The autumn of 2017 saw the release of the remarkable and important third (and final) volume of Norwegian guitarist Runar Kjeldsberg’s series of recordings covering the complete solo works for guitar by the brilliant, but still under-appreciated, French composer, guitarist (and soldier!) François de Fossa (1775–1849). Inspirations (Vol. 3)—featuring de Fossa’s transcriptions and interpretations of works by Haydn (perhaps de Fossa’s strongest influence) and Mozart, as well as of popular dances of the era—joins the extraordinary set from 2014, Four Fantasias(Vol. 1), and 2016’s Divertissements: Op. 6, Op. 15 (Vol. 2); five discs in all.
All three are exciting and surprising discs, full of inspired writing and beautiful and at times dazzling playing. If you are not familiar with de Fossa, or have only heard a piece or two, you are in for a real treat. Kjeldsberg performs the pieces on Romantic period guitars crafted by the noted luthiers Rene Lacôte and Gennaro Fabricatore, and the music is expertly recorded by Roger Langvik.
I was utterly transported by all three volumes of de Fossa pieces, so I tracked down Kjeldsberg in Norway and asked him a few questions about his labor-of-love project.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: What originally attracted you to de Fossa and to then undertake this project?
RUNAR KJELDSBERG: I took my master’s degree studying with Carlo Marchione. I remember listening to his album with rondos by Aguado and de Fossa in the car on my way back from Frankfurt, where I had just picked up my brand-new Gernot Wagner guitar. I was broke but happy, and I decided I had to play one of those rondos on my master exam. I decided on the F# minor Divertimento No. 2. Two years later, I performed the same piece at a recital at the Academy of Music in Oslo. After the concert, Professor Erik Stenstadvold told me that there were very few of de Fossa´s solo pieces that were recorded. That got me searching, and the idea of recording the complete solo pieces slowly started to grow. I drew up a plan for recording the pieces I could find info about on the internet and applied for a grant from the Norwegian governmental art fund. To my great pleasure they decided to fund my project. Without the financial support it would have been impossible to complete such a large undertaking.
CG: Was it difficult to find the music for all the known solo guitar works? Are there any that you personally discovered in libraries or archives that had not previously been found?
KJELDSBERG: There are so many fantastic musicologists out there that do all the research for us musicians, so I focus my work on performing the music as well as I can. When I started the project, Op. 6, 15, and 9 were completely unknown to me, and not available through any conventional channels. Luckily, I had help from Erik
Stenstadvold to get in touch with the right people. Matanya Ophee helped me to identify the missing pieces on my list of works. Op. 9 was in the private collection of Gerhard Penn, and Op. 6 and 15 I had to get from Luis Briso de Montiano. Today, all those works have been published by the late Matanya Ophee on Editions Orphée. So all the solo works that I recorded are now available to any guitarist that would like to play them.
CG: What do we know about how de Fossa’s music was appreciated in his lifetime?
KJELDSBERG: We know that while he was in Madrid he was called the “Haydn of the guitar.” There is also a letter from de Fossa to his sister where he writes that he was given an offer by a publisher, but the offer was so bad that it would not cover the cost of the paper it was written on. Greatly offended, de Fossa decided to give up the idea of making a living as a composer. Since he only wrote music for himself, he didn’t need to simplify his pieces or produce large numbers of simple melodies such as we see from many of his contemporaries [to make ends meet]. De Fossa was the copyist of the famous Boccherini guitar quintets. The manuscripts we have today are by de Fossa’s hand. He was also the translator of Aguado’s Escuela de Guitarra method, where he added the musical excerpts in the chapter on modulations. So he was clearly well-connected and respected.
CG: He must have been an exceptional guitarist to have written some of these pieces, such as the Allegro for the Overture of Le calife de Bagdad, to mention just one. Were you surprised by the high level of both the arrangements/transcriptions and the original pieces?
KJELDSBERG: Indeed. What surprised me the most was that all of his pieces gave me a thorough challenge as a musician. Even the shorter pieces, such as the divertissements from Op. 6 and 15 are all solid miniature compositions that would be a challenge to anyone who takes this music seriously. Today, we would consider it madness to transcribe Haydn symphonies for solo guitar, but at the time this was the only way for people to get the great music of Haydn into their living rooms. I also find it amazing how well these transcriptions work for the solo guitar. You really get the feeling of playing an orchestral work. It is idiomatic, but far from easy. I was surprised by the overall level of all the pieces, because I didn’t expect that all of them would be of such high quality.
CG: In terms of originality and creativity, how would you say de Fossa stands in relation to, for example, Sor, Carulli, Giuliani, and Napoléon Coste? His Fantasies seem particularly expressive. At the same time, though, he is clearly a musician of his era, influenced by the great composers of that time.
KJELDSBERG: Many of the composers that we play today made a living from writing small, simple guitar pieces for the masses of amateur guitarists. Every composer has his own voice, but their cultural heritage shines through the music. Giuliani brought the Italian operatic and flamboyant style into his guitar works, and since he also played the cello, you can also hear the influence from bowed string instruments in his melodic writing. Sor traveled the world, but the Spanish culture was always in his heart. De Fossa clearly had a fascination for Haydn, and all his musical surprises. He differs from most other guitar composers of that time in that he was not afraid of using tonalities that are odd for the guitar, such as Bb major, F major or F# minor. He also has among the most fascinating modulations, while still staying in the style of classical music.
CG: Why was it important to you to perform this music on the Lacôte and Fabricatore guitars?
KJELDSBERG: There is nothing wrong with playing pieces from this period on a modern guitar; everything works just as well. But I´ve always been fascinated by the history and development of our beautiful instrument. I wanted to get in touch with the time period—to feel what they felt, touch what they touched, and hear what they heard as I played the instrument in my hands. The guitars from this period made by the master luthiers are exceptional pieces of art that need to be played so that we can hear and feel the sound of our history. There is no record of what specific guitar de Fossa himself played. My guess is that he played several different instruments in his lifetime, such as guitarists do today.
CG: One of de Fossa’s greatest modern advocates, Matanya Ophee, died recently. Can you say something about his contribution to popularizing de Fossa’s music?
KJELDSBERG: I think that if it wasn’t for the work of Matanya Ophee, François de Fossa would just be the name of the translator of Aguado’s Escuela de Guitarra, and nobody would ever bother to play any of his pieces. The importance of the work he did cannot be stressed enough. Matanya was feared and loved by musicologists and musicians around the world, and I hope his example of searching for the truth and promoting unknown composers that we believe in can be followed by future generations of the classical guitar world.
CG: What do you hope listeners will understand about de Fossa after hearing your CDs?
KJELDSBERG: So often I hear guitarists say that the classical-era guitar composers were not such great composers. I think that is a sad view of the great musical heritage that guitar music represents. I hope the listeners will understand that what we call “the golden age of the guitar” truly was a golden age, with great music that will fit in the most prestigious concert halls around the world. And that many of our obscure guitar composers actually wrote great music. Sometimes you have to give the music more time to learn how to appreciate it.
I’m actually surprised that de Fossa is not a more common composer to hear at guitar festivals around the world. But I hope that will change.