Monday, October 22, 2012

Townsend: La Burgalesa by Federico Moreno-Torroba

Federico Moreno Torroba (1891 - 1982) is one of the finest composers to write for guitar in the 20th century. He was one of the first that Segovia encouraged and his first piece for guitar, the Suite castellana (composed, I believe, in 1927) is a real gem. Torroba had a genuine gift for melody and he was an excellent harmonist. The flavor of his music, while undeniably Spanish, is not that of the Andalusian south, but rather that of his birthplace, Madrid. For a long time I rather avoided his music because it seemed too facile to me but more and more I have come to love its charm and grace. He wrote a great deal for guitar, the largest and perhaps most significant piece being the suite titled Castillos de España. During his lifetime Torroba was most famous for his zarzuelas, a kind of light opera in Spanish. His extensive writing for voice probably explains his gift of melody! He seems to have been a rather shy man as there are very few photos available of him.

Back in Alicante in the mid-70s when I was studying there with José Tomas, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to buy music, though the international community of guitar students had an intense need for scores! The only music store in Alicante had almost no sheet music so about the only thing we bought there was strings. I took a little trip to London where I buried myself in music stores like Schott's for hours and in the music floor of Foyles for even longer. But we students had specialized needs. For one thing, Tomas was justifiably renowned as, well how should I put this... His fingerings of the repertoire were respected as being the best. A new student like myself was counseled to seek out more senior students for their copies of standard pieces with the correct revisions and fingerings. Quite a few of the published editions of guitar music by Torroba and others, had passages that were simply unplayable. Segovia would just slap a few fingerings on and send it to the publisher. Later on he or Tomas or someone else would get around to 'fixing' the awkward passages. It is hard to write for guitar if you are not a guitarist!

So there were three categories of scores floating around the student community in Alicante at the time.

  1. Published scores on which fingerings and 'corrections' had been written in pencil (always in pencil!)
  2. Photocopies of handwritten scores with fingerings and corrections incorporated.
  3. When the photocopies had gone through several generations of copying they turned into an unreadable grey on grey so the score had to be recopied by hand.
La Burgalesa, the first piece I learned by Torroba was in the third category. This piece was published in a volume of Pièces caractéristiques in the key of F# major. Very awkward indeed! The solution was to transpose the piece to E major, a good key for guitar. So the version of La Burgalesa that one learned in Alicante was this transposed one, with fingerings by Segovia. I copied it out by hand and my penmanship at that time was quite bad! I still have that copy and here is an excerpt:

Click to enlarge

To this day, I don't think the E major version has ever been published and you see guitarists on YouTube playing it in both keys. The F# major version is playable, though the resonance is different and some bass notes can't be held as long. Here is my performance of La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba. The title just refers to someone, a female someone, from Burgos, a town in northern Spain.



Nathan Shirley said...

Yes the guitar is hard to write for, for a non-guitarist.

Is there a reason why the "straight fourths" tuning hasn't become more common? I understand how the standard tuning makes common chords easier to play, and how certain keys become especially easy, so it's perfectly suited to folk/popular music. But would the straight fourths tuning not be more logical for a lot of classical music, especially highly chromatic music... what am I missing?

That third really throws most composers!

Bryan Townsend said...

I've just been asked to write a piece for harp and guitar and I'm sure the harp part is going to give me lots of headaches!

All the five and six string instruments I know of, like the vihuela, lute, guitar, even the viola da gamba, use fourths with a third in the middle somewhere. I think the reason is that if you had all fourths the guitar, for example, would be tuned E A D G C F. The problem here is that the chord fingerings would be awkward. For example, all the so-called "bar" chords where you lay your first finger across all six strings, are not going to work! Instead of an octave, which is ok, you will get a minor ninth, which is not ok!