Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Cat is Out of the Bag

A couple of months ago I finally got around to watching all of the documentary on John Williams--the guitarist, not the film composer. Here it is:

It is quite a decent portrait, as these things go. But the one thing that struck me, the one time when Williams seemed to show some emotion, was when he was talking about studying with Segovia. He made a veiled reference to Segovia being an over-bearing teacher. Well, there is a biography of Williams about to come out entitled Strings Attached - The Life and Music of John Williams and in it, he is going to be a lot more forthcoming. Here is an article in The Guardian about the book. The critique of Segovia leads the article:
Andrés Segovia is revered as one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century. But, 25 years after his death, his reputation is being challenged by one of his former students, the guitar virtuoso John Williams, who has attacked him as a musical and social snob who stifled creativity among his students.
Williams, an Australian who lives in the UK, studied with the Spanish maestro in the 1950s and believes that Segovia looked down on music without the right classical provenance and bullied young musicians with teaching methods that were unsympathetic and unhelpful.
I never met Segovia and of course did not take a master class with him. I had the opportunity in the mid-70s, but I suspect it was better that I didn't take advantage of it! I have studied with two of Segovia's disciples and from that experience and a great deal of things I have heard over the years, I suspect that Williams' criticisms are, if anything, muted. Segovia was, from most accounts, a prodigious egotist and would tolerate no deviation from his concept of the music. This attitude got passed on to many of his students though not, it would seem, to Williams. An example: as a fairly mature player I studied with Oscar Ghiglia, one of Segovia's closest disciples, in Banff for a couple of summers. One year I played some preludes by an Argentinian composer, not knowing that Ghiglia (probably following Segovia's example) detested Argentinian music. After I played the first prelude, Ghiglia just made an unpleasant ethnic joke about Argentinians (that I won't repeat).

Another incident was regarding a piece by Bach. I had been previously working with the superb violinist Paul Kling. Paul called me up once and when I answered the phone said, "what are you doing?" To which I replied, "playing the Siciliano from the first violin sonata." Paul instantly said, "do you play an F# or an F natural in measure ten?" Well, I had to go look. This is how I discovered that many people play an F# because an editor in the 19th century added one. There is no harmonic reason for it. So now I play a natural as Bach intended. But Segovia, working from a 19th century edition, played a sharp. A student was playing this piece in Ghiglia's master class and I mentioned to him afterwards that it should be a natural, not a sharp. He gave me this very perplexed look and said, "you are going to go to hell!" Well, possibly he was kidding.

But the point is that whatever Segovia did was the last word. Ghiglia and I got on pretty well after a while as he got to respect my musical ideas and the fact that I wasn't going to be bullied into changing one unless there was a musical reason to do so. But Ghiglia was far less intimidating than Segovia and I was not a young student. I can imagine how very damaging an arrogant tyrant could have been to young, impressionable students. All Segovia's students tend to sound a bit like watered down versions of him. With the big exception of John Williams. Someone who was a really different kind of player, like Narciso Yepes, would not have done so well with Segovia and the story is that when a young Yepes played for him Segovia was so outraged that he threw a music stand at him.

Here is Segovia playing Recuerdos de la Alhambra followed by Yepes' recording.


Anonymous said...

Recommended reading on Segovia:
Andres Segovia - Criticism and Controversy

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting view I'd like to share:


The problem with Segovia, is that most people believe what they want about him, and project things onto this “Icon, which Segovia has become”.

Andres Segovia has become an icon of spoken and written propaganda, to the extent that people simply link “technical finesse, true musicianship, artistic power” with Segovia – often without even knowing a lot about him (and his performances – often of inferior quality, etc.).

People often don’t even know that there is a lot of controvery and Criticism of Segovia: Link

most people [...] when asked for their favourite guitar player blabber out without thinking: “Segovia”

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, in a sense we are still working within the publicity frame that Segovia created to further his career! He was a brilliant guitarist, but so were his rivals such as Agustin Barrios and Miguel Llobet. Later on players like Narciso Yepes were easily in the same league as Segovia.

Anonymous said...

Narciso Yepes seems to attract a special class of fan (as of late), who cannot cope with criticism of Yepes, to the extent that these fans dig up criticism from years ago, and try to convince themselves that its invalid or intentionally bad criticism.
I'd recommend them the article "Critics and Criticism (by John Duarte)" in Soundboard Magazine; Volume 11, No 4 (1984)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comment. At this point I don't recall if I read that Soundboard article or not. I certainly had lots of conversations with John Duarte and the subject probably came up!