Saturday, September 3, 2011

Guitar Repertoire

Guitarists have both advantages and disadvantages. It's a hugely popular, much-loved, inexpensive, portable instrument that can play both classical and popular music. But it also does not have a repertoire that compares with keyboard instruments. If you go back far enough, to the 16th century, you find that the lute, a close cousin to the guitar, has a repertoire that easily matches keyboard instruments of the time for both quantity and quality. But from the 17th century on, the keyboard has dominated. It is easier to play complex music on a keyboard because the mechanism makes the production of an individual note much easier. The guitar, however, has much more capacity in terms of color and expression--vibrato, for example. But at the end of the day, the guitar has not received the attention from composers that keyboard instruments have.

There have been brief periods of flourishing. The 16th century in Spain and Italy produced a lot of wonderful music for the lute and vihuela (a double-strung instrument similar to the guitar). Here is a piece by Francesco da Milano, "il divino", lutenist to three popes. This is a fantasia in the style of vocal counterpoint:

Here is a piece for vihuela by Luis Milan. This is in a much more instrumental style with many quick scale passages that are a harbinger to the Baroque toccata:

In the Baroque era the leading composer for guitar was Robert de Visee. Here is a gigue:

The Classical period saw the guitar losing ground badly to the piano. Of the many modestly-talented composers Fernando Sor is the most known. Here is the adagio from his Sonata, op 22:

The Romantic era saw the guitar eclipsed rather thoroughly. But towards the end of the 19th century, Francisco Tarrega wrote a few characteristic pieces making use of typical Spanish colors. Here is the best-known:

The 20th century saw a real renaissance of the guitar, possibly because composers and audiences began to appreciate the kinds of sonorities the guitar can produce. Driving this return to popularity was the performing career of Andres Segovia who took the guitar back to the concert stage world-wide. Here he is playing one of the first pieces written for him by Federico Moreno-Torroba:

Another guitarist who inspired countless composers to write for him was the English player, Julian Bream. Here is a lovely short piece by Hans Werner Henze:

Another important composer who wrote for guitar was the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Here is his Prelude no. 1:

But probably the most famous 20th century composer for guitar is Joaquin Rodrigo, because of his enormously popular Concierto de Aranjuez. Here is the middle movement:

But what are the really significant pieces for guitar? The ones that are important, perhaps even on a level with the big piano pieces. There are a lot of candidates, but only a very few truly important pieces for guitar and they are all from the 20th century. The first one I want to mention is by the Mexican composer Manuel M. Ponce who, inspired by Segovia, tried his best to flesh out the guitar repertoire--even going so far as to create a fake Baroque suite supposedly by Weiss. But he wrote a number of significant pieces under his own name including a concerto and a number of sonatas. But his greatest piece is the 20 Variations and Fugue on Folias de Espana taking nearly 30 minutes to perform. Here is Segovia playing a somewhat abbreviated version:

Another extraordinary piece is the Invocation and Dance by Joaquin Rodrigo

But possibly the greatest piece written for guitar is by Benjamin Britten, for Julian Bream. Here is the final section, the passacaglia and theme (which comes last) from the Nocturnal, op 70, a set of variations on the song "Come Heavy Sleep" by John Dowland:

So you see, the repertoire for guitar does not consist solely of short, easily forgettable pieces...


Anonymous said...

Wow, can't get enough of that Britten piece. And the way it's written almost in reverse chronological order, I guess ending some time in the 17th c. Amazing music.

Re, the Villa-Lobos prelude, this old Mexican guitarist told me a long time ago how much he despised that piece, which he said was ostentatious manipulative dreck, or something like that. I said, well, maybe, but I kind of like it anyway. (I am a huge Villa-Lobos fan.)

Regarding the unique sonorities of the guitar, I think it's Segovia who, once asked why he had a piano at home (an instrument he despised), said an upright piano made a great bookshelf.

Bryan Townsend said...

"Come Heavy Sleep" is from Dowland's First Book of Songs or Ayres of 1597. I forgot to mention that Elizabethan England is the source of another great efflorescence of lute music. The fantasias of Dowland are a pinnacle of contrapuntal lute music along with those of the Hungarian Bakfark and the later lute suites of J. S. Bach.

I go back and forth on Villa-Lobos. He wrote some extraordinary music in the preludes and etudes for guitar, but there is so much shifting on the bass strings that it is very hard to minimize all the squeaking! And sometimes there are passages that are rather crude...

I didn't know that quote from Segovia. I had the same feeling about the piano for a long time: it felt more like a piece of furniture than a musical instrument. But then I got to know the music of Chopin...

Anonymous said...

One day I'd love to hear your take on the "squeaking" thing. Something to avoid like the plague? Tolerable in small doses? On one of Sade's more recent albums, the squeaking is so intense it had to be intentional: I don't get it. Are there recording devices (audio edits) that can remove it? Curious if that's something guitar pros like you worry about?

Bryan Townsend said...

Personally I don't like the extraneous sound of 'squeaking'. Guitarists are trying to avoid it more and more these days. Usually you can, by either just lifting off the string when you shift, or by moving to a non-callused part of the finger--it is the callus that exacerbates the noise. But the problem with Villa-Lobos is that he requires that you slide on the string; do a portamento in other words. So you are bound to squeak to some extent. As you can hear in the clip, John Williams does not avoid squeaking. Villa-Lobos specifies that you slide that opening interval. The Prelude No. 2 is the worst. In the middle, arpeggio section, its doodly doodly squeak squeak all the way. I can hardly stand to play that one any more! No, wait, the worst is the Etude No. 12--the whole thing is sliding and squeaking!

There are two ways to eliminate it. One is with flatwound strings. Savarez was making them for a while and I tried them. The problem is they don't sound as good and they go dead in a couple of days. Perhaps the sound, high-pitched as it is, could be filtered out digitally and that may be why some recordings sound so hyper-clean...

Anonymous said...