, just behind my left shoulder. It’s delicate and distant but I’ve never heard it played with so much soul. Without realizing what I’m doing I turn to watch him play. There is a light halo about his form—as if the light of previous centuries shimmers through him. There is also great darkness all around him—my studio has disappeared—and as he moves further and further into improvisation, his immaterial fingers create joyful glowing flourishes that die out into the darkness.

When he’s done I just say “Wow!”

It’s a dumb thing to say but all that I can think for a few moments.  Although to me it did seem that some of the improvised harmonies were a bit…well, modern.

“Those were some unusual chords….was that entirely in the late 17th century style, maestro?” I ask, and immediately regret my presumptuousness. But Gaspar Sanz isn’t shy like the other two. He looks straight up at me with an impish grin.

Are we in the 17th Century? Music performed always takes on the hue of the current epoch.  I’m interested in expression and creativity, not correctness. And I have now been composing for more than 300 years.

I have no argument with that. I’ve learned much from attempts to resurrect performance practice of previous centuries. They reveal something valuable and essential about the true spirit of the music. But I have always equally treasured the “historically wrong” yet artistically exciting interpretations and creations. Is it exciting music? Is it fascinating? Is it gorgeous? Does it challenge you to listen deeply? Does it wake up your soul? Those are the kinds of questions that seem more important to me than “is it correct?”

By the way, did you know my music inspired Rodrigo to write a magnificent concerto? Of course you do. He seems quite proud of this. It was quite wonderful, and quite “incorrect!”

I converse into the night with them, with him, with it….I don’t know how to use pronouns to refer to this ghost, the ghost of Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor. Gaspar reads us some of his poetry. Fernando talks about his ballets. Francisco talks about the use of fingernails—he’s changed his mind on their use. And so the subject turns to the status of our instrument and its music in the world today.

By now, I have not only turned my head to face Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor—I’ve turned my chair and am facing the entity toe to toe, guitar to guitar. When it’s not talking, its face and form is in a constant flux, the features of one man, two men, or all three flowing as freely as thought in front of me. When one ghost comes forward and speaks, it’s features come to the fore as well, and sharpen almost to the point of feeling solid.

More and more these days I see the world turning away from these compositions, this style, this tradition, says Gaspar.

I feel it too! says Francisco Fernando, that although there are more people listening because there are more people in the world, the world’s attention is no longer on the classical guitar. It no longer feels that important.

Perhaps it is going to slowly die out, Gaspar Francisco says.

Then perhaps it will show up in the music of the future as we show up for you, says Gaspar Fernando. From behind the left shoulder. As a memory, as a ghostly suggestion, as fragments of a forgotten musical language.

“That will be a long time from now, I hope,” I say. “By then…I will have joined you,” I add, “There’s a lot of great guitar music that’s not classical. Whatever the word “classical” means anyways.”

And so we get on the wider subject of guitar music in general and guitar players beyond classical strictures. Gasper has wide-ranging tastes, and is the only one who will acknowledge that the electric guitar is a guitar at all. He is a great fan of the Blues, and of Jimi Hendrix. He can play a supernaturally good Voodoo Child. His mind is truly broad: for instance, he even likes Milton Babbit’s impossible Composition for Guitar, (impossible to play, and nearly impossible to listen to on most days) which he also starts to play for us, before the rest of us ask him politely if we can move on to something else.

Fernando is on the fence about the electric guitar being a true guitar. Heavy metal musicians do have quite a love for classical music and for the classical guitar, he remarks. He likes a few rock guitarist-composers. Precious few. Eddie Van Halen, for instance: He plays cleanly and with great passion and enjoyment. He plays us the “up to date” version of the Mozart Variations—with 6 new variations, all obviously inspired by later musical styles, including a rousing finale that could have been written by Van Halen—if he’d lived in Sor’s time.

Francisco is quite adamant in his dislike of anything amplified, feeling that it all contributes to the drowning out of his beloved tradition. If classical guitar music fades away, so too we would fade away! says Francisco. And amplified music is one of the biggest reasons for that.

Gaspar says, But there is one thing that will never fade, and that is Music itself. It only seems to end. It only seems to begin. From where we stand, we can see this clearly. Because we can see music.

“You can see music? All of you? What is that like? I ask, excited.

Fernando Sor says “Seeing Music is like wandering through a vast weatherscape. The many tones create colors and emotions, The harmonies paint the sky and the clouds, the rhythms build up into pounding storms of sound. Yet my favorite melodies are like the sweetest of breezes…they turn your head and lift your spirit in the subtlest way…

Francisco Tarrega, interrupting him, says “Hmmm. That’s charming, Fernando. Charming. I would describe Music more like a magical city-circus full of wonders, sprinkled with gardens, parks and forests of ancient music, cathedrals of angelic sound, alleyways lit by the sound of serenades… “

Gaspar Sanz, who’s been here the longest, says, “Ahem….I’ve been much intrigued by the study of ‘neuroscience’ in your time. Even though I have no neurons myself, so to speak! He chuckles lightly.  Every moment is Music, fed by the past, called forth by future.The best way to describe all of Music, he continues, is to imagine an infinite universe-sized brain whose neurons and synapses are formed by the very flowing of endlessly interwoven, infinitely entangled threads of melody, harmony and rhythm. All that can be imagined, everything alive and all that is beyond life, it’s all Music!

Hmmm…hmmm, Fernando and Francisco interrupt, sounding a bit doubtful, but they allow Gaspar to continue:

Death is a university, you see.  And it has a truly exquisite music department. Since I died and was afforded this perspective, the growth and evolution of music on your plane has been quite something to see.  I’ve been continually educated and inspired and entertained, for 300 years. I still am far from graduating.

So much new music coming into being, so many traditions—and anti-traditions! All of them discovering and connecting with each other. Their paths now criss-cross each other freely and very few hidden enclaves of expression remain. The exploration and novelty and complexity and life of music has developed…ahem, ‘exponentially’. He pronounces this 20th century word with a curious sense of relish.

Imagine, for instance, as dear Francisco’s vision might suggest, that Music is a city within a forest…

Not exactly what I said!” interrupts Francisco.

Imagine, continues Gaspar, our musical civilization growing from the mists and mysteries of this primeval forest. As virtuoso guitarists, our tradition comes from an ancient one, that of cultivated oneness with a single instrument. The music we play starts from the wood of those ancient trees, and we use our touch and our craft to entice the wood to sing.

Yes, yes, bravo! Says Francisco Fernando, that is a most apt description!

Gaspar continues: And we use the fire of our hearts as well. There is a flame of warm, loving attention that makes playing and performing with a guitar feel like sitting warmed by a bonfire in a forest clearing. The fire is the attention of the listener, and your own listening as well. You stoke this fire and enliven it with every note you play.

“Interesting analogy…” I say as I thoughtfully consider it.

Such bonfires are still easy to light, they are just harder to maintain. Other forms of electric musical noise fill the forest, shooting back and forth, blasting it with shots of energy and excitement, lighting up trees. Much of the forest is clear-cut, and built over, and its leftovers are confined into parks and gardens. Amplified booms and rapturous crowds inundate the available clearings, Light and sound rush about, rain down like lightning, and the tiny bonfires are quickly extinguished.

Thus the older elegance of cultivated oneness with our single, simple instrument is drowned out….

Suddenly, we hear the distant the rumble of piano arpeggios, growing louder and closer. That’s when I remember that today is my birthday, which I share with none other than Ludwig van Beethoven! And it seems the great composer himself has decided to pay us a visit.

Next week: Ludwig van Beethoven Pretends to Be Deaf

Composing with ghosts 3

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