On “period” guitars and 19 th century guitar music

Recently a number of very fine guitarists have decided to use “original” or “period” guitars for the performance of our 19th century literature. Indeed it was but a few short years ago that we viewed the pre-Torres early 19th century guitar as something of a primitive and inferior stage in the evolution of our instrument. These players have thankfully shattered this fallacy. I recently had the pleasure of hearing several such performers and became more convinced than ever that not only do these “period” guitars have the volume to fill a good-sized auditorium, but they also have their own unique quality and beauty! Yet, often times, in the process of shattering one fallacy, new ones are created and I am afraid that this might be the case in two areas of the use of “period” instruments in the performance of 19th century guitar music

1. Size of fretboard and ease of execution
I am the owner of both a quality early 19th century instrument and a quality modern instrument (which I use on my recordings) and I simply do not find the former significantly easier to play than the latter. The string length of the 19th century guitar is 63 cm as opposed to 65 cm for the modern instrument This is an approximate increase of 3%. It seems that it could easily be proven that average size of the human frame (and likewise the left hand) has increased at least 3% (because of vastly improved nutrition etc) since the early 19th century and we could therefore assume that the average modern person would experience no more difficulty with stretches on a modern instrument than the average person of the early 19th century experienced on the guitars of their period. Therefore it seems to me that a certain well-known guitarist’s recent analogy that playing 19th century music on a modern guitar is comparable to playing the Tchaikivsky Violin Concerto on a viola is somewhat unreasonable to say the least. (It is also grossly exaggerated because the string length on the violin is 33cm while the average viola’s string length in 37.5 cm. An increase of 12%. In other words, it is four times the increase of the previously mentioned guitars.)

Indeed, to me, the problem seems to be more an athletic one rather than a fret-distance one. It is my belief that Sor and others of the period were great virtuosos and left-hand techniques such as stretching were areas in which they reigned supreme. In order for these musicians to produce the high quality compositions in their respective styles that they did, it was an absolute necessity that they develop their left hands thusly. (A more recent example of this is Augustin Barrios who likewise has tremendous stretches in his music – and he did it on a modern 65-cm guitar with higher tension steel strings. Thus the argument that 19th century guitar music was tailor-made for the low-tension short fingerboard “period” guitar is also somewhat refuted by the later example of Barrios!)

One can, I believe, certainly play this music effectively on either the modern 65 cm instrument or the 63 cm “period” instrument only if one is willing to devote years of practice to develop the necessary technique. I should like to close this point by saying that despite the fact that certain early 19th century guitar music may possibly be slightly easier on the period instrument, one should not use this instrument for this reason. One should only use it if he or she feels that, after much soul-searching and experimentation, it is a more expressive instrument for the music which is being played.

2. Period Authenticity and/or Composer Approval
The period instrument movement of recent years has largely rationalized itself with the notion that quality performances of the music of a certain era should at least attempt to have the same sound as the composer or listener of that period might have experienced. That is, the music must be performed on the exact instrument for which it was written, amongst other things. This notion (or dogma as the case may be) has been carried to such an extreme that not only is it “wrong” to perform lute and vihuela music on the guitar, or harpsichord music (such as Bach or Scarlatti) on the piano, but even the artistic validity of such acknowledged masters as harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and lutenist Julian Bream has been seriously questioned because of the allegedly unauthentic instruments and techniques they used! These tendencies are carried into the 19th century by the insistence that London and Paris based Sor should be performed on a Panormo or copy thereof, while the Vienna based Giuliani should be performed on a Stauffer or copy thereof. Of course the belief in this notion causes an incredible dilemma to today’s touring guitarist, even if he has the personal wealth (which is unfortunately not the case for many of us) to own quite an array; of quality “period” instruments. He either must devote himself to playing only one composer or he must somehow (and very clumsily and expensively, I might add) carry all these instruments with him on his world tours if he wishes to play the entire gamut of music which, just a few years ago (in our evident innocence and ignorance), was quite simply played on the modern “Torres” style guitar. Indeed, I have seen articles in recent guitar journals stating that the modern “Torres” style guitar has today become the universally used instrument, not because of its superiority, but instead because of the pro-Spanish prejudice of such musicians as Tarrega, Llobet and finally Segovia!

While there may be some truth to all of the above, it seems to me that besides the previously mentioned problems of wealth and travel, there is one immense problem – that is that we have no idea what Sor, Giuliani, Regondi and other 19th century guitarists might have sounded like on these instruments. What kind of tone, vibrato, color etc did they produce? How did they make these instruments sing? Indeed all this has much to do with how one learns to express oneself on an instrument and I can think of no greater truism than that none of us work in a vacuum. We can indeed learn very little or not even begin to develop a personal style without first learning from the sounds and examples of our contemporaries and immediate predecessors. The earliest guitarist that practically any one of us has heard extensively is Andres Segovia. Following him we have Alirio Diaz, Alexander Lagoya, Ida Presti, Julian Bream, John Williams, Oscar Ghiglia and many others who have, to a greater or lesser extent, been influenced by Segovia. Thus when these above-mentioned “period” guitarists (or anyone else of their generation for that matter) were in their guitaristically formative years, the above is the guitaristic “soundscape” that influenced them – a “soundscape” that included only nail players on post-Torres type guitars. They developed their personal styles by reacting to, either positively or negatively, these sounds around them. (Of course this also includes the sounds of other instrumentalists such as violinists, pianists, vocalists etc. – this process of influences is often very subconscious and therefore very difficult to pinpoint and analyze.) Thus when they play Sor on a Panormo or Regondi or Giuliani on a Stauffer copy they are translating their personal styles, developed on a modern instrument and derived from contemporary techniques and sources, to an instrumental design that, for whatever reason, became obsolete over 100 years ago. Now I want the reader to understand that I am not criticizing these performers and indeed I am full of admiration for certain of them. But I make the point that their use of the 19th century instrument is not necessarily any more authentic than if another guitarist or even these performers themselves, decided to and/or preferred to perform this music on the modern guitar!

Incidentally, a very few guitarists, in their quest for authenticity in the performance of Sor, have decided to not only use the “period” guitar but also use a no-nail, flesh technique for tone production because Sor himself played this way. I must admit that I have never heard satisfactory performances using this approach, yet I have no doubt that Sor himself was a very great and musical performer and had a fine technique and beautiful sound. But the modern performer trying to emulate Sor’s performance style has practically nothing to go on. To comprehend this, let us imagine a person trying to play in the “authentic” Segovia style without having heard him in person and having heard no recordings and only having a brief and vague description of his use of nails for tone production to go on. Indeed, it seems to be impossible for the guitarists of today to effectively reproduce the “Segovia Style” with the beautiful tone, vibrato, color etc. with all the above-mentioned examples and information to help them, therefore it appears that the problems of this no-nail approach to Sor are far, far, too Herculean for even the most talented of today’s guitarists to overcome!

All of this brings me to a hypothetical question: Given the virtual impossibility of achieving authenticity that a performer faces today, which guitar, “period” or modern, would meet the approval of the 19th century guitar composers? Of course this is pretty much an unanswerable question, but we do know that almost all composers throughout the history of music have in many ways been much more lenient toward changes in instrumentation than we are today. And we also know that invariably these composers approved of the most brilliant, expressive and poetic performances of their work despite the often wide disparity between the composer’s original conception and the personality and conception of the performer. However I know that they would not approve of some of the dead, but musicologically “correct” performances that we witness today!

A number of years ago, upon learning of my desire to record the complete works of Sor using a modern guitar, a certain guitarist and musicologist wrote me saying:

“It is a pity you don’t record your Sor on an original instrument. I find playing an early guitar a different and enlightening experience. The early instruments necessitate a different approach both musically and technically as they respond differently from their modern counterparts. Thus many “secrets” in the music are automatically revealed. Pianists experience the same when changing from a modern Steinway to an early piano when playing Mozart.”

At the time, I took this gentleman to heart and vowed that before I committed any more or Sor’s music to the permanence of tape, I should settle this issue once and for all in my own mind. I proceeded to purchase a beautiful German guitar (circa 1820) and I spent many, many enjoyable hours playing my new “old” instrument. But, while I do not doubt the sincerity of this gentleman and that it has been educational to play this guitar, this automatic revelation of “secrets” never occurred and I came to the conclusion that, for me at least, the modern guitar is a far better tool for the expression of Sor’s music. Undoubtedly other fine musicians may have had this somewhat magical revelation of secrets, and for this, or for whatever reason, use the early 19th century guitar and consider it the best tool for the expression of Sor. What would Sor think if he were to magically and automatically reveal his secret thoughts today? My personal (but unmagical, unautomatic and non-secretively revealed) opinion is that he would opt for the most musical, brilliant, expressive and poetic performances of his music and wouldn’t give two hoots what instrument it was done on. With this I rest my case.

Essay By Lawrence Johnson

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