The neglect of cross-cultural pollination in guitar history research

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

by Matanya Ophee

This article was presented at the 2015 Lake Konstanze guitar research meeting in Hemmenhofen, Germany in May of 2015. Several small modifications have been made to the spoken text to prepare it as an article.

For the practical considerations of time and perspective, the majority of research in guitar history is limited to the investigation of the life and work of one composer, the musical traits of one locality, one time period, one culture. The same phenomenon is found in the general field of music, where you have individuals who specialize in the life and works of Beethoven and others who dedicate themselves to Mozart. I even know some people whose working life is dedicated to just one composition by one composer. The strict specialization is very similar to that practiced in medicine. I have met a few of these specialists recently, and found out that trying to ask a cardiologist about that bothersome irritation in your unmentionable nether regions, is an expensive waste of time. Unfortunately, by limiting research to a narrow band of time while covering a small geographical space, or to the life and work of one composer, many researchers cannot find out highly relevant information that exists outside their defined boundaries. Here are some examples:

Erik Stenstadvold’s An Annotated Bibliography of Guitar Methods, 1760-1860.[1]Pendragon Press, 2010. ISBN 9781576471852. is without question one of the better researched works on guitar history to have appeared in recent times. In his preface, the author explains in detail the reasons for limiting the research to the years 1760-1860, and to the territories of Europe and North America and to publications which use the Latin Alphabet. Then he gives us extremely useful details on the majority of guitar methods published within the limits of time and space specified. Another clear choice the author made is to omit tutors for the differently tuned Russian seven-string guitar. While we can understand the practical reason for this omission, we must observe that some Russian methods that clearly fall within the chosen limits, have not been included.

In 1798 Ignac von Held published the first method for the seven‑string guitar with the title (in French):

Méthode facile pour apprendre à pincer la guitare à sept cordes sans maître.
[An easy method for learning to play the guitar without a teacher.][2]First advertised in the Moskovskie Vedomosti N° 100, 1978. See: Boris Volman, Russkie Pechatnie noty XVIII veka (Russian printed music in the 18th Century) Leningrad, Muzgiz, 1957 p. 767. This … Continue reading

This was the very first publication of a guitar method in Russia. The book was in French, which was the common language of the Russian upper-classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, using of course, the Latin Alphabet. Since no copy of this book has been found, it is hard to tell what was the tuning of the guitar for which it was intended. The number of strings – seven – did not necessarily mean a tuning in thirds in Russia, in exactly the same manner that it did not imply a tuning in thirds for Spanish and Italian composers such as the Padre Basilio and Federico Moretti. A subsequent issue of a method by von Held was intended for the six‑string guitar. It was advertised, this time in German, in the June 25th 1801 issue of the Sanktpeterbourgskie Vedomosti newspaper as:

Guitarre‑Schule, vollständige Anleitung zu einem
selbstständigen Unterricht auf der sechssaitigen Guitarre.
[Guitar Method, a complete instruction for independent self-teaching on the six-string guitar[3]Advertised in the Sanktpeterbourgskie Vedomosti on March 6th 1797. Quoted by R. Aloys Mooser, Annales de la Musique et des Musiciens en Russie au XIlle siecle,Geneve, Editions Mont-Blanc, Vol. II, p. … Continue reading

A year later, von Held advertised again the same method, in the same newspaper, but this time in French, explaining that the book applies equally:

“….à la guitare espagnole montée de 6 ou 7 cordes de boyau, ou à la guitare anglaise à 6 ou 7 cordes de fer….”
[for the Spanish guitar mounted by 6 or 7 gut strings, or for the English guitar, mounted with 6 or 7 steel strings.][4]Quoted by R. Aloys Mooser, Annales… Vol. II, p. 252. For further biographical details on von Held, see: Gottfried Johann Dlabacž, Allgemeines historisches Künstler-lexicon für Böhmen, … Continue reading

It appears that Russian guitarists at the end of the 18th century did not necessarily associate a particular tuning arrangement with the number of strings. The material from which the strings were made was, so it seems, a better means of identifying the type of guitar. We do the same thing today by describing some guitars as steel-string and other as nylon-strings.

The title page does not seem to support the claims made in the advertisements.

It says:

A method for the seven-string guitar coupled with a detailed interpretation of music in general,
presented to her Imperial Highness, the Empress Yelisavet Alexeevna.

Examining the music inside, we find that it is clearly fingered for what we call the Russian tuning.

At the same time, by ignoring the fingering, the music could be easily played on the Spanish guitar or the English guitar as advertised. The same casual approach can be observed in other instances. In his 1817 review of Andrei Sychra’s Practical Rules in Four Exercises,  Semion Aksionov stated that the music in these Four Exercises is quite applicable and useful for the six- and five-string guitars. It is difficult for us to say if these assessments were merely a promotional gimmick meant to increase sales, or von Held and Aksionov really believed that in spite of the detailed fingering designed for the Russian seven-string guitar in G open tuning, the music could be played on the six-string guitar. In retrospect, it would be possible to play this music on a six string guitar, either in standard tuning or in G open tuning. All of this is to ask whether it is proper and useful for us to take our own contemporary point of view which places a clear separation between groups of instruments and project it backwards in time.

Here is another method published in Russia.

This method is clearly for the six-string guitar in normal tuning, and based on the methods of Carulli and Moretti. We do not have any information on this Baron Patti, but his surname leads us to think that he may have been an Italian or Spanish diplomat. He could have been related to the famous Sicilian-Spanish-American-French-Welsh soprano Adelina Patti. By literary reference we know that  the publisher Brieff who published this method, was active in St. Petersburg in the early decades of the 19th century. What we have a here is a Russian publication ofItalian didactic material, written in French by a non-Russian foreigner.[5]I received this method in 1982 (in microfilm) from the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public library in Leningrad, Soviet Union. It is now known as the National Library of Russia, St. Petersbourg, Russia. This is of the same character as this:

The six Sonatas for Violin and Guitar by Carlo Cannobio, published in St. Petersburg in 1796. A Spanishfandango published in Russia by an Italian composer with a title page in French.

Another point to consider is this: while it is of paramount importance to establish when and where and by whom any given piece of guitar music was published, it is equally essential to know where and when and by whom that same piece was used. For example:

The Concerto by Antoine de Lhoyer, as we know, was published in Hamburg by Böhm in 1802. The only known copy of it was sold by the Lissner music store in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here is another interesting publication by Böhm in Hamburg:

This is a method for the Mexican seven-string guitar, i.e., a guitar tuned normally, but with the seventh string tuned to low B. This was the same tuning used by the Padre Basilio and Federico Moretti. It was in common use in Mexico and also in Brazil, where it is still being used today. This method is in Spanish and was clearly destined for export to Mexico. As we can see, the stamp on the bottom is that of a Mexican music store.

Another demonstration of Trans-Atlantic commerce is this Aguado method, published in Paris by Schonenberger:

This edition was clearly destined for the Spanish market. The text is in Spanish. The price printed on the title page is 5 duros.

This was a Spanish currency, introduced in about 1869 which may help us date this edition. One duro was equivalent to five pesetas. But this particular copy, so it seems, was not sold in Spain, but rather, as the blue stamp on the bottom shows, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

[DGA Editor: missing image]

Another relevant issue is raised by the examination of extraneous musical ingredients found in the most astonishing places in the literature.  We already know about the borrowing of musical material by composers. Less known is the borrowing of original music, sometimes properly acknowledged and sometimes not accredited or plainly plagiarized.

In his Third Fantaisie Op. 10 on a theme by Beethoven, François de Fossa, does not use a Beethoven theme directly, but a variation on a Beethoven theme by Wenzel Matiegka from his arrangement of the Serenade Op. 8. de Fossa does not mention Matiegka.

Similarly, in his Fifth Fantaisie on the Folies d’Espagne, Op. 12, perhaps one of the principal symbols of Spanish nationalism, the Catalan composer François de Fossa inserted a Catalan sardana as the coda. 

We do not know what emotional or nationalistic sentiments were at play here. It is easier to imagine that when he used the Mexican jarabe folk dance in the Allegro Agitato movement of his quartet Op. 19 N° 3, he was clearly expressing a fond tribute for his life in Mexico.

We even encounter sometimes musical oddities that cannot be explained. For example: In 1793, Mozart’s student Franz Xavier Süßmayr, wrote a quintet for Violin, Guitar, Oboe, English Horn and cello. The autograph manuscript of the score survives in the British Library, and there is a set of performance parts in the library of the Kremsmünster Stift in Austria. Here is the first page of the score:

The main aspect that strikes the eye, is that the hand-writing is curiously similar to that of Mozart. As we know from the vast literature on the Mozart Requiem that Süßmayr was able not only to write music in the style of Mozart, but also to imitate the Master’s hand-writing. I would certainly like to know what was scratched out in the title! My point in showing this page is not to discuss the possibility of an original work by Mozart with guitar, but to point out that the opening guitar chords are simply not playable on the standard guitar.

When Konrad Raggosnig edited this work for publication some 35 years ago, he was obliged to thin out the texture of these chords. When we have a set of performance parts, most probably prepared for specific performers, we cannot  accuse the composer, Mozart or Süßmayr, of writing unplayable music. The obvious conclusion then, is that the guitar for which this work was written, was not the Spanish guitar tuned in fourths, but some other instrument referred to as “Chitarra” but with a different tuning and a different number of strings. No problem with the C Major chord. But because of the configuration of the G Major chord, this could not be played on the English guitar tuned in C Major. One would think that the target instrument would be the German guitar, with a similar tuning to the English. But for the very same reason, the G Major chord cannot be played on it. Which leaves us with a seven string guitar, tuned in thirds. Here, the C Major chord needs 4 fingers, the G Major chord is all open strings, and the a minor chord would require the use of the LH thumb, which was common practice at the time. It is easy to take this as a typical texture for the Russian seven-string guitar! But, as far as we know, there was no such thing as a Russian seven-string guitar in 1793!

However, guitars with this tuning and number of strings were used in the 18th century in Poland. The famous Dahl dictionary of the Russian language, even refers to the seven-string guitar as the Polish guitar. Was there any Austrian-Polish musical connection in the late 18th century? Any Polish musicians, or at least Polish amateur aristocrats visiting Vienna and commissioning this music from Süßmayr? Sure would like to know.

When we go further into the deep recesses of the past in search of music for the guitar, it would then be good to keep in mind that we must not, I say it again, project our prejudices and misconceptions backwards in time. If the box has a neck with frets on it, it does not matter what is the shape of the box, flat or round, it does not matter how many strings it has, what they are made of and how they are tuned. All of them, none excluded, should be considered as part of our cultural heritage and ours to exploit and enjoy.

What we need, it seems to me, is a kind of trans-cultural research that examines the mutual influences across national boundaries, across centuries, across different permutations of instruments who are called guitar and not within the often artificial boundaries of the search for particular data on one composer or one city or one country. The universe of the guitar was always wide and substantial and precisely because guitarists traveled between countries and continents in search of patronage and employment, exactly the same way they do today, it should make better sense to investigate different national and stylistic paradigms and the relationships between them, then to limit oneself artificially. We are thus bound to uncover some very interesting aspects of guitar history.

Coming back to the opening remarks here, I do not expect anyone to be able to examine the entirety of the neglect of cross-cultural pollination of the guitar. The task is far too great for any one person to accomplish alone. But if you are just beginning in this exciting road, you would do well to consider this: Always search for baffling oddities in your basic material that cannot be explained by the standard means at your disposal. For example, you may not be able to determine if a certain Señor Fossa in Buenos Aires who was Julio Sagreras’ father-in-law, was or was not related to François de Fossa. You can also try to investigate if the Croatian guitarist Ivan Padovec, was actually Italian in origin. In Slavic languages, the form of the suffix of the surname means He who is from Padova. Or when you run into sheet music like this:

You might wonder what was the basis for Herr Schindler’s assertion in this edition that Ludwig Spohr played together with Giuliani in the Dukaten concerts, and what the Hell is the meaning of his publishing house being located also in Columbus Ohio, where I and Thomas Heck have been living for many years!
Trying to figure out what is this all about,  you might discover something unique and exciting, or simply end up with a dead-end and a great deal of enjoyable time wasted. The straightforward way to avoid the neglect of cross-cultural pollination in our discipline, should be the establishment of something like the New Grove Dictionary of the guitar. We are familiar with the quasi-encyclopedic work of people like Zuth, Bone and Prat, and a few others. Unfortunately, we are also familiar with some of the lamentable distortions of history these dictionaries contain. As I said before, it is simply impossible for one person to cover the entire history of the guitar without committing some grave blunders. A new dictionary authored by many specialists and subject to the rigorous control of an expert editorial board, would finally bring our collective knowledge into a sharp focus.

Copyright © 2015 by Matanya Ophee. All Rights Reserved.


1 Pendragon Press, 2010. ISBN 9781576471852.
2 First advertised in the Moskovskie Vedomosti N° 100, 1978. See: Boris Volman, Russkie Pechatnie noty XVIII veka (Russian printed music in the 18th Century) Leningrad, Muzgiz, 1957 p. 767. This portrait of von Held was published by Anatolii Shirialin in his last book. He did not provide any information on the authenticity or lack thereof of this image.
3 Advertised in the Sanktpeterbourgskie Vedomosti on March 6th 1797. Quoted by R. Aloys Mooser, Annales de la Musique et des Musiciens en Russie au XIlle siecle,Geneve, Editions Mont-Blanc, Vol. II, p. 252
4 Quoted by R. Aloys Mooser, Annales… Vol. II, p. 252. For further biographical details on von Held, see: Gottfried Johann Dlabacž, Allgemeines historisches Künstler-lexicon für Böhmen, Prague, 1815. p. 599-602. Reprint by Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim. It should be noted that these references to von Held’s methods were already published in the Russian Collection, Vol. I, Columbus: Editions Orphée, 1986.
5 I received this method in 1982 (in microfilm) from the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public library in Leningrad, Soviet Union. It is now known as the National Library of Russia, St. Petersbourg, Russia.


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