Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987) was unquestionably one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the last century, devoted wholeheartedly to the dissemination of the classical Guitar, and, as is often the case in such cases, his fame has become multifaceted, enriched by legends, false attributions and an almost blinding mythologizing, which has made it extremely difficult for many users of his music to exercise critical activity.
In this article, I wish to highlight some peculiar aspects of Segovian work and, at the same time, try to demolish some of the most unfounded myths. As a classical guitarist, I cannot, in fact, tolerate the spread of superficial and false judgments that always end up being nucumental to the music itself. Only by being frank can Segovia be restored to his rightful place and prevent completely wrong ideas from taking hold without anyone working to correct them.
Segovia and the musical heritage for guitar
The first thesis I would like to highlight concerns a judgment I have often come across:“Segovia is the father of the (classical) guitar as a noble instrument“. First of all, I would like to point out that, in my opinion, talking about noble and plebeian instruments is certainly not a good way to start a discussion. Various composers of the caliber of Beethoven and Mahler “ennobled” all sorts of instruments, including them in their symphonies to achieve particular timbres that traditional ensembles did not contemplate.
But even if we were to accept the juxtaposition between popular and concert use of the guitar, there still remains the problem of the veracity of the above statement. Suffraging it lightly is in fact, not only dangerous to the history of music, but also terribly unfair to a variety of composers who devoted their lives to the guitar.
While it is true that this marvelous instrument, given its ductility, became extremely popular in not overly cultured circles, this does not detract from the fact that, between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were properly “cultured” musicians who published methods, progressive studies, concert studies, sonatas, concertos, etc.
Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Mauro Giuliani, Ferndinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Francisco Tarrega, etc. are just some of the key players in the flourishing of the guitar during the Romantic period. If we also add Niccolò Paganini (yes, the violinist), who loved the guitar, practiced on it and composed dozens and dozens of concert sonatas, I think it is quite clear that before 1893, the year of Segovia’s birth, the guitar scene was already very well nourished.
So why do people close their eyes to the evidence and continue to think that all the credit goes to the master? The response, while also based on some deductions, breaks a lance in favor of Segovia’s hosannas.
The fate of the guitar during and after Romanticism
To begin with, a clarification should be made: the guitar, like many other instruments (piano, primarily) has not always existed in its current conformation. It has, on the contrary, undergone numerous changes based on the expressive needs that were demanded by musicians.
Without doing a historical reconstruction that is beyond the scope of this article, I can say right away that the most famous ancestor of the guitar is one of the most famous Renaissance and Baroque instruments (especially during the early period): the lute. It was not only, to all intents and purposes, a “noble” instrument, but also allowed a wide literature of early music to reach us, which nowadays, despite the existence of numerous lutenists, finds its most natural place in the guitar.
The works, just to give an example, of Luis de Milán, John Dowland and, most importantly, Johann Sebastian Bach, provide guitarists with a heritage of the highest quality that can only help to ennoble this fascinating instrument and enrich the concert repertoire with characteristic musicality that can captivate even those who do not have a thorough knowledge of the historical period.
However, Romanticism, a period that, albeit eventually, saw Segovia’s birth, elected the piano as the instrument par excellence. Dozens of more or less famous composers traveled to Paris to compose and try to disseminate their works. Obviously, I am not referring to the likes of Chopin, who seemed destined for the piano from the cradle, but to composers like Albéniz, who, from Spain, came to the French capital and, while eager to “export” the musicality of their homeland, chose the piano without a second thought.
Albéniz’s celebrated suite espanola (containing such well-known pieces in the guitar realm as Asturias – Leyenda or Sevilla) was written for the keyboard instrument, although it contains within it very strong references to the guitar. It is no accident that transcriptions of the suite have become so widespread and that many pieces actually seem to have originated for guitar. In fact, if an arrangement of a Chopin nocturne is always a gamble, Asturias’ guitar version (I say this without hesitation) is musically more “accomplished” on the guitar (where, in particular, the opening and closing arpeggios spread out like a dusky-toned carpet) than on the piano.
From that background, Segovia found himself with an instrument of endless possibilities and a dominant culture that seemed blinded by ebony and ivory keys. It is true that there was a very substantial literature of quality works (e.g., Giuliani’s Rossiniane, Sor’s Gran Solo and, no doubt, many Paganini sonatas), but what Segovia felt was a distinct lack of continuity. Indeed, his present seemed to have transposed the guitar to domains increasingly distant from the grand stages of theaters and, at the same time, increasingly immersed in the noisy atmospheres of bars, taverns.
Another not minor fact was related to the spread of pop music (hated by Segovia): if the piano had been the stronghold of the Romantics, the guitar (especially, in its acoustic versions with metal and electric strings) was gaining a foothold in blues music, jazz, etc. and, a little later, would also become the quintessential instrument of rock music.
It is not at all strange, then, that Segovia, after developing an overpowering technique based on an extraordinary timbral sampler, was faced with a far more long-standing problem. While he did not despise the existing literature (although, as is often the case, his judgments were affected by various idiosyncrasies), he understood that it was almost impossible to hold a concert in a large hall in Paris or New York with only that repertoire. What the guitar lacked was compositional continuity from “educated” musicians.
For this reason, he began a work of requesting new compositions and transcribing works that, according to his taste, could fit well on the guitar. In that sense, it must be said that his work was remarkable and certainly worthy of praise. Despite his somewhat rigid mindset, he was able to persuade several composers to write new music for the guitar, thus, in a short time, enriching the stock available to concertgoers.
It is also true that his less-than-easy character (paradigmatic is the case of his relationship with Barrios, whom he unsuccessfully asked to dedicate to him the sonata“La Caterdral” and which, out of spite, he decided not only not to play but also to discredit with all his students) and his lack of interest in atonal experiments (which were becoming increasingly popular) led him to isolate altogether many works that would only be rediscovered later, but this does not detract from the fact that without his efforts, the classical guitar would never have taken off again.
Segovia and guitar technique
Another controversial aspect concerns guitar technique. In this sense, it should be clarified that Segovia did not invent anything. In the nineteenth century, composers such as Aguado and Sor had published their methods, where they explained the fundamentals of the technique, even giving rise to a diatribe over the use of fingernails (Aguado was in favor, while Sor preferred “bare” fingertips).
What Segovia did was to study such fundamentals and “discover” elements that on paper could only be described in a very sketchy way. In particular, the greatest merit was related to timbre research. He understood that the best results could be achieved with relatively short nails, such that the strings could be struck but, at the same time, soften the touch, if necessary, with the fingertip. In addition, Segovia developed a keen ability to move his right hand from the pit to the bridge to achieve rapid timbral changes.
His distinctive sound (an average ear recognizes it immediately) was the result of a number of factors that stemmed not from technique per se, but from exploring the possibilities offered by the instrument. It is therefore inaccurate to attribute to Segovia elements of setting already found in earlier musicians, but it is absolutely correct (on the assumption that there are no recordings of Sor or Giuliani) to say that his emphasis on timbre was a distinctive element that contributed greatly to his worldwide success.
In addition, Segovia welcomed the proposal to use nylon strings (“bare” for the treble three and metal coated for the bass). This new “configuration” allowed him to increase the timbral range of the guitar with a “vertical” differentiation (the bass voices already sounded darker, while the treble was brighter) that proved extremely fruitful, especially in the performance of polyphonic music (e.g., Bach or Scarlatti).
The Segovia School and the “Segovians”
A key chapter in Segovia’s life concerns his teaching activities. Although he never taught permanently in a conservatory, the master often held master classes where some of the most famous guitarists trained (e.g., Julian Bream, John Williams, Eliot Fisk, Cristopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, etc.). Is it then correct to speak of a lineup of “segovians”?
In my opinion, there is nothing more wrong. This is indeed one of the most rugged and dangerous territories to tackle, but I will still try to summarize my ideas. Segovia imparted his interpretive ideas to his students, helping them to achieve articulation that exploited the full potential of the guitar. However, none of his most distinguished pupils developed an imitative style, neither in terms of sonority, nor even in terms of repertoire.
One only has to listen to Bream or Williams to realize immediately that their playing is “unique” and not at all based on a slavish study of their master’s way of experiencing. In other words, using a metaphor, we can say that Segovia was more of a spark than an actual explosion. The sharpest students learned how to achieve the same richness as their teacher, but they then followed the path most congenial to them. They were, that is, “segovian,” but not at all segovian (I hope the instrumental use of quotation marks is clear).
Unfortunately, while the most talented have been able to enhance the ideas with the right critical spirit, a large group of pseudo-Segovians have begun to “ape” Segovia, focusing mainly on two elements: repertoire and technique. In the first case, the result was a flattening of guitar interpretive production (in a sense, the opposite of what the master desired), with programs that seemed to be printed with the same cliché over and over again. In the second, you completely misrepresented the teaching of Aguado, Sor, Giuliani, etc. and transited through Segovia, going so far as to hail the most unbearable pedantry.
There are dozens and dozens of guitarists (including yours truly) ready to tell how they spent months of lessons millimetrically adding hand position, reducing or increasing back arching, and so on. All this, as useless as it was harmful, was the result of an attempt at imitation devoid of any logical meaning. Instead of systematizing technical concepts cum grano salis, they often preferred to take refuge in a dullness that was, to say the least, indisposed, making central, not music, but a form of postural gymnastics.
Summary biographical note
Andrés Segovia, born Feb. 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaén, Spain, was a legendary classical guitarist and composer (although, in reality, his output was limited to a few studies). He is widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time and played a significant role in elevating the guitar to a respected classical instrument.
Segovia began playing the guitar at a young age and quickly demonstrated exceptional talent. He received his formal music education at the School of Fine Arts in Granada and later at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid. Despite initial skepticism from traditionalists who believed that the guitar was not suitable for classical music, Segovia’s dedication and perseverance led him to become a pioneer for this instrument.
Throughout his career, Segovia toured extensively, captivating audiences around the world with his virtuosic performances and unique interpretations of classical, baroque, and contemporary compositions. His exceptional technique, timbre, and playing style set new standards for guitarists around the world, spawning a generation of “followers” who drew inspiration from his way of relating to the instrument.
In addition to his extraordinary career as a performer, Segovia was instrumental in expanding the classical guitar repertoire. He has collaborated with renowned composers such as Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Heitor Villa-Lobos, inspiring them to write music specifically for the guitar. Segovia also transcribed and arranged numerous pieces originally composed for other instruments, demonstrating the versatility and capabilities of the guitar.
Segovia’s influence on the classical guitar extended beyond his performances and compositions. He devoted his life to promoting the artistic and educational value of the instrument. He has organized master classes, taught countless students, and written instructional books that have become essential resources for guitarists.
Andrés Segovia’s contribution to the guitar has earned him numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates, knighthoods, and the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His legacy continues to inspire generations of guitarists, and his recordings remain prized classics in the classical music world.
Andrés Segovia died June 2, 1987, in Madrid, Spain, leaving a deep mark on the guitar world. His dedication, passion, and transformative influence have solidified his place as a true legend in the realm of classical guitar.
Talking about Segovia requires a lot of space, and one cannot focus on all aspects of his art. My goal was to address some element that has too often been misunderstood or misinterpreted. I will certainly return in the future to write articles regarding his style in relation to specific composers, focusing more on the more important details.
For the time being, I can only invite all music lovers to listen to Segovia’s varied recordings, to enjoy his extraordinary timbre, and ultimately to appreciate the work done to enhance the guitar far beyond all possible expectations.
Of course, I will be glad to answer your questions and comments so that the memory of the master will always remain alive. Beyond the fact that many of his most faithful pupils have perhaps (as is usual) surpassed their mentor, this does not imply that his interpretations should fall into oblivion. Every guitarist should listen to him, possibly together with Williams, Fisk, Bream, etc., precisely in order to broaden one’s horizons and to be able to grasp all those nuances that make the guitar a wonderful (and who knows, unparalleled) musical instrument!
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