From the early vihuela and four-course guitars of the Renaissance through to the development of the five-course guitar of the Baroque, and a host of subsequent progressions, it has been a long journey travelled for us to have access to the modern six-string classical guitar and its repertoire.

The first documented mention of a plucked six-string instrument in Spain can be found in Luis de Milán’s (c. 1500 – c.1561) 1535 treatise on the vihuela El Maestro and, along with other vihuelists of the time such as Luis de Narváez (1490 – 1547) and Alonso Mudarra (c. 1510 – 1580), Milán helped to lay the foundations on which the modern day classical guitar tradition in Spain has been built. Unlike the wide circulation of the lute and its music throughout Europe during the Renaissance, the vihuela remained firmly rooted in Spain, with the natural habitat of the vihuelist being that of the Spanish court where they would perform as respected musicians, often in the service of dukes and princes. The primary musical development that occurred through the compositions of these Renaissance vihuelists was a notable increase in the performance of polyphonic music, a style closely related to music being written for the lute during this time, in contrast to the prevalent ‘strummed’ style favoured by many a guitarist and vihuelist in Spain. This marked a distinctive divide in approach towards playing fretted string instruments in Spain and an early example of a separation of styles that potentially led to the emergence of the two distinctive classical and flamenco traditions we know today.

It’s also important to acknowledge the notable differences in the way pieces of music have historically been shared with succeeding generations of players within the respective classical and flamenco guitar traditions. Musical compositions associated with the classical guitar tradition have, since the Renaissance, generally been notated in either tablature or standard notation form. On the contrary, until recently, flamenco guitar traditions have been passed down almost exclusively through aural communication, without any written notation of the music being employed. This has possibly led to a more refined harmonic language evolving within the classical guitar tradition, while flamenco guitarists have been more readily disposed to draw upon complex rhythmic variety and development to create contrast in their music.

As the viheula eventually evolved into the five-course guitar of the Baroque, players across Europe continued to contribute to the development of a tradition and repertoire that ultimately led to the modern classical guitar style that we recognise today. Gaspar Sanz (1640 – 1710) is often cited as one of the most influential Spanish composers of the Baroque and his music certainly went on to subsequently inspire a host of other composers, including Joaquín Rodrigo (1901 – 1999). In fact, Rodrigo quotes Sanz directly in his 1954 piece for guitar and orchestra Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, dedicated to the great Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987).

During this earlier period of musical development in Spain, it’s also important to recognise the contribution of the Italian composer and harpsichord player Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1767), who spent much of his life in Spain up until his death in Madrid. One does not need to look far to find examples of Hispanic influence in the music of Scarlatti. For example, his Sonata No. 263 is often referred to as the Bouree d’Aranjuez as this piece is an evocation of the palace in which Scarlatti resided during some of his time in Madrid. Of course, the poetic inspiration of the gardens and palaces of Aranjuez would later be immortalised by Rodrigo in his 1939 composition for guitar and orchestra, Concierto de Aranjuez. The influence of Spanish music, and the guitar in particular, on Scarlatti’s style can be found in many details of his music and his own creative inventiveness subsequently inspired a great number of Spanish composers in their own writing for the piano. It’s important to note that a multitude of piano compositions written by more modern Spanish composers have since become embedded into the guitar repertoire as arrangements that are now assumed by many to be original guitar compositions. In fact, some of the most popular pieces now often performed by classical guitarists in concert actually started life as original compositions written for the piano. Amongst the most significant Spanish composers writing for the piano throughout the Romantic period and beyond who are now associated with the guitar and its repertoire are Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) and Enriqué Granados (1867 – 1916). Both of these figures are unquestionably deserving of an entire article in their own right, and their contribution to Spanish music and the consequential development of the modern classical guitar tradition cannot be overstated. Two other composers from this period who have also played significant roles in our story are Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946) and Joaquín Turina (1882 – 1959), both of which often drew upon the influence of Spanish folk music traditions within their compositions.

During what is referred to as the Classical period of European musical development, Fernando Sor (1778 – 1839) and Dionisio Aguado (1784 – 1849) are widely acknowledged as two Spanish guitarist-composers that had a major influence on the evolution of the classical guitar tradition. However, their music is more a reflection of the wider development of musical styles in Europe during this time and they rarely drew upon the direct influence of Spain and its folk music traditions in their own works. That said, both of these figures contributed a great deal towards the development of a classical guitar technique and laid firm foundations on which the highly influential figure of Francisco Tárrega (1852 – 1909) would build upon.

Tárrega’s contribution to the classical guitar tradition is unsurpassed and his story is intrinsically linked to the life and work of Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817 – 1892), one of the most inventive and influential luthiers in the history of the guitar. The two first met in 1869 when the young Tárrega was just seventeen. He is reported to have visited Torres in Seville and, having initially presented Tárrega with a lesser instrument, upon hearing the young virtuoso play Torres brought out one of his finest instruments and presented it to Tárrega, an instrument that Tárrega reportedly continued to play for many years. He went on to compose hundreds of works for the guitar and also to educate and inspire the next generation of great Spanish guitarists. Amongst Tárrega’s students were the celebrated Miguel Llobet (1878 – 1938) and Emilio Pujol (1886 – 1980), often cited as two of the greatest players of all time.

All of the events and figures previously described could be regarded as a prelude to some of the most important developments in the Spanish classical guitar tradition that occurred as a result of the work and efforts of the great maestro, Andrés Segovia. Building upon all that had gone before him, it was Segovia who truly recognised and communicated the guitar’s potential as a concert instrument. Segovia’s work towards arranging the music of the great masters for the guitar, such as his arrangements of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), and engaging non-guitarist composers, such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895 – 1968) Manuel María Ponce (1882 – 1948) and Federico Moreno Torroba (1891 – 1982) to write original music for the guitar, cannot be overstated. In essence, it was through Segovia’s efforts to bring the guitar and its music to the concert hall and a wider, international audience that the greatest developments of the Spanish classical guitar tradition have occurred. Also, significantly, it is possible that through Segovia’s efforts to ‘elevate’ the classical guitar from the salons of Spain to the concert halls of the World that the music of the classical guitarist became so widely removed from that of the flamenco guitarist during the 20th Century.

Whether or not this is the case, the differences and similarities that one can discover when considering the music of the classical guitar alongside that of the flamenco guitar is a truly fascinating source of exploration. Throughout the course of this collaborative project and on our new album, we will be exploring a range of music produced by some of the major figures mentioned above. It is hoped that, alongside an exploration into the music of the flamenco guitar tradition, that we will be taken on a truly memorable musical journey.

Bringing together the world of classical and flamenco guitar

(Note: This passage is an excerpt from the book Guitar, the Heart of Spain which is available here)

© Michael Christian Durrant 2018