Published: 18 November, 2021

Image: detail from Goya’s painting “3rd Of May 1808” in El Prado Museum, Madrid

Chaos, War, and How Aguado’s Guitar-Playing Stopped Napoleon’s Army

1808 started quite promisingly. In Milan, Ricordi opened its doors for business in January. The first publication it offered was a work for solo guitar: Le Stagione Dell’Anno by Antonio Nava dedicated (naturally) to Napoleon. This was boom time in Northern Europe for publishing. So too in culture: the Milan Conservatoire of Music was inaugurated in 1808.

February and March
Fernando Sor, 30 years old, and Dionisio Aguado, 23 years old, were not having a good time in Spain. The French invasion and occupation started in February and was met with fierce resistance. Sor joined the Spanish army, wrote patriotic songs, and played in a military band. Aguado sought safety in his home village of Fuenlabrada near Madrid.

April and May
The least affected personally by all the violence was Giuliani arriving in Vienna after its first surrender to the French. Aged 26, he gave the première of his concerto no.1 opus 30 in Vienna on April 3rd a few days after French forces, continuing their advance into Spain, had occupied Madrid. The painter Goya lived through the uprising that followed and captured the horror and violence in his painting 3 de mayo (3rd of May). The scene depicted in the painting occurred in Madrid a month after the concerto performance in Vienna.

The concerto was in a different league musically and technically from previous efforts, but it had a mixed reception, with one of the critics lamenting the waste of Giuliani’s talent on such a puny instrument.

1808 itself ended in Vienna with guns silent and a creative triumph. On 22nd December Beethoven premièred his symphonies nos. 5 and 6, his piano concerto no.4, and his Choral Fantasy – all in one concert.

Aguado the peace-maker
During the  occupation French soldiers near to Aguado’s village were ambushed and killed by Spanish Resistance fighters. As a reprisal the French decided to send a force to torch the village. Aguado remembering he had played a concert for the French general in charge set out to meet and persuade him not to proceed. He succeeded, and has been remembered as a local hero ever since. In spite of this, Fuenlabrada suffered casualties, destruction, and financial ruin in the final years of the French occupation.

What Happened Next
1809, the year after the concerto première,  Giuliani was not so lucky. The French laid seige to Vienna with artillery. The noise was such that Beethoven covered his ears to protect what was left of his hearing.

Italy reduced to a series of client states (including the once all-powerful Venice), Spain subdued but in revolt, Austria subjugated  – such was Napoleon’s power.

And yet among all this violence and uncertainty there was time and space for new music and new ventures. The German publishers Breitkopf & Hãrtel expanded their business to include making pianos; Giuliani continued to play and compose in 1809 with Vienna under attack; Sor published his sonatas op.14 and op.15b in 1810.

Giuliani left Vienna after its economic collapse in 1815. Sor fled Spain in 1813 to live in Paris and London.  Aguado stayed in Spain but lived in Paris during the 1820’s and 30s. He returned to Madrid where he died in 1849.
Thank you for reading.

3rd of May 1808 – painting by Fancisco Goya

Tecla Editions – for 1st edition reprints and more info about Sor and Giuliani

Aguado stops French Army – more info in Spanish

History of Aguado’s village of Fuenlabrada – more info

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