Charlatans, Saltimbanques, and Lumpen Songs: The Emergence of the Guitar from the Ghetto of Western Art Music

Andrew McKenna Lee

The guitar occupies a unique place in the history of music. Few other instruments have engendered such widespread popularity across such a vast swath of diverse ethnic cultures in both popular and artistic aesthetics. From the Middle Eastern `ud — considered to be the ancient ancestor of the guitar and first depicted pictorially in drawings from Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago — to the modern electric guitar of the age of arena-rock, the instrument has proven itself both culturally durable and adaptable, and has given rise to a staggeringly diverse repertoire of music over the course of millennia. Few other instruments, perhaps with the notable exception of the human voice itself, can claim such a deep legacy. However, in spite of its popularity and versatility (or perhaps, at least in some part because of it), the guitar has only recently begun to assert itself as a “legitimate” concert instrument within the Western classical music establishment. The issue of “legitimacy” when dealing with a musical instrument is quite complex and problematic, partly because general, prevailing attitudes within specific subcultures are difficult to quantify objectively. Nonetheless, it is easy to glean from a multitude of different sources, both historical and contemporary, an attitude towards the guitar and its repertoire that suggests it is not held in the highest esteem, if not simply looked down upon.

This essay will look at the role of the guitar within the context of both contemporary and classical-period concert music, and will explore the reasons why it is, in many ways, an instrument that is still seeking “legitimacy.” There are numerous reasons for this, many of them cultural and social. Consequently, a historical background on the evolution of the instrument and its various roles in musical culture throughout history should be assessed. This historical development raises a number of technical issues, including its sonic properties relative to its resulting musical and practical limitations. Quite naturally, this latter issue leads to the composers and the resulting music composed for it since its more modern debut as a concert instrument in the first part of the 19th century. This section of the dissertation will feature a large analytical component, and will examine several works from the guitar repertoire in the context of more established “masterpieces” by other, more widely-respected composers from the same time period. From these analyses, I will attempt to draw concrete examples of how composers from the past and from more contemporary times have handled the guitar’s inherent strengths and deficiencies. I will also demonstrate how this evolution in treatment has led to a steady advance in terms of both quality and quantity of modern repertoire. Finally, I will address the emergence of the electric guitar, and discuss its relationship to the classical guitar as both an extension of, and perhaps even simultaneously a solution to, the issues considered above. The compositional component of this dissertation is represented by my work Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach (2004, 2008). An extended, multi-movement piece for solo guitar with a duration of about 23 minutes, it attempts to address some of the challenges of writing an extended-form solo work for the instrument, in addition to providing a framework in which I could conduct some of my own, personal explorations of form, harmony, and the area where they intersect.


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