Repertoire Issues

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

by Matanya Ophee

Editor’s Note: This is the text of the lecture I delivered at the Cuernavaca 2000 festival, November 2000, Cuernavaca Mexico. The lecture was delivered in Spanish. The subject is an old one. I first read an early version of this paper at the 1986 Tychy Festival, where it was sequentially translated into Russian by Margarita Mazo and then into Polish by Edmund Yurkowski, one sentence at a time. It was a bit more refined when I read it at the 1987 GFA Festival in Tempe, Arizona. That text was reprinted in the American String Teacher (Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Spring of 1988) under the title: “Guitar Chamber Music: Review of a Decade.” I read some more elaborated versions of the same paper in the 1992 GBISS Summer School in England, in English of course. In the same year I read it in Russian in a series of lectures I read at the Kiev Conservatory in the Ukraine. It again surfaced in the 1994 Guitar Week in Denver. I probably read it in some other places as well. Probably not. What I am certain of is that I must have repeated the ideas expressed here a million times in various conversations and exchanges. Obviously, it is a subject I care about a great deal. The lecture generated a lot of discussions whenever I read it and Cuernavaca was no exception.

As an American businessman, I would like to begin by offering to sell you something. The product I wish to sell, is called Job Security as a Performing Guitarist. In my professional life as a publisher, I also sell the tools of the trade, but mainly I wish to sell you an idea. As usual, I promise to give you something to think about, something to be mad about and I will talk about music, about work, and with your indulgence, also about sex.

I would have liked to come here, and in this important moment, deliver to you good news. Unfortunately, what I have to say cannot be described as optimism. The guitar, as an intellectual discipline devoted to the practice of art music, is in serious trouble. The situation of the guitar in foreign countries may seem to you as better than it appears to you in this country. You might consider that the free availability of strings, sheet-music, books, records, instruments and other accessories, as well as the unrestricted flow of information, is a sufficient indicator about the health of the discipline. In my opinion, it is not enough to look at one’s own immediate needs and use the fact that it is so hard to satisfy them, as a gauge for the general health of the guitar. Even if you own the best possible instrument, able to mount new strings on it three times a day, easily buy any piece of sheet music that you need, and be in possession of the latest news in the field, you still need the most crucial element in the success of any musical enterprise—you need an audience.

Without a serious and enlightened audience, you have no future as a professional musician. You might be the greatest virtuoso that ever lived, but without an audience, you will still be compelled to exercise your art entirely outside the main stream of musical activity in human society. You could still play lunch-time concerts in factories and hospitals, an occasional evening for the local guitar club or guitar festival, and entertain your friends and family in social gatherings at home. But the doors of the great concert halls of the world, where the great violinists, pianists and singers appear with repeated success, will remain closed to you as long as the music you propose to play is of no interest to the audience. In other words, your future as a musician depends on two important factors. Your choice of repertoire and your ability to deliver a convincing account of it.

In this lecture, I would like to give you a brief outline of the development of guitar repertoire, and try to demonstrate where we have gone in the wrong direction. Perhaps this discussion will also suggest to us some ideas on how to go about attaining our rightful place and thus ensure the artistic, and yes, also the economic survival of musicians who play the guitar.

The guitar today does not know any geographical or political boundaries. It flourishes wherever the beauty and passion of music are allowed to persist. Yet, the guitar has never achieved a place of honor in the common society of music. Contrary to common misconceptions, the guitar was never on an equal footing with the instruments of the orchestra and the piano. Whatever “Golden Age” the guitar is supposed to have endured, its splendor was mainly the product of wishful thinking on the part of guitarists, a sentiment not shared by the general public. In the past as in the present, guitarists searched for ways to reach a public wider than that afforded by guitar societies and clubs.

Prejudice against the guitar always existed, and still exists today, even in countries like the United States where the guitar is being taught in more than 800 conservatories and universities. Let me read to you a short passage from a guitar concert review which clearly illustrates the common perception of the guitar by the majority of professional musicians:

“. . . But here is an instrument we long have not heard in our concerts, an instrument flying over from the blazing south to our distant cold north, an instrument of Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, an inseparable companion of any Spaniard . . . in a word, the Guitar, too inadequate an instrument for the concert stage . . . we would have liked to listen to it under the window of a beautiful maiden in a quiet summer night, under a silver moon, when a warm breeze lightly ripples the mirror-like surface of the river, whispering to itself in the rose bushes along the shore . . . but in the theater, in the midst of crowds, under a painted ceiling, and by the light of stage projectors, the guitar loses all its beauty, all its inherent melody . . .” (Gazette Repertuar, 1839).

If we think that this early nineteenth century contemptuous nonsense is an exaggeration by today’s standards, we only have to observe that even in those conservatories and universities the guitar is allowed to be taught, it is always delegated to a separate corner, with hardly a contact with the rest of the students and faculty. We find it necessary to apply to our instrument the adjective “Classical,” with the hope that by so doing, we would somehow convey to our colleagues that we are not to be confused with balladeers, rock’n’rollers, gypsies and mariachi. Violinists and pianists have no need to use the adjective “classical,” even though the piano is still the instrument of choice of many jazz players and one can find it in my country in every bar, every hotel dining room. At the turn of the century, the piano was also the favorite instrument in the public houses of San Francisco, New Orleans and St. Louis and it was precisely in that environment that rag-time piano music first became established. The violin is an important part of hillbilly, Country-Western music in the USA, and is used as a folk instrument in the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Mexico, the Arab world from Marocco to Iraq, and in many other countries. Violinists never worry about that.

The very concept of folk instruments, is one which deserve closer attention. An instrument, as an artifice of human craftsmanship, does not have any intrinsic attributes in and of itself, until somebody plays it. It acquires whatever societal qualities we usually associate with it, depending on the music being played. The Jews Harp is a so-called folk instrument in use all over the world from the mountains of Northern Italy to the frozen tundra of Siberia. But when Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven’s teacher of harmony, wrote a concerto with orchestra for it, it did not matter much that the instrument is also played by nomadic sheep herders.

Folk music is often defined as music which exists in an oral tradition, while art music depends for its existence on the written page. The music we play on the so-called “classical” guitar mostly exist in written or printed form. Some of it was composed by people who are not very well known outside the limited circles of guitar lovers. Some of it was composed by main-stream composers such as Paganini, von Weber, Schubert, Berlioz, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Mahler, Schönberg, Asafiev, Webern, Hindemith, and Milhaud. In more recent times, music for our instrument was written by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Eliot Carter, Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina. Considering these composers and their music, the guitar cannot possibly be considered as a folk instrument. Yet, the prejudice continues.

I have assembled a considerable lexicon of anti-guitar invective from different countries and different times. I am at a loss to explain why it is that of all musical instruments, the guitar, the instrument which was part and parcel of European musical renaissance from the sixteenth century on, is singled out by other musicians for ridicule and derision. I have some theories on the subject, but they are not the kind that can be discussed in polite society. The fact remains that we have a problem, and if we wish to continue as a living musical discipline, we have to try and find a way out.

The guitar as we know it today achieved its present form during the first half of the nineteenth century. We often hear arguments that guitar technique and pedagogy today, is far superior in its conception than it ever was in the nineteenth century. For this reason, we are told, today’s performers are much better. We do not, it must be observed, have any way of comparing the present generation of performers to those who passed away before the advent of mechanical sound recordings. Is Eliot Fisk a “better” guitarist than Giulio Regondi? Is Wolfgang Lendle a more “musical” performer than Fernando Sor? Is Oscar Ghiglia a “better” pedagogue than Ferdinando Carulli? We will never know, even if we could agree on the meaning of the words “better” and “musical.” The careful historian must try to separate fact from fiction in determining what is indeed new and revolutionary, and what is the same old dogmas cloaked in the pompous brilliance of new terminologies. Contrary to common legends, the technique and pedagogy of the instrument was pretty much established by the time Dionisio Aguado published his last known method in 1843, and very little has actually changed since then.

On the other hand, the form and content of concert programs had undergone many metamorphoses since the early nineteenth century. During that time, the idea of the solo concert in which one performer, or one performing ensemble occupies the entire program, was not yet acceptable. With the exception, of course, of theatrical productions such as opera. A typical concert given for the benefit of a given artist would open with a Haydn symphony played by an orchestra, a couple of arias from popular operas of the day sung by a favorite soprano, some instrumental numbers by other performers, and then the coup-de-resistance played by the concert beneficiary himself, most probably playing his own composition for his instrument. Nine times out of ten, that composition would have been a set of virtuoso variations on a popular operatic theme. The second half of the concert would be constructed similarly, perhaps terminating the evening with a Beethoven symphony. That was the accepted format for the majority of public concerts by violinists, pianists, cellists, singers and also guitarists.

A concert in this format was an expensive business to organize, since the participation of a large number of performers, greatly reduced the net benefit to the impresario. Also, a traveling performer had to constantly make use of available talent in far-off cities, not always on the artistic level he would have preferred.

A solo recital given by one performer exclusively, is generally associated with the concert tours of Franz Liszt in the late 1830s. The term “recital” itself, was first used by Liszt in his London concert of 1840. The program was music composed or arranged by the performer himself. There were few traveling guitarists in the mid nineteenth century, and precise information about their concert programs is not always available. We can assume though, that their choice of material would have conformed to popular tastes. “Popular” music began to be considered as a separate entity from art music, during the latter part of the nineteenth century. By elimination, whatever was not “popular” became known as “classical,” which is not a precise term that can be applied indiscriminately to all forms of art music from all eras. The term “classical guitar,” also dates from about the same time, although it came into wide-spread use only during the 1930s.

What was the nature of guitar recitals in those days?

A typical program given by Francisco Tárrega in 1888, is divided into three periods. In the first, we hear arrangements of music by Verdi, Arrieta, and Gottschalk with one composition by the performer himself. In the second part, one arrangement of a gavotte by Arditi, a polonaise by Arcas and variations on the “Carnival of Venice,” in itself, an adaptation of another piece by Arcas. In the third part, Tárrega played two arrangements of piano music by Prudent and Thalberg, and two pot-pourris on Spanish folk melodies which he arranged himself.

What is remarkable in this program, is that it does not contain any music by Sor, Giuliani, Aguado, Carulli, Carcassi and other West European and particularly, Spanish guitarists of the previous generation. In later years Tárrega began to add the music of Bach, Granados and Albeniz to his programs, but in essence, his choice of material was meant to satisfy the taste of a rather unsophisticated audience–a few compositions of his own, current hits of the piano repertoire, and an operatic arrangement or two. We do not know if this type of programming is the factor that contributed to Tárrega’s inability to reach to audiences outside the borders of Spain during his own life-time. Let us not forget that if not for the efforts of his students Miguel Llobet, Pascual Roch, Emilio Pujol, Josefina Robledo, Domingo Prat and others, we would never know who Tárrega was.

The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a large wave of guitaristic activity all over the world, with many important centers in Germany, Russia, the United States, England, France, Italy and of course in Latin-America, usually in the form of guitar societies and clubs, closely associated with mandolin and banjo clubs. As today, these clubs provided the majority of practicing guitarists a ready stage for performance, and the material they selected, directly conformed to the inarticulate tastes of the doctors, military officers, and petit-bourgeois merchants who formed the back-bone of these clubs. Only with the emergence of artists on the caliber of Llobet and Segovia, we begin to see some serious interest in breaching the parochial limits imposed by the guitar club and an effort to reach a wider public.

The influence of Llobet was short lived, as was his own life. For better of for worse, the major force which determined the fortunes of the guitar in this century was the Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia. Until quite recently, our image of this man was formed by a blind belief in the powerful symbolism of his claims to have created the guitar, single-handedly, in his own image, and to have finally placed it on the “first level” as the violin and piano. The propagandistic falsehoods of these claims had the effect of creating a Segovianic sub-culture among guitarists, with often quasi-religious overtones. The majority of the information available in the West about Segovia’s career, was material carefully designed to project the image of him which I just described, and to hide some very unpleasant facts about him.

Some years ago I published the full text of 129 letters written by Segovia to the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce from their first acquaintance in nineteen twenty three, until Ponce’s death in nineteen forty eight. These letters, a personal testimony, portray a totally different image of Segovia than that which we knew before. Segovia was a right-wing reactionary who actively supported the Franco side in the Spanish civil war. The real truth about Segovia’s eviction from Barcelona in the middle of the War, as Segovia himself tells it, is that he was chased out by the left-wing loyalists, and not by the fascists, since he himself was a sworn sympathizer of the fascist forces. Segovia was a self-declared anti-semite, and this, together with his political connections to Franco, assured that he would be banned from performance in the United States from nineteen thirty seven until after the Second World War, when the old grievances of the American public against him were forgotten.

All of this aside, we cannot deny that Segovia’s influence was the dominant factor on the structure and content of guitar recitals during his life time, and even today we can still see its traces in many concert programs. Here is the program of a concert given by Segovia in Barcelona in December of 1916, the very beginning of his concert career:

First part:
1) Francisco Tárrega Capricho Árabe
Scherzo Gavotta
2) Fernando Sor Minueto en mi
Estudio en si bemol
3) Napoleón Coste Allegro en la
4) Miguel Llobet Canción popular catalana, El mestre
Second part:
1) J. S. Bach Gavotta
2) Haydn Minueto
3) Mendelssohn Romanza, Canzonetta
4) Chopin Mazurca opus 33 No. 4.
Third part:
1) Isaac Albéniz Granada
2) Enrique Granados La maja de Goya
Danza en mi
Danza en sol
3) Piotr Tchaikowsky Mazurca

As we can see, the format of this recital is very close to the Tárrega model. The main difference is that Segovia acknowledged here the existence of guitarists like Sor and Coste and branched out of the limited Spanish popular music field in which Tárrega was trapped. Later concerts in Segovia’s career usually began with a piece or two by Gaspar Sanz, some transcriptions from the lute literature, some of the pastiches in the name of Sylvius Leopold Weiss and Alessandro Scarlatti that Manuel Ponce wrote for him, and of course, the works by Ponce, Torroba, Turina and other second-echelon composers who wrote music for him.

One important factor in the development of Segovia’s repertoire, was his gradual adoption of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As we saw in the 1916 program, Segovia’s interest in the music of Bach was probably based on Tárrega’s limited preoccupation with it. During the 1920s, after having discovered the recent publication by Hans Dagobert Bruger of the complete works of Bach for the lute, Segovia took a keen interest in this music, immediately began including it in his programs and proceeded to re-publish some parts of it under his name. Even Segovia’s anrrangement of the Chaconne, was not an original idea. An arrangement of the Chaconne by the Argentino Antonio Sinópoli was published in Buenos Aires in 1922.

Segovia’s utilization of the Bach connection in general and the Chaconne in particular, was part of his public-relations campaign and his constant efforts to arrange for concert bookings. Quite often, it worked very well and concert promoters were quite happy with the results. Music critics on the other hand, were often complimentary about Segovia himself, yet not quite able to hide their true feelings about the guitar. Consider Anatolii Lunacharsky’s 1926 article in “Izvestia,” «Some word about our guest—Segovia», during the latter first visit to the Soviet Union:

“. . . when one speaks of a guitar concert, it comes to mind immediately that the matter has to do with some trickery of a decidedly lesser character. The guitar is a gorgeous instrument, but it is generally accepted that it is poor in resources and it is mostly suitable for accompaniment . . .”

The language is different, but the condescension is equal to that expressed in eighteen thirty nine in the Moscow gazetta “Repertuar.” The program played by Segovia in Moscow in 1926 was published by Miron Vaisbord. Last time I heard Segovia live, was in 1982 in Boston. With one or two exceptions, he played exactly the same program.

By the time Segovia began to have a second generation of followers and disciples, his place as the absolute arbiter of programming taste for guitarists became unquestioned. The few challengers to Segovia’s preeminence, people such as Emilio Pujol, Regino Sainz de la Maza, Luise Walker, Maria Luisa Anido, Benvenuto Terzi, Julio Martinez Oyanguren, Karl Scheit, and a few others, certainly attempted to construct programs based on a non-Segovia repertoire. They sometime succeeded in their efforts in ways entirely unanticipated by Segovia. But in general, in spite of a tremendous explosion in guitar activity in the last thirty years, the guitar is still looked upon as a poor cousin, not quite welcome at the dinner table.

I would like to suggest that the reason is that even though people today hardly ever play the Segovia repertoire in the West, we have learned a few bad habits from him. Here are some of these:

  • First: Always play the same repertoire. There is no need to constantly learn new pieces, if the old pieces work just as well.

In Segovia’s time, traveling musicians did not have to worry much about repetitive programming. The chances that the same audience will hear the same piece twice, were extremely remote. Today, with the advent of modern technology, this becomes a problem, particularly to those of us who constantly travel between centers of guitar activities. It is tiring to hear a performer repeating constantly the same pieces, over and over again. This may work well for guitar fanatics, but serious audiences are willing to put up with a second-rate composition repeated ad-nauseam only so much. Eventually, they get up and go to the opera instead.

  • Second: if you wish to learn new pieces anyway, do not pay attention to any questions of musical quality. What is important for guitarists is to play pieces popularized by the super-stars of the guitar. It does not matter if the music is bad. Guitarists, who are the main audience anyway, will never know the difference. If it was good enough for Segovia, it is good enough for me.

The problem here is that aesthetics and intelligence have little to do in determining the choice of repertoire by many guitarists. Personality cult and herd instincts govern here. It is enough for someone like John Williams to start playing a little something by Tsutskin, and everybody from London to New York to Los Angeles and on to Hong Kong and Australia begins to play the thing.

  • Third: Always play alone. The guitar is a small orchestra and it has no need for the collaboration of other instrumentalists. It does not matter that you have no idea how to conduct an orchestra.
  • Fourth: Continue to believe that the six-string guitar is an instrument of Spanish origin, and that the only good music for it, was that written by Spanish composers.

This is one gigantic misunderstanding, one from which we still suffer today. The proof that the guitar as we know it is not an instrument of Spanish origin does not properly belong to this lecture. What does belong here, is the examination of the often expressed subsidiary assumption that Spanish guitar music is not only the source, but the very raison d’etre of guitar repertoire.

The main reason for this point-of-view, is the simple fact that Spanish guitarists dominated the guitar world in the years between the two great world wars. It was the personal predilections of Llobet, Segovia, Pujol, Fortea, Sainz de la Maza, and in later years, also Yepes, which shaped our notion of what Spanish music is all about. With few exceptions, this music, the original as well as the transcriptions, belonged to that class of music whose function it was to excite and titillate. These were the pieces with the engaging rhythms, the lush melodies, the phrygian mode, the zapateados, the fandangos, the leyendas.

The fascination this music held for people in and out of the Iberian peninsula, of course, dates already from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Hordes of British and French soldiers descended on that miserable country in active military support of this or that Spanish potentate. And as the blood was flowing, the English lads and the French farm-hands who made-up the bulk of these armies, also got to look at Spanish dances and listen to the music.

The name Octave Levavaseur probably does not mean anything to you. To put this French soldier in a guitar perspective, let me just say that he was the father of Charlotte Beslay née Levavaseur, a piano student of Fernando Sor, to whom the Catalan guitarist dedicated his famous Fantaisie Elegiaque Op. 59. Octave Levavaseur took part in the Peninsular Wars as an aide-de-camp to Mareschal Ney, one of the more illustrious and controversial figures of the time. In his memoirs, Levavaseur describes the reaction of the French to the seductive nature of Spanish music and dance. The troops were stationed in Santiago. Their leisure activities included attending the performance of operas three times a week. During intermission, Spanish dance presentations with castagnettes accompaniment were given. Levavaseur tells us:

“. . . We were particularly impressed with the Fandango and with the extreme liberty of its movements. Perhaps it was that the dancing girls exaggerated their gestures. One day we learned that there exists another dance, even more outlandish, called the Zorongo, and we asked for it. Everybody in the hall, Toute la salle, supported the proposition and broke in resounding applause. At the sight of the steps and the gestures of the dancers, we were truly surprised that such dances are permitted in public. At the following presentation the hall was packed and the young officers demanded again the Zorongo. The local commanding officer, the General Marcognet, was also present. He thought it necessary to speak up and to forbid the dancers from performing the Zorongo . . .”

The clear impression of this story is that the sinful sexual innuendos of the Zorongo could not be ignored. It was morally permissible to massacre the rascals and to provoke the most horrible indignities on their wives and children, but one could not allow the undulating bottoms of their females to pollute the Christian rectitude of the troops. The voluptuous nature of this type of Spanish music, also was not lost on foreign composers who came in contact with it in later years. Mikhail Glinka was the first the employ these Spanishisms (Españoladas) to great advantage. He was followed by others like Rimski-Korsakov, Georges Bizet, Franz Liszt, Louis Morreau Gottschalk, Emanuel Chabrier and others. These musicians created a certain notion of Spanish music which became widely accepted. When it was time for the Spanish virtuoso instrumentalists themselves to venture out of the Iberian Peninsula in the last years of the nineteenth century, and I am speaking of such figures as Ricardo Viñes, Pablo Sarasate, Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, the public in Europe and America was already well primed in a specific direction, that of the seductive derriere, the macho male torso with tight trousers up the rib-cage, the castanets, and flashy guitar rasgueados. The Spaniards knew well that this is going to sell tickets, and they delivered. The guitarists who followed, had to emulate the model, if they wanted to succeed. And they certainly did. These subconscious implications of the sensuousness of Spanish music still persist in many guitar circles. I find it most extraordinary to hear Polish guitarists playing arrangements of Catalan folk-songs. In my vast experience in this field, I do not recall hearing Catalan guitarists playing arrangements of Polish folk songs. By the same token, I used to be a known aficionado of flamenco music in my time. In recent years, my interests went elsewhere. Yet, I know well that it is so very difficult for a non-Spanish guitarists to achieve the mysterious poetic alliance with the beatings of the heart the music requires. To attempt it outside the tradition which brought it to life, is an anachronistic bad imitation. Unfortunately, the realities of the market place are such that you can still sell this music to guitar aficionados. Don’t expect to be invited to participate in a major music festival, if all you can come up with are trivial irrelevancies such as these, and if you don’t have the basic skills required to sit down with other musicians and make music together.

There are several other aspects of the Segovia legacy I can discuss, but I think it is time to make this point: The success or failure of any musical performance depends primarily on the performer’s ability to establish a direct link with the audience’s need for musical gratification. If the audience wants lollipops, and your aesthetical standards do not make you aspire to loftier music, then by all means you should give them lollipops. Segovia proved to us that it is indeed possible to make a large number of people happy listening to pretty and not very significant music. But if your idea of music is something more than sweet oozing molasses under the window of a beautiful maiden in a quiet summer night, under a silver moon, when a warm breeze lightly ripples the mirror-like surface of the river, whispering to itself in the rose bushes along the shore, then you’ll better start looking for another audience. Where? and how?

These are questions that are difficult to answer in a global manner. Local conditions are different, personal temperament and energy is different, and what may be possible for a person in a given locality, may not be possible for another. But I’d like to give some ideas to think about.

Let us go back to Segovia’s declared intentions to “raise the guitar to the same level as the violin, piano and cello.” This is an important task for us, particularly for those of us who contemplate making a living as practicing performers on the guitar. It is important not only because it is a question of pride in one’s own instrument and its heritage. It is also a matter of survival. Economic survival. Pianists and violinists who win the first prize in a major international concourse like the Tchaikowski Competition in Moscow, are pretty much assured an easy road into the international concert scene, and in a big way. Concert tours in foreign countries, recording contracts, and so on. There are many young guitarists today in many parts of the world, and also in Mexico, who are certainly on the same level of artistic development as some recent winners of the Tchaikowski. It would be nice if a guitarist was allowed to enter. But this is only a pipe dream as long as the prejudice against the guitar by main-line musicians. Hence, the major task before the intelligent guitarist in selecting his repertoire, is to do so in a manner which can only bring respect and appreciation. Not from the audience, what ever it may be, but from other musicians. Your colleagues in school, your teachers, music critics, officials of arts organizations and so forth. This is not a matter of contributing altruistically to the general well-being of the discipline. It is a matter of the personal survival of the individual guitarist. If you could be the first to be taken seriously as a musician by the general community of music, your life as a professional musician will be so much more rewarding.

But we have a problem. The majority of musicians who play the main instruments of art music, are those who play the instruments of the orchestra. The guitar is not part of the orchestra and never will be. The same can be said about the piano. So how come the piano is one of the main foundations of art music for at least the last two and half centuries, and the guitar is not?

The historical answer to that is rather lengthy, but in short, I think this has little to do with the fact that the piano was always louder than the guitar. The popularity of the piano at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the period where its dominance was established beyond any doubt for all times, was generated to a large extent by the commercial endeavors of piano manufacturers. They were the people who financed the concert tours of the great traveling performers of the day. They even financed violinists and guitarists. It was good for business. The piano also had the advantage of being a decorative piece of furniture, which allowed the middle-class to indulge in things which in the previous century were reserved strictly to the nobility. The guitar was cheaper to buy, but the piano was easier to learn to play, at least in the beginning stages. On the professional level, what determined the dominance of the piano, is the simple fact that many of the great composers began their music education on the piano, with the possible exception of Berlioz. Not only they wrote solo music for the piano, they also incorporated it in many chamber ensembles with other instruments, for the pleasure and private enjoyments of enlightened amateurs who were willing to pay money for the pleasure. Of course, at about the same time, there was also a parallel tradition of chamber music with guitar, and we have today many fine examples of the genre. The quantity of guitar chamber music, was never even close to the quantity of chamber music with piano, and publishers catalogues from the time are a vivid testimony of that. Eventually, the piano became an important part of the chamber music repertoire, a fact which contributed to its establishment as a focal point of musical life. The guitar, in spite of a not insignificant number of good chamber music works to its credit, was left behind.

Chamber music is the device by which musicians forge the personal covenants which remain with them for the rest of their lives. It becomes easy to dismiss a musician who does not belong to the close circle of friends, one began to develop in school and with which one had the unique pleasure of breathing together in reading some delicious pages of Brahms or Tchaikowski.

Some guitarists lately discovered the simple fact that if you want steady employment, better get on the chamber music wagon. David Starobin, of course, has been doing it successfully for over twenty five years now. How does one go about it?

The place to start, it seems to me, is in school. In the final analysis, it does not matter much if your pedagogy is based on that of Carlevaro, Pujol, Manuel Lopez Ramos or Joe Blow. It does not matter if you use the left side or the right side of the nail or if you know how to do correct apoyando. It does not matter if you premiered the latest in scratch-grind-and-bump piece of musical effrontery from the pen of your favorite contemporary hero, and who cares if you number your Scarlattis with an L or a K or an F? If you want to make a living in this business, if you want to teach your students how it is done in the big wide world of music, if you want me to buy a ticket to your concert, me and the vast multitudes of chamber music lovers out there, better learn how violinists, pianists and cellists are doing it. Look around you.

No doubt, attitudes have changed in the last ten years. There are more performances of chamber music with guitar today. I dare say though, that this activity have not yet resulted in a change of perspective in the general public. I read a lot of lofty pronouncements regarding chamber music with guitar in many interviews with guitarists. This is, for the most part, empty lip-service. I do not know of any leading guitarist-performer today who is willing and able to settle on a career which is dedicated to chamber music. There are no active professional chamber music ensembles today, which consist of more than two spouses and which include the guitar.

In my country, there are some 800 festival each summer dedicated to chamber music. You can see there the names of Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovich, Pinchas Zukerman, Rudolf Serkin, Murray Perahia, and scores of other leading instrumentalists and singers. I have never seen there the names of Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams or Alexander Lagoya. This unfortunate verity should not deter the leading guitarists to appear there on a regular basis. The inevitable question is: what do our virtuosi have to offer musicians and an audience who have been nurtured for generations on a steady diet of the Beethoven string quartets, the Brahms Clarinet quintet, and the Mendelssohn Piano trios, not to mention chamber music by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Dvorak?

Before we attempt to answer that, we must shed any inferiority complex regarding our repertoire and realize that even though the great masters of chamber music have not written for the guitar, we still have a great deal of valuable contribution to make. In evaluating chamber music for guitar, we must avoid judging it by reference to the guitar part alone. What matters in chamber music is the artistic worth of the composition as a whole, NOT the relative merits of the guitar part. Few guitarists are able to read a chamber music score, and few publications of chamber music with guitar, particularly those which date from the time of Heinrich Albert, not to mention the more recent spate of so-called “facsimiles,” actually have one. A guitarist who wishes to embark on a career of music making in public, and would like to achieve anything like the job security offered by professions such as the architects, engineers, doctors, airline pilots or college teachers, would better learn the tricks of the trade. Not memorization, but sight-reading, score analysis, and the ability to breath together, sometimes with total strangers. Look for those works who would offer your future colleagues something new and exhilarating. Even if this means that you have to go oom-pah-pah for a while. That too, can be a valuable and profitable contribution to your own economic survival and to the future of the guitar as a viable musical discipline. If we want to actually function “on the first rank, such as the violin, piano and cello,” we must break away from the restrictive mold of the solo recital, the guitar master-class, the guitar competition and the guitar festival and to propel our way into the general society of music.

I cannot leave this discussion without some words about the programming used by many guitarists today when they play solo recitals. The old Tarrega/Segovia type of programming has been replaced, for better or for worse, with a new type of programming which employs mostly music based on the cross-over phenomenon, that is to say, new compositions based on the popular genres of jazz, rag-time, tango, and country-western music. Thus, besides the leyendas and the Villa-Lobos pieces, we also get the Koyunbabas, the Sunbursts, the Usher Walses and the Piazolla pieces. In principle, all these pieces are actually very good music. But the number of times you get to hear them in the course of a guitar festival, makes them into hackneyed, unimaginative lollipops which might bring a good reaction from a guitar audience, and might even give pleasure to general public audiences. Many main line musicians do the same. Thus you get a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma playing Piazolla. But we must observe that main line musicians do cross-over, in addition to their normal serious repertoire. Guitarists do it instead.

I have observed that in the last few decades the guitarists who made it to the top of the profession quickly, were those who came on the scene with a totally new repertoire, entirely avoiding the standards, the old and the new. There is a lesson to be learned here, and it is this: the main question the guitarist should place before himself is not what to play. It, what NOT to play. Think about it.

I will close this lecture with the words of my friend, the well known Italian composer Angelo Gilardino:

here we have  the clearest and the most directly true description of the present state of the art of classical guitar a remarkable repertoire—especially in the 20th century—and, among the overpopulated legion of guitarists, too few people who are aware of it and who are seriously committed to make audiences aware of the unique, true wealth of any instrument its repertoire. This is a very serious problem and it is also the main cause of the fact that guitar concerts are so seldom programmed by the foremost music institutions many musicians do not know the good repertoire of the instrument and are diffident toward it because guitar recitals usually offer works written by amateurs who believe to be composers unbelievable pieces are unashamedly featured and pompously performed as if they were music. They are not music, but they are the image of the guitar offered to the world by guitarists.

End of quote. End of lecture. Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2001 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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