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“Smits plays with more heart than anybody should be allowed to have.”—Classical Guitar Corner

Raphaella Smits, guitar

SOR: Fantasie élégiaque, Op. 59
BACH: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
BACH: Lute Suite in G minor, BWV 995
MERTZ: Elegy
Le Romantique, Grande Fantasie

This concert is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes in duration.


Pre-concert talk at 7 pm with Benjamin Verdery of Yale University and guest Raphaella Smits.

Corresponding Music Appreciation Class: Introducing Bach, Part II: Suites and Partitas—pg 58. 

Art of the Guitar and 92nd Street Y Guitar Institute are generously supported by The Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. and Erna D. Leir; The Augustine Foundation; and The D’Addario Music Foundation.

Raphaella Smits
BACH: Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – Chaconne


Explore The Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

SOR: Fantasie elégiaque, Op. 59


Born Barcelona, baptized February 14, 1778; died Paris, July 10, 1839
Fantasie elégiaque, Op. 59
Composed c. 1836; 12 minutes

After taking the losing side in the Napoleonic era, the great Catalan guitarist Fernando Sor fled to Paris for a few years. He then moved to London, where four of his ballets were produced. The great success of one, Cendrillon, took him to Moscow in 1823 for the opening of the Bolshoi. In 1826 he returned to Paris, teaching and performing as a lion of cultured salons.

Much of the music Sor wrote for the guitar in Paris in the last decade of his life was cynically scaled to market demand, in terms of sentiment and technical ability. The Fantasie elégiaque, however, is a deeply felt threnody on the death of the pianist Charlotte Beslay, a member of the Rossini circle and one of Sor’s own pupils. His penultimate work for solo guitar, this E-minor Fantasie is not flashy, but uncompromising in the technical control it requires. It opens with a lengthy introduction that establishes the solemn, even oppressive, mood with musical sighs and dotted figures, much of it built over pedal tones of repeated notes.

The Funeral March takes up the insistent dotted rhythms, but finds a moment of solace in a cantabile section in E major. It returns to the opening austerity for the tragic close, however, and just before the end, Sor has the words “Charlotte! Adieu!” placed in the score over declamatory musical cries.

© 2013 John Henken

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BACH: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004


Born Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
Composed c.1720; 28 minutes

The origin of the three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin—Sei Solo (Six Solo), as the manuscript is simply headed—probably extends back to Bach’s first tenure in Weimar, a bare six months in 1703. One of the Weimar court musicians at that time was Johann Paul von Westhoff, a well-educated and well-traveled violinist who had published a set of short, four-movement partitas for solo violin in Dresden in 1696 (and a suite in 1683 in Paris). These are the first known multi-movement works for unaccompanied violin, and Bach would have met and worked with Westhoff.

The Sei Solo were brought to finished state in 1720 in Cöthen, however, during Bach’s years in service as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold. This was the period (1717–1723) of Bach’s greatest concentration on instrumental music. Exactly when the works were first performed and by whom is unknown, though Bach himself would be an obvious possibility.

The first half of the D-minor Partita consists of a clear statement of the four core dances of the Baroque suite: stately Allemanda, “running” Corrente, somber Sarabanda (far removed by this time from its much wilder origins) and dashing Giga. Each of these dances is cast in typical binary form (two halves, each repeated), though rather darker in character than the norm. (The Sarabanda ends, unusually, with a little coda.)

As attractive and winning as those dances are in performance and contemplation alike, they fade into generic anonymity in comparison with the towering Ciaccona that follows. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

In some ways, the Chaconne (to use the more common French spelling) is the fulfillment of the previous dances, all of which give intimations of the Chaconne’s repeating bass and harmonic pattern. The Chaconne moves in the rhythm of the Sarabanda (in 3/4, with the weight on the dotted second beat). It is in three-part form, with the exalted middle section in the parallel major. A chaconne is basically a set of free variations over a repeating harmonic pattern (and/or its bass line). This one is protean enough that analysts cannot even agree on how many of these patterns or themes there are, or whether it is 32 variations on an eight-bar pattern(s) or 64 on a four-bar figure(s).

It should not be surprising then, that the Chaconne has also inspired reworking by later musicians in a multitude of transcriptions and arrangements, nor that it has prompted extravagant theories about the inner nature of its mysteries. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has developed a theory that the entire Partita and the Chaconne in particular are full of coded references to death and to pertinent chorales. Thoene believes that the Chaconne is in fact a tombeau, a memorial piece for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720 unexpectedly while Bach was away with Prince Leopold. Thoene’s evidence tends to rely on numerology, but several recordings have shown, in very different, intriguing, and even compelling ways, how chorale fragments might be embedded in this music.

© 2013 John Henken

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BACH: Lute Suite in G minor, BWV 995


Lute Suite in G minor, BWV 995
Composed c.1728; 25 minutes

Bach’s solo lute music was composed over a period of 30 years or more, including versions of some of his solo violin and cello pieces written for musicians at Cöthen, and apparently for different types of lutes or lute-like instruments. The G-minor Suite is Bach’s own arrangement of his Fifth Cello Suite... or possibly the relationship goes the other way. It is the only one of his works for lute to come to us in something like an original manuscript, notated on treble and bass staves like keyboard music by Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife, around 1728 in Leipzig. Hence the usual assumption that the cello version came first, but this was also the time that Anna Magdalena made the earliest surviving copy of the cello suites. For the cello version Bach requires an unusual tuning, with the cello’s top string detuned from A down to G, which makes some of the double-stopping easier in its dark key of C minor.

This suite has a pronounced French cast, apparent from the beginning with a Prelude that is really a French overture, with a stately opening in duple meter featuring dotted rhythms, followed by an athletic dance in triple meter that hints suggestively at polyphonic imitation. But this is surely one of the most somber French overtures ever penned, more tragic than ceremonial in the opening, more relentless than light-footed in the dance. It builds over a tonic pedal tone to a crashing climax, subsiding in descending appoggiaturas to the exhausted peace of the final cadence with a Picardy third (in the tonic major).

A standard group of binary dances follows, as in all of the cello suites, though in this case uncompromisingly tough-minded dances. The Allemande picks up the paradoxically austere pomp of the Prelude, with chords on the downbeats and dotted rhythms in between. The big-boned Courante is again in the French manner, notated in 3/2 rather than the 3/4 of the Italianate courantes of the other cello suites, with hemiola patterns in the cadences and much of the heroic character of the Allemande.

The Sarabande is not just the chronological center, but also the emotional and spiritual pivot, the most transcendent, soul-plumbing movement. Although this is a dance suite and Bach was primarily occupied with secular music in Cöthen, it should not be assumed that sacred themes and allegories were necessarily far from his mind. Guitarist Paul Galbraith believes that this Sarabande quotes the et incarnatus est (“and the word was made flesh”) passage in the Credo of Bach’s B-minor Mass. It is astonishing music of hauntingly simple means: broken chords in the style brisé so characteristic of French lute music, but stretched out in dissonant intervals and octave displacements almost to the breaking point, and that despite the limpid poise of the steady rhythm. As Wilfrid Mellers put it, “the level quaver [eighth note] movement remains calm, almost disembodied: physical (harmonic) anguish dissolves in metaphysical (melodic) grace.”

The two Gavottes return us to earthier realms, the first a rather burly, heavily accented dance, the second fluttering in fleet triplets. The concluding Gigue dispels the prevailing intensity with leaping, pulse-defying games, although in the dark spirit of the suite, its wit has an unsettling edge.

© 2013 John Henken

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MERTZ: Elegy and Le Romantique, Grande Fantasie


Born Pozsony (Pressburg), Hungary (now Slovakia), August 17, 1806; died Vienna, October 14, 1856
Composition date unknown; 8 minutes
Le Romantique, Grande Fantasie
Composition date unknown; 7 minutes

Mertz was born János Gáspár to a family of very modest means in what was then an important city in Hungary but is now Bratislava in Slovakia. Little is known of his early years, but he moved to Vienna in 1840 and quickly established himself as a leading virtuoso on the guitar, concertizing throughout central and eastern Europe. He married the concert pianist Josephine Plantin in 1842, and much of what is known of his life and career comes from her brief biographical account published 40 years after he died. They performed together, and much of Mertz’s music is modeled on the character pieces, dances and popular operatic transcriptions that were the bulk of the contemporary piano repertory.

Another important source of information about Mertz is the Russian guitar enthusiast Nicolai Petrovich Makaroff, who met Mertz in Vienna. Makaroff had been unimpressed by Mertz’s published works, but eagerly purchased his big pieces in manuscript. Mertz told Makaroff why he did not publish his best music: “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.”

Mertz was prolific, and his opus numbers go up to at least 100 but do not reveal much about the date of composition. (Many of his works also do not have opus numbers, which were often added by publishers, and many of his opus numbers cover numerous individual pieces, such as his Bardenklänge, Op. 13, which includes dozens of pieces organized in 15 books, or his Opern-Revue, Op. 8, which included over 30 of his opera fantasies.)

One of the astounding monuments of the Romantic guitar, Mertz’s A-minor Elegy circulated widely in manuscript (and eventually in print). Though composed probably within ten years of Sor’s Le Romantique, Grande Fantasie, it clearly reveals the generational change in technical means (particularly in the right hand) as well as musical ends. It alternates free variations on an expressive falling theme with florid broken-chord passages.

Le Romantique (without opus number in many editions) is in many ways even more astonishing, sounding much like Barrios almost a century before his time. Multisectional, it has a richly rhetorical introduction, a fluttering bit of right-hand display and a modest little Andantino, all prefacing a hand-boggling Allegretto with an almost constant interior tremolo on the open B string.

© 2013 John Henken

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Artist Bio

Raphaella Smits

For the past 20 years, Belgian guitarist Raphaella Smits has been an ardent advocate of the eight-stringed guitar. Whether playing classical or contemporary, Baroque or Latin, Ms. Smits relies on the eight strings to give her guitar playing “more body,” as she describes it. More recently, she has also developed a passion for early instruments, which she inherited from Jos Van Immerseel, the renowned Flemish harpsichordist, pianist, conductor and early-music authority.

Ms. Smits began her musical studies at the Royal Conservatories of Antwerp and Brussels. She also went to Spain to study with José Tomàs at the "Catedra Andrès Segovia" in Alicante, Spain. There she was introduced to the eight-string guitar and began playing recitals. In 1986 Ms. Smits became the first woman to win the first prize of the “XX Certamen Internacional de Guitarra Francisco Tarrega,” a prominent international guitar competition held in Benicasim, Spain. She also took prizes at competitions in Granada and Palma de Mallorca.

Since then Ms. Smits has performed around the world in solo recitals and chamber music concerts with her unique style on eight-string guitars and historical instruments. She made her 92Y debut in April 2011 during its Tribute Concert to Leo Brouwer. Composers from around the world have written works for Ms. Smits, including Sérgio Assad, Janpieter Biesemans, Jorge Cardoso, Wim Henderickx, Jorge Morel and Owe Walter. As an enthusiastic chamber musician, Ms. Smiths has appeared onstage with such other guitarists as David Russell, Hubert Käppel, Oscar Ghiglia and Benjamin Verdery. She particularly enjoys working with vocalists; she has been playing with tenor Guy De Mey on a regular basis for the past 20 years, and has appeared with Baroque soprano Lena Lootens and Latin singer Liliana Rodriguez.

Since 1977, Ms. Smits has made 17 recordings, reflecting her wide-ranging musical interests. An exclusive Accent Records artist, her most recent release is The Eight-Stringed Bach, featuring her own arrangements of the Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin plus Bach works for flute and lute. Among her other recent recordings are Reina de la noche, with songs from Argentina & Brazil, and Popular Spanish songs, both featuring Ms. Rodriguez. Others include In Deep Silence, a disc of contemporary guitar music; Harmonie du soir, with Romantic guitar music; and Early 19th Century Guitar Music, played on a seven-string guitar and featuring Schubert lieder

Ms. Smits is internationally praised as an inspiring teacher for both guitar and chamber music. She holds a chair at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven, Belgium, and regularly gives master classes around the world. She is also in great demand as a jurist for international music competitions; last week she juried a competition in Dublin. Ms. Smits’ website is

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Additional Information

Art of the Guitar and 92nd Street Y Guitar Institute are generously supported by The Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. and Erna D. Leir; The Augustine Foundation; and The D’Addario Music Foundation.

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