Sunday, December 2, 2012

Townsend: El Decameron Negro, I El Arpa del Guerrero by Leo Brouwer

One of the recording projects I have been most happy with was my recording of Leo Brouwer's El Decameron Negro. It was written in 1981 and published in 1983. Mine was the first recording, in 1987. I sent a copy to Leo in Havana and when I next saw him, in Quebec at a Guitar Foundation of America conference, he was very gracious and complimented me on the tone quality of the recording.

This piece represents a major shift in Brouwer's approach to composition. With this piece he turns away from the atonal, aleatoric avant-garde style he had been using since the early 1960s and returned to a style that used tonal harmonies, though often in new ways. I attended a panel of composers in Toronto in the 1980s that included Brouwer, Stephen Dodgson and Gilbert Biberian and posed to them all the same question: why are you returning to using tonal harmony? Brouwer's answer at the time was that atonal music caused a fatigue to write and listen to. He later gave a much more complete explanation:
…I became saturated with the language of the so called old avant- 
garde…the atomized, crisp, and “tensional” language of this kind 
suffered, and still suffers today, a defect related to the essence of 
compositional balance, a concept that is present in history: Movement, 
tension, with its consequent rest, relaxation. This “law of opposing 
forces” – day-night, man-woman, ying-yang, time to love-time to hate 
– exists within all circumstances of mankind….The avant-garde lacked 
the relaxation of all tensions. There is no living entity that doesn’t rest. 
This is one of the things I discovered….In this way, I made a kind of 
regression that moves toward the simplification of the compositional 
materials. This is what I consider my last period […which] 
encompasses the essential elements from popular music, from classical 
music, and from the avant-garde itself. They help me to give contrast 
to big tensions.
This is exactly the point I have tried to make on several occasions on this blog. If you search under "harmony" you will probably find over a dozen posts on the issue, but here is a typical one.

El Decameron Negro consists of three movements of which "El Arpa del Guerrero" (The Warrior's Harp) is the first (though Brouwer has indicated the movements can be played in any order, everyone usually follows the printed order). Brouwer has said that the inspiration was a collection of African folk-tales. The original Decameron is a 14th century collection of 100 tales by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375). I cannot find, however, the African collection that was the direct inspiration. What I do find is a 1972 Italian film directed by Piero Vivarelli entitled Il Decamerone Nero which consists of five African folk-tales. Perhaps this was the inspiration.

In any case, "El Arpa del Guerrero" is a brilliant and lyric re-interpretation of both tonality and sonata form. It is set in an irregular 5/8 time signature that tends to give everything a different lilt. There are two main themes, the 5/8 arpeggio you hear at the beginning and a tranquillo contrasting passage in chords with rising appoggiaturas. These two ideas are developed in interesting ways and the movement ends with a brilliant ascending passage and a statement of simple E major harmony. Up until then, the movement has been rather coy about what the tonic chord might be: D flat? A minor? But this ending resolves the tensions.

I have accompanied the recording with a photo of the first page of the original manuscript, the original published cover, the first page of the published edition (if you look very closely, you can see some red ink marking misprints in the printing), a photo of Leo Brouwer, a couple of photos of my right hand and a photo of me. Here is the first movement of El Decameron Negro, "El Arpa del Guerrero":



Elise Hermans said...


I stumbled upon this blog while collecting some information on el decameron negro for an analysis paper I need to write in order to graduate.

I read that you couldn't find the possible direct inspirational source for the piece; I've been told to read the book 'the black decameron' by leon Frobenius, the book isn't very hard to find, but while reading it I couldn't find a story that related directly to the stories that are suggested on several sources on the internet. Maybe I was looking for a very literal translation of the story, but it still was useful in the interpretation of the piece.

Anyway, I understood you had personal contacts with Leo Brouwer concerning this piece. My question to you is if maybe you have some more information on the style of composing. I need to situate this piece in his 'composition-life' (don't know the right word in english). The quote included in the text is already very useful, but perhaps there is more such helpful information that you know of, or know where to find?

kind regards,
Elise Hermans

Bryan Townsend said...

Hello Elise,

I am happy to contribute however I can to your project. Even though I have taken master classes with Leo Brouwer on two occasions, I really haven't sat down and discussed El Decameron Negro with him. As I mentioned in the post, I sent him my recording of it and when I ran into him in Quebec City a couple of years later, he was very complimentary.

If you look over Leo's output, some things are immediately obvious. From 1964 to 1975, Brouwer's music was written in a style very influenced by the European avant-garde. Previously the main influence had been folk and traditional music. Between 1975 and 1981 there was a hiatus in his output. Then, suddenly, in 1981 there is a burst of activity with three important works: El Decameron Negro, Preludios Epigrammaticos and the Concierto de Liege. All three of these works return to a more or less tonal structure as does all his music since. These pieces set the parameters for his subsequent compositions.

I don't have a reference for you as the above observations are based on looking at Brouwer's published music and my own understanding of it.

Have you looked at my other two posts on the Decameron Negro?

Elise Hermans said...

Thank you very much for your answer, it is of great help.

Also thank you for writing this blog in general, it's very interesting!

Bryan Townsend said...

You're very welcome! I hope you continue to find the blog interesting.

Adam Kennaugh said...

Hi Bryan,

This is a great article about the El Decameron Negro and your experience with the piece. The information you posted has been very helpful which is what has led me try to get in contact with you. I created a gmail account just so I can leave a comment so hopefully you do receive this...

I am currently working on this piece to perform in my senior recital next year, and I was curious as to how you came upon the discovery that the piece can be played in any order? This information is very exciting for me, because now I am sort of seeing the three movements in a different outline on how they can be performed.

Another thing that has been difficult in the process of learning this piece is working with the Editions Musicales Transatlantiques. As you mentioned in your blog there are a considerable amount of errors and omissions in the edition which is very bothersome to try to work through as a performer. In hopes of you receiving this message, I was wondering if there was anyway you could send me a copy of the manuscripts so I can see exactly what it was Brouwer was really trying to say with this piece.

Thanks again for sharing this information Bryan. It has been very insightful and informative for the aspiring guitarist.

Adam Kennaugh

Bryan Townsend said...

Hello Adam and welcome to The Music Salon. That bit of information that Leo has said that the movements can be played in any order is something that I have been aware of for a very long time. But I can't recall exactly the source! I don't think I heard it directly from him. It may have been contained in an interview with him in a guitar magazine. In any case, even if that is a possible option, I think that the published order has a lot going for it.

I have a copy of the complete manuscript of the piece and if you will leave your email, I will send it to you when I get a chance to scan it. There are quite a few differences from the printed edition and some of them are important.

Adam Kennaugh said...

Thank you for responding Bryan. I see what you're saying about the source of whether Brouwer himself said anything about the order of the movements or not. It is certainly some interesting information to come upon though. It could be the little bit of avant garde perspective he still had in him given this was the first piece he wrote in his newer style.

Here is my e-mail: or

Thanks a lot for taking the time to copy the manuscripts to send to me. I am sure you can share the enthusiasm I have in discovering the differences between the editions. I look forward to hearing from you.

Adam Kennaugh

..serdar said...

Hi Bryan,

Thanks a lot for the great information about El Decameron Negro. I am working on this piece and I have the Musicales Transatlantiques edition but I think there are couple of errors on it. I appreciate a lot if you send me the manuscript. Thank you.

My email is



Bryan Townsend said...

And as I was looking at the ms to send to serdar, I see that the source of the info that the movements can be played in any order is actually on the last page!

"The ballads can be played in any order."

Guit Art said...

Hello Mr. Townsend
Thanks for this great blog you have.

I have always believed for some reason that the inspiration for this piece are the tales called Patakines from the Yoruba religion and the main religion in Cuba.

And that is why I think the 5/8 part can be more rhythmic, like a toque of batá drums (sacred drums used on the rites), to give the sensation of the polyrhythm found on the music of the Yoruba religion.

And that, at the end, helps to add more contrast between the two main parts, I guess.

I'm also working on this piece and I'm very interested on the manuscript.
Can you send it to me too?

My email is

Thanks in advance.
Best regards,

Ulises Santos

Julian Bertino said...

Hi Mr. Townsend,

I'm playing this piece in my undergrad recital and your blog is both interesting and helpful. Could you please send me the scans of the manuscript as well?

Thanks for your time!

Julian Bertino

Thomas Van Bogaert said...

could you send me the link also?
thanks in advance!!
ps: i'm making a research task for the conservatory of Brussels!

Thomas Van Bogaert

Dave Belcher said...

Dear Bryan,

Thanks for these posts on Brouwer's Decameron Negro. I have found them very useful like others. And, like others, I have been working on this piece for many years and am no preparing it for an audition in the fall. I have tried to correct all of the errors in the EMT edition that I could find from other sources online, but I could really benefit from seeing the handwritten ms. If you are able also to send me a copy, I would be very grateful. Here is my email:

I also had the chance to play for the maestro about thirteen years ago in Spain and it was an incredible experience I'm still learning from!


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Townsend,

I've been working on these pieces for quite a while now, and it would be very interesting to be able to study the manuscript. Could you perhaps send it to me as well? I would be very grateful. My email address is

Kind regards,

Michiel Verspaandonk

Michael Peragallo said...

Hello Mr. Townsend,

I am a graduate student writing my thesis and performing a recital, both of which have el decameron negro as elements to them. I have a copy of this piece and would be interested to see the manuscript differences for academic purposes. So if possible I was hoping to jump on this email manuscript train. Thank you very much and I was glad I stumbled onto your blog.

-Michael A. Peragallo, B.A.

Morphw Cybhuman said...

Hello Mr Townsend,

I enjoy very much your interpretation of the decameron.
As I understand, you had personal contact with the composer , so I would appreciate your opinion on some matters concerning the interpretation of it.

I have listened to many great guitarists playing this piece and all of them, including you, don't have a steady tempo. Also the duration of the values of the notes is varying all the time, it is so relative that the meter seems to be lost. I mean,it seems to me that, it would be impossible for one to count (in a solfege way) or recognize the beat if s/he did not know the piece.
Do you think that playing this piece in a very steady tempo would be against the intention of the composer? I really like playing it this way, but I don't know if I misinterpret it.

Another thing I would like to discuss is the metric accents. Every one I have listened playing the piece gives me the impression of accenting the first and the fourth eighth (3+2).
My feeling of the piece is to accent the first, the third and the fifth (2+2+1).
For example in the second meter I accent the bass notes, in the fourth meter I accent the first, the third and the fifth note etc.
Do you thing interpreting the piece this way is inappropriate?

I would be grateful for your advise and needless to say for a copy of the manuscript.

My email is sapamorphw@gmail .com

Best regards,
Morphw Cybhuman

Morphw Cybhuman said...

I have to admit that I listened to your interpretation with prejudice.It is in fact very rhythmic. So my first question is answered by listening to your playing more carefully.
Excuse me for my stupid carelessness.
Amazing playing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Morphw. I recorded this many years ago and I think that I would play it quite differently today. As for the ⅝, I think that, due to the tempo, I really try and feel it as one beat to a measure, without subdividing it too much. But the arpeggio seems to suggest 2+3. If I get a chance, I will try and send you the manuscript.

Andrei said...

Hello Bryan,

Thank you for all your efforts on this blog and the information you provide. I happened to pick up this piece recently for an upcoming concert and noticed very soon that many mistakes appeared in the published edition. I was wondering if you would be so kind to send me the manuscript whenever you have a chance? I would be really curious to see what Brouwer wrote and also very thankful! I would like to make sure I am supporting the composer's intentions in my performance.

My email is aburdeti@gmail .com

Thanks so much again,

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Andrei,

It would be my pleasure to send you the pdfs of the Brouwer, but your email doesn't seem to work?

Andrei said...

Hello Bryan,

Thank you so much! Looking at my previous post, I realized I accidentally put a space after gmail and .com

I am sorry about that!

Here is my email:

I'm grateful for this and also for your blog. Keep up the great work!


Vasilije Toljic said...

Respected Mr. Townsend,
Firstly, I want to thank You for all the useful information that You decided to share with the musical world. Having been given the task to play the piece recently by my teacher, I wanted to explore about it as much as possible. The data that You have compiled here has really shed light on the piece for me. I would like to ask for Brouwer's manuscript scan, if possible (It would be fair to the composer and the music itself to play the original version). Thank You.
My e-mail address is:

Best regards!

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, Vasilije!

Note to commentators: this post seems to still attract comments every now and then, usually asking me to send them scans of the manuscript. If I have the time, I usually do so. But sometimes I don't. One of the things I find particularly annoying about some requests is that they are preceded by a usually poorly informed critique of my performance. This recording was made in 1987. It was the first professional recording of the piece, done before Sharon Isbin's. It was preceded by a month's work on the interpretation with Oscar Ghiglia at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. I sent it to Leo in Havana and he later told me that he liked it very much, especially the tone colors. If I were to re-record it, I would undoubtedly do some things differently. However, strange as it may seem, I am not in desperate need of critiques from first year guitar students. So bear that in mind.