Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Top Ten Pieces for Classical Guitar

UPDATE: This post is now over four years old, but it has risen to be the most popular post on The Music Salon. So I have decided to update it by doing three new posts that dig down a bit more into the repertoire. I am going to do one post on the Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar, another on the Top Ten Shorter Pieces for Classical Guitar and, since both those are going to be exclusively on pieces written for guitar, a third on Top Ten Transcriptions for Classical Guitar as quite a bit of the repertoire is actually transcribed from music originally written for other instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, violin and cello. As I do each one of the these new posts, I will link to this one.

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I almost know too much about this to be able to do it easily! When you have played guitar for almost fifty years, as I have, then how do you pick out the ten best pieces?

Well, here goes. There really needs to be two lists: one list of the best pieces written for guitar and the other of the best pieces transcribed from other instruments and played on guitar. This is the case because a great deal of the best guitar repertoire is actually looted from other instruments. For example, probably the first two pieces on any list of great guitar pieces would be the Chaconne (from the D minor Partita for solo violin) by Bach and Asturias by Isaac Albéniz. Both of these are transcriptions.

Ok, so here you go, original pieces and transcriptions, five of each, not necessarily in order.

Top Ten Pieces for Guitar (transcribed and original)

1. Chaconne in D minor, J. S. Bach (transcribed from violin)

2. Asturias, Isaac Albéniz (transcribed from piano)

3. Twenty Variations and Fugue on "Folias de España", Manuel M. Ponce (original)

(Alas, there does not seem to be a really good complete version on YouTube)

4. Cordoba, Albéniz (transcribed from piano)

5. Nocturnal, op. 70, Benjamin Britten (original)

This is just the final passacaglia from the Nocturnal, but it is played by Julian Bream, who pretty much owns this piece.

6. Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Francisco Tárrega (original)

7. Concierto de Aranjuez, Joaquin Rodrigo (original)

8. Five Preludes, Heitor Villa-Lobos (original)

Unfortunately I have to run, so I will complete this list a bit later.

UPDATE: And now for the last two.

9. Sonata K. 213, Domenico Scarlatti (transcribed from harpsichord)

(This fantastic sonata by Scarlatti will have to represent all those great ones that many people have transcribed for guitar.)

10. Fantasia, John Dowland (transcribed from the lute)

(And this will have to represent all that great lute music that guitarists so often play.)


Rickard said...

Interesting pieces. I don't think it's fair to include transcriptions but on the other hand if measured by the criteria of originally written for a certain combinations of instruments then for instance Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition wouldn't count eventhough it adds a lot to the piece (the piece is great with or without orchestra anyways though). I'm not so familiar with the guitar repertoire but Manuel Ponce's Variations on a Theme of Antonio Cabézon is possibly my favourite. And out of the pieces you listed one of my favourites is the Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Very interesting, plenty of 7th (and other interesting) chords. Btw, I found an interesting blog post about what to think about when composing for guitar:

Haven't read it all but seems quite interesting. One thing I have trouble understanding is how harmonics are played (on guitar and in general).

Bryan Townsend said...

I decided to include transcriptions simply because, if you look at a stack of guitar concert programs, you will see that they occupy a very large part of the repertoire, including some of the most performed pieces. I was thinking to myself the other day that if I were planning to give a concert sometime soon, I would devote the whole concert to just two composers: Bach and Scarlatti. Neither of them wrote a note for guitar, but there is lots of their music that lends itself very easily to transcription for guitar. What I would probably do would be the first two cello suites by Bach and follow that with several sonatas by Scarlatti. Why? I just think this is better music than nearly everything written for guitar. Unfortunately, the guitar repertoire is mostly pieces that sound pretty good on the instrument, but that are musically boring, uninspired and just dull.

Harmonics are pretty easy to explain on guitar. Every string has certain "nodes" that are found at simple divisions of the length. For example, at half, a third and a quarter of the length. These nodes are found, respectively, above the 12th, 7th and 5th frets. There is one more, used slightly less, above the fourth fret, or a fifth of the length. The notes you get when you touch the node and pluck the string are, respectively, an octave higher, an octave plus a fifth, two octaves and two octaves plus a third (a mean-tone third, not equal-tempered), Where the confusion comes from is in how composers notate these harmonics. Villa-Lobos in particular can be confusing. But there are certain agreed on conventions nowadays. As long as you indicate the string and fret, rather than the note resulting, it will be easy to read.

SBalynt said...

A good selection. Eventually I would include the original Ginastera's Prelude.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment, Sergio and welcome to the Music Salon. Do you mean a transcription of one of Ginastera's preludes for piano? Or his Sonata for guitar? I have to admit that I have never really liked his Guitar Sonata!

SBalynt said...

I respect the interpretive research more classical repertoire. Baroque, romantic ... But modern pieces (when "correctly" written) attract my focus. To me, Berio's Sequenza XI is seminal.

sergio balint said...

Yes, the Sonata. Hastily quoted Prelude.
I think there are several interpretations of this sonata.
Some "'exciting', others not so much. Eduardo Fernandes' interpretation (Argentinian guitarist) is my favorite.

Bryan Townsend said...

I remember a festival, I think it was in Toronto in 1978, when everyone seemed to be playing the Ginastera Sonata. Certainly it is one of the few larger "serious" pieces by a recognized composer for guitar. I think I like Jerome Ducharme's recording. But as I say, it is not one of my favorite pieces. I lean more towards something like El Decameron negro by Brouwer.

SBalynt said...

El Decameron is outstanding.

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice selection, however, I would have to have Barrios "La Catadrel", and "Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart" on my top ten.

Bryan Townsend said...

But which pieces would you drop? Some have suggested that the list should just be of pieces originally written for guitar.

Unknown said...

I LOVE Britten's Nocturnal, it's probably my favorite overall piece to listen to. But the one's that evoke the most emotion, are of course Bach's Chaconne and the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez. But they are heavy pieces, not something you listen to casually.. Asturias is great to, amazing power and maybe the ultimate classical guitar song. Love the Villa-Lobos preludes too, never gets boring. Love your list, very few pieces I would add myself :)!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Matt! One I thought of adding is the Invocation and Dance by Rodrigo. What do you think of that piece?

Unknown said...

To be honest, I didn't know that piece (I probably should be embarrassed!). I looked it up, great piece. Recently bought the Julian Bream album collection box (him being my favorite guitarist). So I hope that will broaden my knowledge of classical guitar repertoire.

Bryan Townsend said...

Great piece, and rather difficult to play! I don't think Bream recorded it, did he? Yes, I have been tempted to get the big box of Bream recordings. I owned almost all of those on vinyl when they came out, but I lost my whole vinyl collection years ago. I think my favorites were his 20th century music and his recordings of Sor and Giuliani. The earlier music I never found quite as convincing.

Goran Penic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Goran Penic said...

I can not imagine such a list without SL Weiss. (Tombeau sur la mort de M. Comte de Logy)

Bryan Townsend said...

Hello Goran and welcome to the Music Salon. The great tombeau by Weiss was certainly a piece I considered, but it got edged out by other pieces. I put two substantial Baroque transcriptions on the list, the Bach Chaconne and a Scarlatti Sonata, and a transcription of a great lute piece by Dowland. Out of a list of only ten pieces, that didn't leave room for the Weiss!

Phillip said...

Your video links for #7 and #9 are dead.

I'm surprised that Capircho Arabe didn't make it. I might be a little biased though - it's my best piece that I need to get back to when I have time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Phillip. This is a very popular post and it is past time for me to update it. If I get a chance on the weekend I am going to put up two new posts on the subject: Top Ten Pieces Written for Guitar and Top Ten Pieces Arranged for Guitar. And who knows, maybe Capricho Arabe will make the first one!