Early Guitar Masters

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the Christian era, the guitar is mentioned in two forms in the thirteenth century: theLatin guitar and the Moorish guitar. Both are illustrated in beautiful miniatures in themanuscript“Cantigas de Santa Maria” attributed to Alfonso the Wise of Spain. Of the two,the Latin guitar is closer to the figure-eight shape of the guitar as it developed in Spain andItaly.

In early sixteenth-century Spain, the vihuela became the instrument ofchoice for the serious musician. The vihuela was in fact an early form ofthe guitar, with six pairs of strings. Vihuela music may be playedwithout alteration on the modern guitar. The only significant differ-ence was the pairing of strings to produce a stronger sound, comparableto the 12-string guitar of today. The vihuela was played with thefingers, and a considerable repertoire of music existed for it in thenotation form known as “tablature.” The tuning was like that of theRenaissance lute, which in the rest of Europe was considered the “Kingof Instruments” and whose music is now a fertile source for guitarists.

At the same time, a smaller guitar, first with four and then with five setsof strings (known as courses), developed as a less sophisticated instru-ment for chording and the strumming style known as rasgueado used asaccompaniment for the dance.

Surprisingly, at the end of the sixteenth century, the vihuela went out of favor and it was thehumbler form of guitar that survived, now established with five courses. The name Spanishguitar became attached to this instrument, possibly to distinguish it from the earlier four-course variety, although guitars were also well known in Italy. Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615–1681), a famous Italian player, published extensively in the finger style that went beyondsimple chording. Corbetta’s playing was so popular that it soon became the rage amongseventeenth-century courtiers in France and England, launching the guitar in those coun-tries. In France the talented Robert de Visee (c. 1660–c. 1720) played frequently for LouisXIV, to whom he dedicated his collection of pieces published in 1682. Back in Spain, GasparSanz’s famous 1674 instruction book included detailed technique instruction and a finecollection of pieces that are still widely played.

The history of the guitar includes periods of fantastic popularity followed by periods ofdecline. The eighteenth century proved a time of low ebb for the guitar, until at its end thedouble strings gave place to single ones, and the sixth string was added to create the familiarform of today’s guitar. Sheep’s gut was used for the first three strings. The basses were formedby winding silver-plated copper wire onto a core of silk thread.

With the sixth string came a new wave of popularity with the public, led and inspired byvirtuoso players who also composed and wrote instruction methods for the guitar in its newform. The main centers were Vienna and Paris, and great players such as Mauro Giuliani(1781–1829) from Italy and Fernando Sor (1778–1839) from Spain were drawn to emigrate tothe north where enthusiastic audiences and students awaited them. Both composed exten-sively for the guitar, and laid the foundation for the solo repertoire. Ferdinando Carulli(1770–1841) produced a guitar method that is used to this day, and the “25 MelodiousStudies” of Matteo Carcassi (1792–1853) are still part of the standard student repertoire.

Following this great wave of popularity came a period of decline and neglect, and by themiddle of the nineteenth century the guitar was little played and rarely heard in concert. Itwas really thanks to Francisco Tarrega (1852–1909) that public interest was again awakened.

Although not as active a performer as Sor or Giuliani, Tarrega’s reputation spread due to hiswonderful compositions and his ability to produce an extremely beautiful and distinctivesound. This was due partially to his intimate knowledge of the guitar fingerboard and use ofthe higher positions on it to achieve a particular romantic quality. The general public tendedto become familiar only with the first five frets or so of the guitar, and to favor student piecesthat stayed within this limited range. Tarrega ignored these limitations to concentrate onworks that exploited the whole guitar, and as a result founded a school of playing andcomposing that survives today.

Although not a student of Tarrega, Andres Segovia (1893–1987) in a sense carried on thetradition and played Tarrega’s works extensively in concert. Where Tarrega had been some-what retiring as a player, and really preferred playing for intimate groups of friends andadmirers, Segovia took the guitar to the world, and brought the world into his concerts witha hitherto unknown level of virtuosity and musicianship. It was due to him that the guitar isnow recognized as an instrument worthy of serious study, and his interaction with compos-ers inspired the bulk of the existing repertoire.

In parallel with the growth of composed music for the guitar came popular developments inthe field of folk music. In Spain the guitar had been used since the earliest times as astrummed accompaniment for dancing, and it had a long and respected history as an accom-paniment for the voice. In the nineteenth century, the style known as flamenco evolved asaccompaniment for the songs and dances of Andalusia. Inspired by the gypsies and derivingfrom their songs and dances as they blended with traditional folk music, the style developed into a complex and vigorous art form. The guitar was the principal instrument of accompani-ment, and the continuing search for variety combined with a spirit of competition amongthe players resulted in an elevation of guitar technique to its highest levels. Many flamencoguitarists do not read music, and the style evolved primarily through exchange of ideas andexperimentation. The legendary Ramon Montoya (1880–1949) is credited as the originator ofmany of the best falsetas, the name given to the musical phrases used to intersperse theverses of the songs and to embellish the dance accompaniments. Traditionally flamenco hasnot been considered as a solo art for the guitarist, the player being essentially a skilledaccompanist for the song and dance. However today flamenco guitarists appear in concertand play improvisations based on their accompaniment skills to the delight of the fans oraficionados.

In the academic world of today the guitar has achieved a level of recognition and respect thatwas certainly lacking 50 years ago. Today many universities and music conservatories offer amusic degree with the guitar accepted as the major instrument. In the popular field, theguitar holds its own in spite of the comparative ease of playing of the synthesizer. Thoughthe sound is electronically amplified and often deliberately distorted, the human touch isalways apparent, and no keyboard can ever quite simulate the effect of fingers on strings.