Some Considerations of 19th Century Guitar Music and Its Performance Today.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of my article with the same title published in Classical Guitar magazine in four installments (August, September, October and December of 1986) and in Gitarre & Laute in four installments (Sept/oct. 1985, July/August 1986, Mar/Apr. 1987,July/august 1987). The article was read as a lecture in many venues since then, too numerous to list here, in several languages, the last one in the 2008 Norba Caesarina Festival in Cáceres, Spain.
Some Considerations of 19th Century Guitar Music and Its Performance Today.By Matanya Ophee
In this lecture I will discuss the performance of nineteenth century guitar music by the majority of concert guitarists active today.
Any time performers take upon themselves to play the music of a given composer, they are entering into a private contract with that composer. It is the prerogative of the performer to determine how best this contract should be carried out. At the same time, it is the prerogative of the listeners, professional critics and the ticket buying public alike, to judge how well the performer had dispatched his part of the bargain.
The first issue in front of the performer, is the matter of establishing the precise boundaries within which one may subject the music to the sort of personal interpretation which is based on the performer’s own taste and knowledge.
To go outside the boundaries of any given style, is to create a totally new musical entity which has no relationship to the intentions of the original composer. The success or failure of any performance thus depends on the performer’s ability to provide the audience with a convincing account of the music and his ability to satisfy the listener’s need of musical gratification.
I do not mean to imply that performers should become automatons whose only job is to transmit the composer’s intentions. I do suggest, however, that in the process of transferring the music from the page to the realm of sound waves, it would behoove the intelligent performer to find out what the intentions of the composer were, and to judge the degree by which they are adaptable to the aesthetic standards of our own time. Needless to say, one important element in the process of performing music and listening to it, is the current state of musical aesthetics and knowledge. What was good and acceptable 80 years ago may well be the norm for much of what passes for serious guitar music today, but those who are interested in the question of style, must take into account the changes that occurred during the course of the last 7 or 8 decades in the approach to performance practice.
When the composer is alive, it is possible to find out how, in the composer’s opinion, the music should be performed. When he is dead, the matter requires a different approach. One may look to the general aesthetics of the era and to its stylistic peculiarities and when available, to other evidence which may include verbal texts by the composer and/or his contemporaries. Studying the relationship between the music as it appears on paper, and the personal, societal and cultural environment in which it was created, is what historical musicology is all about. My point of view is that is enough to be curious and to ask questions about music, in order to qualify as a student of musical history—a musicologist. In this sense, any teacher, student, professional performer or amateur becomes a musicologist upon asking a question about the music and its creator.
In a recent discussion of the limit of authenticity in musical performance, Richard Taruskin says:
“…Experiments based on historical research…..open the mind and ear to new experiences, and enable him [the performer] to transcend habitual, and therefore unconsidered, ways of hearing and thinking about music. We do have an absolute injunction to take history into account, since it offers us another potent challenge. But the object is not to duplicate the sounds of the past, for if it were our aim we would never know whether we had succeeded. What we are aiming at, rather, is the startling shock of newness, of immediacy, the sense of rightness that occurs when after countless frustrating experiments we feel as though we have achieved the identification of performance style with the demands of the music…”
While a great deal of experimentation and research had been dedicated by guitarists to the study of performance practice of renaissance and baroque music, it appears that for the most part, the performance of nineteenth century guitar music today, is NOT based on any experimentation or research of style, but on a tradition which was formed during the early years of the last century. The style of performing guitar music then, was very much in line with the aesthetical sophistication of the time. It fitted very well with the emotional and artistic drives of the leading guitar virtuosi at the particular time in their lives. From our vantage point, it seems that a performance style which continues this tradition today, would appear to be based on “habitual, and therefore unconsidered ways of hearing and thinking about [this] music”. It is certainly not of our time.
Research into performance style of early nineteenth century guitar music is obviously a vast subject. In the final analysis, the proper place for this research to be carried out is not on the lecturer’s podium, but on the concert stage—with guitar in hand. My purpose here is not to provide easy answers or to dictate how in my opinion this music should he performed. I only wish to propose a brief insight into the development of contemporary performance of this music, and to suggest a way of hearing it and thinking about it which is directly related to verbal statements by the composers themselves about the performance of music of their time. Perhaps a clearer understanding of the context in which the music was created, would permit a realistic, and certainly a less prejudicial assessment of these composers.
There are several areas of performance practice which need to be examined in detail, when we try to find out what the composers themselves had to say—tempi, proper dynamics, ornamentation, correct phrasing, rhythmical coherence, distribution of accents, fingering and other subjects which form the basis of a musical performance. In this lecture, I would like to limit my discussion to one element of interpretation which, in my opinion, is directly related to all other—the indiscriminate, uncontrolled and involuntary arpeggiation of blocked chords. I am interested in the effects of this habit on musical structure and in its relationship to the ideas of the original composers. I will also offer some observations as to the reasons why we do what we do today when we come to play a series of notes which are placed vertically one on top of the other.
Of all early nineteenth century guitarists, the name of Fernando Sor is one which best managed to survive the onslaught of ridicule and neglect which was suffered by most of his contemporaries. It is safe to say that precisely because Andrés Segovia had been playing certain pieces by Sor all throughout his career, interest in the music of this genius was kept alive to our day. The great majority of guitarists of my generation have come to know the music of Sor through recordings and concert performances by Segovia, as well as through several well-known editions of the music which were prepared by him.
We are all familiar with this little study – Sor’s op. 6 No 8. This piece, for better or for worse, is also known as Study No. 1 in the famous collection of 20 Sor studies edited by Andres Segovia.
This edition, whether we like it or not, was the backbone of guitar repertoire over the last 60 years or so, and to this day — the major source for our perception of Sor. In spite of the appearance of better and more reliable editions of the same music, it still enjoys the acceptance of a large body of guitar teachers and students. On comparing the Segovia edition with the original, we can easily observe certain important differences. The main difference, besides the layer of fingerings and dynamics applied by Segovia which are absent from the original, is that while the tempo indication of the original is an Andantino, it becomes a Lento in Segovia’s version. Moreover, Segovia adds the direction legato at the beginning of the piece, also missing from the original. We can argue on the precise metronomical values of Andantino and Lento. There is no argument though, about the meaning of legato. This is a mode of playing in which it is necessary to sustain all three voices without letting them go.
As many guitarists, I learned to play the piece early in my career as a guitarist, some fifty-five years ago. Having compared the sound picture produced by playing the study in complete legato with a literal reading of the Segovia edition, the only edition available to me then, I found that it made perfect sense and I accepted it. My readiness to accept this way of hearing and thinking about this music, I must admit, was based on a purely subjective frame of mind. For all intents and purposes, it was just as valid as any other way of playing. I had no way of knowing if the idea corresponded to the composer’s point of view. The question itself was not part of my regular concerns at the time. This was not the time to question the validity of anything which bore the Segovia imprint. There was no way of knowing then, that the indication legato at the beginning of this study in the Segovia edition was not an original indication by the composer, and that the tempo indication of Lento was an editorial change made by Segovia from the original Andantino.
I have to observe, retrospectively, that the changes made by Segovia, strongly suggest that he was perfectly aware of the nature of this miniature as an instrumental rendition of an eighteenth century chorale in three voices. The slower tempo, the idea of the legato and the extensive use of dynamics as a means of delineating the several voices, are all indicative of an attempt to recreate the type of a chorale that Fernando Sor would have heard and sang as a student in the Montserrat monastery. It does not seem, however, that Segovia was aware of the fact that the twenty four studies op. 6 and op. 29, were regarded by the composer as a unified cycle in which every piece is closely related to the one that precedes it and to the one that follows. In fact, the twenty four studies are not the only such cycle in the work of Sor. There are several more. Of particular interest to us are the twenty four lessons op. 31 and the twenty four exercises op. 35. The reason for that interest lies in the fact that all throughout his method, Sor repeatedly refers to these cycles as whole entities. At one point he even complains of the difficulties he had when composing the twenty four lessons op. 31, which, he says, resulted in that “the difference from one to the other is too striking.”
The relationship between the pieces in each cycle become evident on examining Sor’s pedagogical philosophy as expressed by him in the method. The book is presented as a work which is designed to prove that the guitar is an instrument of harmony, capable of providing a correct accompaniment to the voice as the orchestra or the piano. To prove his point, Sor goes in great detail into the relationship of thirds and sixths, which, according to him, is the basic element of harmonic structures on the guitar. His major piece in teaching this theory is a lengthy quotation from the first part of The Creation of Haydn, arranged by him for voice and guitar, in which solo guitar passages alternate with a complex accompaniment for the vocal parts. According to Sor, this version recreates the original harmony as it was written by Haydn, but in the form of a guitar reduction. It is clear that Sor makes no distinction between the manner in which he plays solo passages or accompaniment. What matters to him is the proper relationship of all the parts in a composition.
To supplement the theoretical material contained in the method, Sor repeatedly refers his readers to his twenty four studies, twenty four lessons and twenty four exercises, always addressed to as whole entities. These pieces, Sor tells us, contain the same basic philosophy as the method in varying degrees of technical and musical complexity. Thus, the group of studies included in op. 6, are designed to explore the fingering problems of thirds and sixths in a progressive exposition.
Op. 6 No. 7 is a study of broken thirds on the treble strings.
op. 6 No. 9 is a study in blocked sixths.
The connecting link between these two studies is op. 6 No. 8 which employs blocked thirds and sixths in all registers.
When we consider the fact that to play all three voices in perfect legato is much more difficult in a slower tempo than in a more lively one, we have to agree with Segovia that a Lento tempo is more appropriate here than the original Andantino. Clearly, Segovia’s recordings and public performances of Sor studies have had just as great an influence on our conception of this music, as did his edition of these same studies.
One well known recording of this study, is included in Segovia’s record on the Decca label. Listening to this recording (MP3 328KB), one is almost obliged to a express a loud BRAVO; Undoubtedly, this is a magnificent piece of music making. Gorgeous sound, exquisite control over the phrasing, luscious rubatos. This is Segovia in his prime. Indeed, it would be safe to say that precisely this type of performance is what seduced us in the first place, what sent us back to the guitar, what made us practice for hours on end, trying to emulate it. I dare say though, that no one, not even any of Segovia’s designated or self-proclaimed heirs apparent have succeeded in doing so. Unfortunately, many are still trying.
It is unfortunate because as much as we are moved by this performance, we must recognize that today, it cannot be accepted as an authentic expression of Sor’s music. What we really have in front of us is not an original composition by Sor, but rather an arrangement of it by Segovia. Let us see how this arrangement would look on paper if Segovia were to write it out the way he plays it.
(To view the full size pages, click on the thumbnails below.)
The transcription I made of this recording is, by necessity, only a rough approximation. It certainly does not look like the edition of this study as published by Segovia. We are trying to reach objective conclusions through the application of strictly subjective judgments. However, the transcription does give us sufficient information for a general examination of Segovia’s interpretative approach to this music. We can point to the excessive variations in tempo from the opening quarter = 82, gradually slowing down to quarter = 72 in m. 13, then immediately accelerating to quarter = 92 in the next measure and then still slowly accelerating to quarter = 96 in m. 28, 100 in m. 33, , 108 in m. 36 then breaking down to a halting end. Variations in tempo from a low of 72 to a high of 108 within the short framework of 39 measures, are totally out of character with the music, and, more importantly, totally out of phase with Segovia’s own conception of this piece as a Lento piece in legato, as expressed by him in his edition of it.
Another important feature which this transcription reveals, is the complete masking of the suspensions in mm. 2 and 4.
The resolution of the suspension in the second beat is heard as a continuation of the melody and not, in its proper harmonic sense, as a resolution of the dissonance in the middle voice. The reason for that is the arpeggiation of the chords on the first beat. The arpeggiation from the bass upwards, displaces the treble off the beat, and thus, by virtue of an implied syncopa, accentuates it out of all proportion to its function in the harmonic structure. The middle voice, where the suspension actually occurs, gets lost in the shuffle. Indeed, there is an excessive indulgence in arpeggiation of blocked chords all throughout the piece. It even seems, sometimes, that this is not a voluntary action on the part of the player. It comes across as an involuntary, uncontrolled, and one might even say, an unconscious habit which permeates the music like a nervous tick.
This arpeggiation distorts the clarity of the chorale-like texture, it eliminates the middle voice, breaks up the smooth legato of the melodic lines and renders the whole concoction into a single line melody with accompaniment. In spite of this distortion, the total effect is pleasing and enjoyable. As I said before, it even has certain seductive qualities — one of the reasons this interpretation found its way into our tradition and spawned thousands of would-be imitators. Stylistically though, it is an anachronism which does not contribute to a better understanding of Sor. Beautiful and charming sound is simply not enough. As an attempt to recreate the music of Fernando Sor, it must be said, this interpretation results in a ludicrous distortion.
Let me point out though, that nowhere in his various writings, does Sor actually prohibit verbally the arpeggiation of blocked chords. That is an oversight on his part which makes our task in understanding him so much more difficult. It seems to me though, that it is possible to establish a case, supported by circumstantial evidence, for the idea that this habit is not compatible with Sor’s ideas on musical performance.
The need to arpeggiate a chord is directly related to the number of notes it contains. When the chord contains more notes than available fingers of the right hand, it becomes necessary to employ a thumb or one of the fingers on more than one string. The problem has been dealt with by guitarists many generations before the publication of the Sor Méthode in 1830. Many guitar methods, from the beginning of the eighteenth century on, addressed themselves to this question. Even before, the question was dealt with by baroque guitarists, as, quite obviously, arpeggiation relates to the rasgueado techniques of the seventeenth century. It seems though, that the first serious discussion of the question, is to be found in the respective methods of Carulli and Molino, published in Paris circa 1815. In his Nouvelle Méthode of that year, Francesco Molino discusses the problem:
When one encounters a chord of only three notes, one need to pluck all three together with the three fingers, i.e., the thumb, index and medium. If the chord contains four notes, it has to be plucked with four fingers, and if it contains five, the lowest two notes must be plucked with the thumb, and the other notes with the other fingers. If the chord will be of six notes, one must then pluck the bass strings with the thumb without detaching it from the strings and with great velocity so that they will produce an agreeable sound, and as much as possible, equal to that they would have produced if they were plucked all together.
…and if one finds a chord made up of long notes, particularly in slow tempo, it would be good to execute them one after the other according to the rule indicated above, however, without abuse, which could be a detriment to good taste. In this manner, the harmony will be better supported, and it would be easier to obtain that [mode of] expression that able Masters can impart in similar cases to the pianoforte or the harp.
A rather similar point of view was expressed, at about the same time, by Ferdinando Carulli. In the first edition of his method op. 27 from 1810 Carulli says:
Many people pluck chords strictly with the thumb, passing it over all the strings. This manner of plucking – does not make the hand look graceful and renders the chord rather dry; thus, when a chord contains four notes, one has to pluck it with four fingers but at great velocity, so as that to give the impression that they were plucked almost together…
These two opinions, although similar, arrive at their conclusions from two different points of view. Molino is trying to teach guitarists how to imitate masters of the piano and the harp, without indulging in excessive arpeggiation, while Carulli is trying to advocate plucking chords instead of strumming them. Both masters, while acknowledging that some arpeggiation is acceptable, insist that it must be executed as subtly as possible. This attitude reflects the current fashion in Parisian guitar circles at the time, and many other guitar methods from the period express a similar point of view.
A different attitude to arpeggiation arrived in the French capital c. 1826 with the publication of the second Spanish edition of the Escuela of Dionisio Aguado and its French translation by François de Fossa. In the first known guitar method of Aguado, the Escuela of 1825, Aguado refers to blocked chords as “accordes simultaneos”. He says:
Si las notas de un acorde son todas de un mismo valor, debiendose ejecutar todas á un mismo tiempo, la simultaneidad es absoluta; y á esto llamo acorde simultaneo; Hablando con propiedad, el acorde ha de constar por lo meno de tres sonidos, ó de dos intervalos, sin embargo, atendiendo á la facilidad de la ejecución, consideraré también como acorde la unión de dos voces.
[If the notes of a chord are of the same value, they must be executed at the same time, in absolute simultaneity, and that is what I call a simultaneous chord. Properly speaking, a chord should contain at least three notes, or two intervals. However, considering the facility in execution, I will consider as a chord also two notes together.]
The same precept is repeated in the second Spanish edition of 1826. In the French translation of the same book, François de Fossa amplifies this concept and in a footnote to the same paragraph he says:
The practice in France, Germany and Italy, is to execute this type of a chord by sounding all the notes of which it is made up successively but at great speed, from the bass to the treble. Mr. Aguado always considers that there are as many different instruments in a chord, as there are notes, requires an absolute simultaneity, such as he would hear in a trio, in a quartet or in an orchestra, or at any time that each note is executed by a different instrument.
One could not hope for a more succinct and precise statement of policy. This point of view stands at a variance with the more relaxed approach to arpeggiation which was expressed a decade earlier by Carulli and Molino. It is far from certain that this way of playing was accepted by Parisian guitarists. Surely, several guitar methods, published in later years, still conveyed the older manner of playing blocked chords. However, there would be grounds for suspecting that Fernando Sor would have been inclined to accept the new way of playing, if he did not already subscribe to it. As we know, Sor and Aguado were close friends. They did have some differences regarding technical matters such as the use or non-use of nails. But in matters of musical understanding and appreciation, they were of a like mind. De Fossa’s translation was made under the eyes of the composer, i.e., with his complete agreement. It was published in Paris just after the arrival of Fernando Sor in town after a long sojourn in Russia. At the time, Sor lived together with Aguado at the Hotel Favart. In his own guitar method which was published only four years later, in 1830, Sor mentions Aguado several times and even refers his French readers to Aguado’s method and recommends to them several areas in which Aguado’s teachings are preferable to his own. Since it is not likely that most French guitar enthusiasts of the time would have been able to use the Spanish versions of the Escuela, it is reasonable to assume that Sor was actually referring his French readers to the French version, the one translated and annotated by de Fossa. In other words, Sor must have been well familiar with de Fossa’s translation and the doctrines contained therein. Sor does not argue with the doctrine of simultaneous chords as preached by Aguado and further explained by de Fossa. If nothing else, this lack of an objection might indicate to us that not only Sor could have agreed in principle with the concept, he also could have considered the whole matter as self-evident, and as one who prided himself as being a composer and a harmonist, he saw no point in discussing it.
There are several other inferences we can make regarding Sor’s apparent agreement with Aguado. The most striking in my opinion, is Sor’s silence regarding Aguado’s description of the process of improvisation in the performance of music by Sor. In the section of the Escuela which deals with “expression”, (Aguado’s name for what we call today “Performance practice”), he gives an example from one short segment from the Fantaisie op. 7 by Sor, and shows four different ways the passage can be improvised upon.
That was in 1825, and again, in the Paris editions of 1826. In his own Méthode of 1830, only four years later, we hear no objection from Sor in this regard. By elimination, we can deduce that either he agreed with the concept, or at the very least—did not object to it. We have to conclude then, that as a composer who was standing with one foot in the classical tradition and with the other in the beginning of romanticism, Sor was willing to accept improvisation as a legitimate expressive device on the concert stage.
All of which is to say that in the performance of music of the early nineteenth century, there is a considerable difference between a modification of the music which is the product of a controlled effort by the performer to inject his own creativity into the work by improvising on the musical matter, and a modification which is the product of a capricious application of the performer’s own idiosyncrasies, regardless of the degree of stylistic relevance to the music. In the improvisational type of modification, there could be many notes which are not of the composer’s, but result from the performer’s understanding of the style and his own creative genius. In such a performance, all the essential qualities of the original will have been preserved by a deep respect to the style of the composer and to his place in history. On the other hand, the capricious introduction of bastard stylistic elements into the music of any era, even if all the original notes are played letter perfect, destroys the very essence of the music and as such, it is an insult to the composer and his memory. It is also an insult to the listener’s intelligence. It is indicative of the performer’s ignorance of the style and of his disregard of the need to remain within its boundaries. We, today, no longer stand in awe of anyone who can move his fingers fast and produce charming sounds. We are accustomed to hear music as a spiritual experience which is directly related to the name of its creator. When we see the name of Fernando Sor on the program, let it better be a good rendition of the music of Sor, a not merely a distant reflection of it.
Our respect today, would certainly go first to a performer who is able to touch us deeply where it feels good, WITHOUT forcing his personality on us to the total exclusion of the composer. We have to recognize though, that during the early years of the last century, this type of performer was the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, Segovia’s interpretation of the music of Sor is firmly rooted in the tradition of the late romantics and in the solo virtuoso syndrome as it manifested itself in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This interpretative attitude is the direct descendant of the aesthetic values of Fritz Kreisler, Vladimir de Pachman, Franz Drdla and Luigi Denza. It embodies the dubious sophistication of a generation which prized the eccentricities of the performer, his charisma and flair, and his ability to deliver a large number of sentimental lollipops, over his artistic depth and the coherence of his musical language. Perhaps one of the reasons which contributed to Segovia’s meteoric rise, was his conformity with the ideals of a world bent on forgetting the horrors of war and indulging in sweet gemütlichkeit. (Comfortableness, friendliness, informality, good natured, pleasantness…)
Guitarists are often not aware of the simple fact that they do not have a monopoly on pretty music. Having remained outside the mainstream of musical activity in the last 7 or 8 decades, it was difficult for us to observe the changes that took place in the interpretation of romantic music during this time.
A good demonstration of the point can be made by a comparative listening to pianists of the turn of the century, and their counterparts today. Let us hear Jan Paderewski, and in particular, his performance of an Impromptu op. 142 N°2 by Schubert. The recording projects a highly personal point of view which uses exaggerated gestures as expressive means. One of these gestures is the arpeggiation of every single chord. That was perfectly acceptable at the beginning of the century, and Paderewski’s reputation is the testimony to that. Fortunately for the piano and its culture, many schools of piano playing have emerged since then. The piano also enjoyed the fruits of the labor of many dedicated scholars. Their work resulted in a clearer understanding of the different stages in the development of romanticism and allowed for a clearer grasp of the stylistic differences between Schubert, Chopin and Liszt. When you compare the Paderewski recording to a more recent one by a master of the stature of Sviatoslav Richter, playing the very same Schubert Impromptu, you can realize how it is possible to approach Schubert with a controlled, one would say almost a self-effacing attitude, and to allow the music to speak for itself without shoving the performer’s personality down the listener’s throat.
We were given an enlightening insight into the process of change the piano had gone through, by the then 77 years old Vladimir Horowitz after his historic concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London on May, 1982. He is reported to have said to a Newsweek magazine interviewer:
“I have no style, I change every time…… In the past the public did not understand music, but now, through records, cassettes, they know so much, you no longer have to exaggerate. My playing has become simpler, and simplicity is wisdom”.
Similar wisdom on the part of the leading guitarists today, is a quality which one is hard pressed to find. The guitar, much to our loss, have not enjoyed the same growth and maturity as the piano did in the same time period. It stagnated instead in a hopeless discrepancy between the stated aims of its prophets to elevate it to a place of honor and respect in the family of music, and the reality of their parochial shortsightedness and their preference of the personality cult over the cultivation of scholarship and knowledge. An allusion is made here, one need not emphasize too much, to the myth that the guitar had indeed reached parity with the instruments of the orchestra and that this happy situation was brought about, single-handedly, by Andres Segovia. There are many European and North American guitarists who strongly believe this, but I am sure there are others who know better. The idea of The Golden Age of the Guitar is a poppycock fantasy which does not translate itself into concert bookings and recording contracts. We have a long way to go. Perhaps it will be useful to recall that Segovia’s idea of a place of honor in the family of music, was a natural extension of the solo virtuoso syndrome. In a frank, and a most revealing interview with Vladimir Bobri in Guitar Review No. 43, Segovia said:
“…..I introduced the guitar with orchestra – asking Castelnuovo-Tedesco to write the first concerto of the epoch – because I wanted to lift the guitar to the first level, like the violin, the piano, the cello….. [but] when you put the guitar at the side of the orchestra, something disappointing happens……..the sound of the guitar becomes a little harsh, and monochromatic and so, as soon as I succeeded in putting the guitar on the first level, I decided not to play any more with orchestra…”
The claim of having created the first guitar concerto of the epoch was a self-serving falsehood. Some of you may recall the lectures given by Alejandro Madrid and myself three years ago in the Curnavaca festival about the first performance of a guitar concerto in this century which took place took place in Mexico City in February of 1933. This was the Concierto Primo by the Mexican composer Rafael Adamé, in which he performed the solo part accompanied by an orchestra under the direction of one of the most important musicians in Mexico at the time, the creator of El Sonido Trece, Julian Carillo.
Our present concern is with the specific reasons which prompted Segovia, as expressed by him later in the same interview, to abandon playing with other musicians, preferring to play with his own little orchestra—the guitar—alone. It is clear from what he said there, that he failed to grasp the meaning of orchestration—the conductor’s stock in trade. No conductor worth his salt will ever allow his orchestra, large or small, to completely obliterate the middle voices of a composition, to allow the melody to dominate at the expense of the other parts, to make a joke of the rhythmical coherence, to allow anarchistic variations in tempo and to arpeggiate every single chord. As a conductor of his own little orchestra, as we have heard in the recording of the Sor study, Segovia is woefully inadequate.
It is not a great revelation to consider that in spite of the fact that Segovia dominated the guitar world in the years after the Second World War, there were many other guitarists who managed to carve for themselves a comfortable niche. The names of Rey de la Torre, Bream, Williams, Diaz, Yepes, Ivanov–Kramskoi, Lagoya, Behrend and Ghiglia quickly come to mind. Some of these guitarists, by their own admission, were followers and admirers of Segovia. In many ways, they owe their artistic life to him. In the last couple of decades, a new breed of guitarists began to take stage center and to propagate new ideas on guitar performance in a way which sets them, at least on outward appearances, as a separate movement which is not affiliated with the Segovia mystique and does not owe its raison d’être to him. We hear much talk these days about new pedagogical schools, new performance philosophies, and new musical genres. One gets the impression that Segovia’s direct influence is on the wane and those who still pay lip service to the legend, are quietly going about the business of establishing their own claim to the throne. The great majority of contenders, particularly those who are close enough to the top of the pile to have a reasonable chance of success, are following the example Segovia set for them in his own career. This includes the business of commissioning works from important composers, engaging in intensive public-relations effort, acquiring the services of their own journalistic “claque” which is diligently busy promoting the new candidate, and allowing their name to be implicated in the most abhorrent form of commercial hype known to man—the self-serving manipulation of history. This is not the place to set about substantiating these observations. What concerns us here is the actual business of making music. Indeed, there are many today who are particular about their way of playing the guitar, and about making sure that the public and the critics know that they do not play like Segovia, that they shun the so-called “Segovia Sound”, and that their artistic product is not related to him and to his teachings.
This disavowal campaign takes on many aspects. Statements made in interviews, published articles, performers’ editions, master-classes and pronouncements by devotees and followers. It is indeed possible to hear in the music making of many well-known guitarists a definite change from what was customary only a couple of decades ago. In most cases the disavowal is a true reflection of a changing aesthetical mood, and those who are busy making it are telling the truth about their own efforts and accomplishments. It is strange though, that no one bothered to express an opinion, positive or negative, about Segovia’s mannerisms in regard to the involuntary arpeggiation of blocked chords. It seems to me that the reason to that is the simple fact that whether the guitarist belongs to the generation of Segovia followers, or to a more recent breed, this insidious unconscious habit is hopelessly ingrained in the performance psychology of the guitar. Arpeggiation of blocked chords has become an integral part of the habitual sound-scape of the guitar, and with few exceptions, all major or minor performers today indulge in it.
Earlier in this lecture, I tried to draw certain inferences regarding the performance of music by Sor, from statements made by Aguado. It might be argued that circumstantial evidence is not sufficiently convincing. You must agree though, that there is no room for debate in regard to the performance of music by Aguado, if we take into account the statements made by Aguado himself. Consider, for example, Julian Bream’s recording of Aguado’s Rondo Brilliant, his op. 2 No. 1., which is dedicated, appropriately enough, to François de Fossa, his long time friend and confidant. This is a composition which employs the full harmonic and technical resources of the guitar. Here is the first line of the music:
Listening to Bream’s recording, and thinking about Aguado’s insistent reminders that simultaneous chords must be played in perfect simultaneity without arpeggiation, and further thinking about the amplifications of this idea by the dedicatee of this particular piece, François de Fossa, in his French translation of Aguado quoted above, one has no choice but to conclude that Bream’s recording does not bear any resemblance to the ideas of the composer himself about this type of music. Bream’s interpretation is a stylistic anachronism which does not reflect the time and the personality of the composer, but rather, an aesthetic mood which is totally foreign to him. The question before the critical listener is whether Bream had chosen his mode of interpretation consciously. If he did consider the question at all, and still opted to ignore Aguado’s precepts about this performance aspect, one might agree or disagree with his interpretation, but still allow that as a performer, he is entitled to his own point of view. On the other hand, I strongly suspect that Bream had not read Aguado’s Escuela in any of its available versions, and his interpretation is based on habitual, and as Taruskin says, unconsidered ways of hearing and thinking about this music. In the hands of Bream, the music is transformed into a prettified triviality, which, I suspect, is not what the guitarist would have made of it, had he chosen to think about and consider the composer’s point of view.
Let us observe, in closing, that an arpeggiated chord is one to which a specific ornament had been applied. As any other ornament in music of the early nineteenth century, arpeggiation is a useful device which can be applied by the performer to great advantage. Ornamentation, however, must be a conscious activity. It has to be applied within the correct parameters of a given style, and in compliance with the context of the music. Ornamental arpeggiation, when resorted to at all, must be controlled so that it does not interfere with the texture, with the rhythmical sense of the piece or with the clear articulation of its phrases. The last paragraph of Aguado’s Escuela of 1825 reads as follows:
Finalmente el guitarrista debe buscar modelos de espresion el los profesores de mérito, dotados de una alma sensible, sea cual fuere el instrumento en que espresen sus sentimientos; los oirá con mucho atención , y procurará imitarlos, hasta que consiga formarse un gusto y un estilo peculiar.
[Finally, the guitarist must search for models of expression in teachers of merit, who are endowed with a sensitive soul, whatever the instrument on which they express their feelings, hear them very attentively and strive to imitate until one has formed a personal taste and style.]
In other words, if we are to learn how to play guitar music of the early nineteenth century, we stand a much better chance of doing so by listening to the music of Schubert and Beethoven, performed by artists of the caliber of Sviatoslav Richter, than by listening to the music of Sor and Aguado, performed by guitarists who do not contribute anything new, but rather continue a tired and archaic tradition and espouse stale and worn-out aesthetics.
I would like to finish by playing for you a recording of this little study by Sor, played here by the Cuban guitarist José Rey de la Torre, one of the most illuminating people our world have seen and heard, un guitarrista de merito, dotado de una alma sensible, who passed in our midst much too fast without leaving a permanent trace. Clearly, de la Torre’s use of arpeggiation is controlled and conscious. He uses it with good taste and with superb artistic restrain. This is a model well worth following.
Copyright © 2009 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.