By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Summing Up The Stories Of Segovia And The Spanish Guitar

As I mentioned in the preceding blog, live classical guitar music was a very rare phenomenon in New Delhi when I was living there during the last 30 years of the 20th century (except for a short break of four years).  But the versatile Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd's visit to the city in 1987 created both an opportunity and an obligation for me to study the history and geography of the Spanish-guitar culture, so that I could review the event in a significant manner.

My main sources of information on Western music traditions were usually the heavy volumes on the reference shelves of the excellent libraries in the British Council, the US information Service, and Max Müller Bhavan -- particularly the Encyclopedia Britannica and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Sometimes -- though very rarely -- I also borrowed books on specific themes, composers or performing artists, or glanced at the culture pages of important British and American newspapers and magazines.    
As usual, I got so deeply involved in my research on this occasion that I had gained far more knowledge than was necessary for merely conveying my impressions of the concert I was reviewing as an articulate layman.  But within a few months after that event, the legendary guitar maestro Andrés Segovia passed away -- and I was able to write an essay about him which was so substantial that it established my image as a very knowledgeable critic in New Delhi's exclusive Western music circles  --  and yes, one who never showed it off usually!

In fact, looking at this tightly-written text after 30 years, I am myself surprised that it had such high specific gravity.  But as you can see, what it actually contained wasn't any great knowledge of classical guitar music (and Segovia's  in particular), but some crystal-clear insights into the stories of the maestro and his instrument -- which was (and still is) true of all my endeavors as an articulate layman.


Max Müller Bhavan  --  German literary and cultural center.

New Delhi

19 June, 1987

The saga of Segovia

The passing away of Andrés Segovia of Spain a few weeks ago -- at the advanced age of 94 -- marks the end of the long and fabulous career of a remarkable man  who had secured a new lease of life for the classical guitar.

The history of the guitar is a rather checkered one.  Like the lute, it was introduced to European music in Spain by the Arabs in the medieval ages.  Although during the Renaissance period (14th to 16th centuries) it could not compete with the lute for pan-European acceptance, it developed very strong roots in Spain under the name of 'vihuela', in the folk and art music traditions alike.  Notable composers who arranged works for the guitar in this early phase of the instrument's growth in Western music were Luys Milan and Miguel de Fuenllano.

Growth and decline

During the Baroque era (17th and 18th centuries), the lute became over-stringed and unwieldy, though it continued to dominate the scene.  On the other hand, the guitar shed its cumbersome double-strings in favor of five single gut strings ;  moreover, with its bowl-like back altered into a flat one, it became much easier to handle.  As a result, the guitar began to be played by music-minded amateurs all over Europe, especially in France.

In the second half of the 18th century, the lute became quite obsolete, but the guitar became still more popular in Europe, particularly in England, France and Germany.  Its ascendancy in Spain continued, of course.  The standard number of strings was increased to six, and metallic frets on the fingerboard were introduced.  Easily portable and fairly inexpensive, the guitar was now an instrument played not only by wealthy amateurs but by ordinary people too.

During the romantic period in Western music (19th century), the guitar became a heavier and more solidly built instrument, and it continued to be popular for some time.  Composers like Schubert and Berlioz were known to play the guitar.  The dazzling technical genius Paganini too fancied the guitar when he was not wielding the violin, and he even composed some chamber music for it.  Specific music for the guitar was composed by the Italian guitarist Mauro Giulani and the great Spanish guitar virtuoso, Fernando Sor.

But somehow, the guitar never became a successful concert instrument even at this stage.  On the contrary, in the second half of the 19th century, it was almost totally eclipsed by the predominance of the piano in Western art music.  Two great musicians were mainly responsible for preventing this classical instrument from fading out altogether, and these were the Spaniards Francisco Tárrega and Andrés Segovia.

Revival and refinement

Tárrega (1852-1909) was a talented guitarist and music teacher, and he transcribed for the guitar more than a hundred works by Beethoven, Chopin, and the folk-oriented Spanish composers Albéniz and Granados.  He also composed many original pieces for the solo guitar.  (Music-lovers in Delhi will recall hearing his tremulous composition Recuerdos de la Alhambra in a pleasing recital by the visiting Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd a few months ago).  Apart from this, Tárrega took the initiative to free the right hand from its traditionally fixed position, and developed a more flexible modern guitar-playing technique.

Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) consolidated the progress, and found the most sophisticated use for the right hand -- not only relaxing its movement and increasing its mobility further, but also manipulating the strings in subtle ways with finger-tips and nails, thereby achieving a wide spectrum of tonality and nuances.  Though not himself an original composer, Segovia transcribed many works composed for the ancient lute and the Spanish 'vihuela', and also pieces by such great composers as Mozart, Handel, Chopin and Schumann. 

Influence on composers

In fact, it would seem to have been Segovia's infinite regret that the greatest composers of Western classical music had failed to create specific works for the guitar -- music for which had, by and large, been produced only by those who were themselves guitarists.  He is said to have declared that outstanding guitarists did not emerge because great composers did not write for the guitar, and the composers did not write for the guitar because there were no great performers.

But in a way, the maestro himself broke the vicious circle, for he did inspire and influence several reputed contemporary composers to create substantial works for the guitar, including some concertos and sonatas.  Among these were Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Turina of Spain, Albert Roussel of France, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco of Italy, Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil, and Manuel Ponce of Mexico.

Segovia was an active concert artist till very recently, and had toured extensively all over the world.  Unfortunately, we in India have had no opportunity of hearing his music in a live performance, but  have to rest content with our limited access to his recorded music.

Source of inspiration

Segovia is noted for the great encouragement and guidance given by him to a younger generation of guitarists represented by musicians like John Williams of England and Alirio Diaz of Venezuela.  He was also a source of tremendous inspiration to a third generation of guitar virtuosi.  Thus, he not only helped to widen the classical guitar's repertoire, but also influenced the growth of modern performing styles.

Spanning practically the entire 2oth century, the maestro's extraordinary career has been like a long bridge which has ensured the effective assimilation of a noble musical tradition into the Western art music of the present day, and surely of the future too.  Such is the saga of Segovia.

PostScript, 2016

Midnight summons to Maestro

When I said in 1987 that we in India had to be content with our limited access to Segovia's recorded music, I was actually making an understatement.  For although we did have limited access to long-playing records and audio-cassettes of Western classical music, classical guitar never figured on the shelves of the music shops.  The only way to hear any recordings of Segovia or any other legendary guitarists was to get them from somewhere abroad, which was never easy unless you had some close friend or relative living there. 

You just couldn't ask even close friends or relatives in India going abroad on short visits to bring you any music records, because  with the extremely small foreign exchange allowance available to them those days, you'd have been asking them to make a great sacrifice.  Speaking for myself, I had friends in the foreign Embassies and cultural centers who would have got me whatever I wanted, but I never felt inclined to take or cause such trouble.   

How amazingly different are things today -- just 30 years later, even in India -- when we can simply press a key or touch a screen, and instantly take stock of any kind of music or dance anywhere in the world!  Like, for instance, even summoning Maestro Segovia to perform for us at midnight just by clicking on the following link : - 
                                                                                      Andrés Segovia
Or even having a very close view of his sophisticated right-hand technique in the following video!

                                                                  Leyenda by Albeniz - Andrés Segovia

No comments:

Post a Comment