I'm pleased to announce the release of my latest album, available in download form and streaming from all the usual places. It amounts to a survey of 19th-century Spanish composers, from Sor to Tárrega, and includes a few "premier recordings" of lesser-know, and unjustifiably-neglected composers. I play a Spanish guitar from circa 1870-80, and view the album as a culmination of my researches into no-nails technique on gut trebles and silk-core basses. The guitar has its original tornavoz still in place.
[ Before getting to the contents, I feel compelled to urge you to (if interested) buy a copy instead of streaming. Last week I got an email from a French record company I have an album with, saying they owed me royalties for streaming from various providers, not just Spotify. The figures: over 6,000 streams, my income: One Euro 20 cents. That's One Pound, or 1.30 USD. Now, the price of the present album is $7.99 from which I get 91%. So my income from this recording is roughly six times what I got for 6,000 streams. I would need to have 36,000 streams to generate the income from one single sale of the album. ]
So, what's on it? Here's the "booklet" notes:
My interest in the 19th-century Romantic Spanish guitar repertoire goes back more than thirty years to when as a young man I hitch-hiked from Scotland to Spain, to busk in the streets of Barcelona, Madrid, Valladolid, Cordoba, and Granada. My repertoire consisted for the most part of works by Francisco Tárrega and Catalan song arrangements by Miquel Llobet. Somehow I lasted six months, earning enough money to fly home.
So, it is my great pleasure in my sixtieth year to reminisce about those times, and explore more of the repertoire; and I include here a balance of oft-recorded pieces and first-time recordings. The repertoire is presented somewhat chronologically, from “the Father of the Spanish Guitar”, Fernando Sor, to unquestionably the finest arranger of Catalan songs, Miquel Llobet.
Apart from Tárrega, many of the other represented composers have still to be explored by contemporary players and their audiences. Some of the music is clearly influenced by flamenco - 19th-century flamenco, that is - while some of it belongs to the artistic salons of not only Barcelona and Madrid, but of Paris, London, St Petersburg and elsewhere.
The young Fernando Sor
(1778 Barcelona - 1839 Paris) studied at the choir school of Santa Maria de Montserrat, a place which he remembered fondly throughout his life. His music, while deeply rooted in Spain, looked outward to international developments, most notably by Mozart and Schubert. The piece I have chosen to open this recording with has the mature composer looking back on his youth to his early discoveries of what music could be, while a student of the monastery of Montserrat. It is followed by an example of his minuets: a form which always brought out his most particularly playful spirit.
(Antoni Josep Mateu Brocà i Codina) (1805 Tarragona - 1882 Barcelona). A one-time student of the great Dionisio Aguado, Brocá became a highly respected teacher in Barcelona; his pupils included José Ferrer (see below) and the leading scholar of Spanish music, Felipe Pedrell. Brocá’s works moved the classical stylings of Sor and Aguado into a more romantic style that would influence new generations of players.
(1832 Almería - 1882 Malaga) performed extensively throughout Europe including his home country, and was a major influence on Tárrega, while promoting the guitars by the great luthier, Antonio de Torres. His compositions included folk music as well as arrangements of operatic melodies. Of the two items recorded here, the Bolero is quite well known, whereas the Soleá is not to be found in his complete works. I came across it in a flamenco guitar Method of 1902, by Rafael Marín (see below). It is a shorter composition than his popular extended variations on the soleá form. It should be noted that Arcas was a flesh-only player - preferring to pluck the strings without recourse to use of the nails.
José Viñas y Díaz
(1823 Barcelona - 1888 Barcelona) After extensive tours through Europe as a guitar virtuoso, Viñas became conductor of a Zarzuela company in Barcelona, and his apartment soon became a meeting place for many famous guitarists of the day. He performed guitar duets with José Ferrer (see below). The Introduction y Andante recorded here, was dedicated to Francisco Tárrega, yet at times shows the influence of Sor.
Jaime (Jaques) Bosch
(1825 Barcelona - 1895 Paris) Like Sor, Catalan-born Bosch found an audience in cosmopolitan Paris, arriving in the French capital aged 28, already an accomplished performer. He became friends with painter, Édouard Manet, Alfred and Jules Cottin, and the composer Gounod, with whom he collaborated. The three pieces recorded here have the 5th string tuned to G, and the sixth to D. They are quite unusual for the time, showing a strong individual voice, not hidebound by form. His compositions effortlessly unite French and Spanish musical aesthetics.
(1835 Girona - 1916 Barcelona) A pupil of Brocá, Ferrer also found inspiration and employment in Paris, for sixteen years holding the position of guitar player to the Comédie Française. He returned to Barcelona in 1898 to take a teaching post at a music college. As mentioned above, he studied guitar with Brocá, and was a duet partner of Viñas. I present here two minuets from twelve, composed with a dedication to Tárrega, as well as a short Valse from his collection of four pieces, Breezes from Parnassus.
(1838 Lorca, Murcia - 1904 Barcelona). Performer, teacher, composer, Cano was a very popular performer in Spain, and very much part of the Catalan guitar scene. While cholera prevented his return home, Torres extended a visit to Barcelona for several months, staying at Cano’s home, where he set up a studio for his guitar-making. Cano subsequently owned several Torres guitars, and dedicated one composition to Torres. The Tango I present here is an interesting specimen, for sure, and very enjoyable to play. I hope it becomes more popular, and certainly deserves to. It stretched my poor guitar to its limits!
(1851 Almeria - ?) Soria - by all accounts a popular and affable fellow - was a pupil of Arcas and good friend of Tárrega. In turn he became teacher to Regino Sainz de la Maza, dedicatee of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez. Soria’s music celebrates folk cultures, as can be heard in the present recording of his lively Tango Flamenco.
(1862 Sevilla - ? Madrid) played both flamenco and popular styles at a time when musical camps were less polarised than they later became. His Método de Guitarra Flamenco (1902) is a fascinating tome, with many great insights into guitar playing in Spain in the last decades of the 19th century, and was influential: the great flamenco master, Ramon Montoya, studied it in detail. While having an undeniable flamenco feel, the Soleá de Arcas is not in keeping with the modern way of playing the form, and in some ways is more interesting because of that. According to Marín’s Method, flamenco players often used the thumb (instead of the index and middle fingers) for many single-note runs, which is how I play many passages in this piece. He also mentions playing tremolo with only two fingers after the thumb stroke, pmi, pmi, etc, which is almost unheard of today. You can read more about this Method on my website: https://rmclassicalguitar.com/flamenco/
Francisco de Asís Tárrega y Eixea
(1852 Villareal - 1909 Barcelona) It is possible that the music of Francisco Tárrega has caused more people to take up the classical guitar than that of any other composer. His music is always charming, very often beautiful, yet always well constructed, revealing a keen ear for harmony and melody. It is little wonder he became known as the Chopin of the guitar. He was also a great teacher, and the dedicatee of many compositions by other composers, both during his lifetime and after. In the last decade of his life he played (as with an early influence, Arcas) without the use of his right-hand fingernails, preferring the warmth of flesh contact only.
Miquel Llobet i Solés
(1878 Barcelona - 1938 Barcelona) Trained as an artist, it is not surprising that Llobet’s arrangements and compositions are full of colour and vibrancy. Few people understood the delicate tonal qualities of the gut and silk-strung guitar of that era as well as Llobet. His nuance for light and shade surpasses even that of his teacher, Tárrega. But he was also awakened to the unique qualities of Catalan culture, and his music can be viewed as being part of the late 19th-century rediscovery and promotion of the Catalan language and identity. Plany, for instance, is an arrangement (when aged 21) of a popular song published two years before Llobet’s arrangement, with lyrics lamenting the loss of Cataluńa’s autonomous government. It can therefore have contemporary resonance. El Testament de n’Amèlia is concerned with the tragic fate of a young lady being poisoned by her own stepmother, who was in love with Amèlia’s husband. Cançó del lladre can best be translated as Song of the Bandit. I finish the programme with one of Llobet’s greatest arrangements, El Mestre, a tender masterpiece written very soon after the death of Llobet’s own mestre, Francisco Tárrega.
Picture the scene: There is a knock at my door, and I’m facing an Edinburgh man in his 70s, who ventures I might be interested in the guitar he is carrying (without a case!). It had been in his family since it was bought for his grandmother. He confessed he used to “bash it around a bit” when he was young, but had not really touched it since. I quickly discovered it was a Spanish Guitar from circa 1870-80, well made, with good timbers, and still had its original tornavoz, a brass cone attached to the sound hole, extending almost to the back of the instrument. There was also a label detailing that it was called the “Madrilena”, made by one Antonio Carlos Garcia in Madrid, and bound for an instrument distributor in London, Señores Alban Voigt & Co.
I played a few Tárrega pieces on it, and fell in love with its old-world sound, its mellow character (thanks in part to the tornavoz), and its absolute appropriateness for the music I was playing. Okay, it is not a Torres, but was clearly an advanced instrument for advanced amateur players, and was possibly made not in Madrid (as claimed on the label) but in Valencia, whose guitar factories created instruments for other companies to label their own.
After hearing Tárrega’s music played on his family’s instrument, the owner offered it to me at a price I could thankfully afford, and I immediately set it up with Gut and Silk 900 strings from the Aquila-Corde company, based on measurements detailed in Pujol’s Method, itself proclaimed as of the Tárrega School.
It took only a few moments to imagine the present recording of music suitable for such an instrument.
But, there are pitfalls in playing an 150-year-old guitar…
The intonation is not perfect, and there are creaking noises emanating from various places - such things are amplified when picked up by a microphone, rendering them much worse than they are when listening to the instrument in a room. I have resisted the temptation to have a luthier address the various problems, as they are only problems for recording situations. Those people (students of mine, family and friends) who have experienced the instrument at close quarters comment only on the beauty of sound and beguiling tonal qualities. Better to leave it as is.
That said, when listening to the recording, you will still hear the unique qualities of the instrument; and if you keep in mind you are listening to a 150-year-old delicate instrument, and surrender yourself to its charms, you will find yourself drifting back in time to a less percussive age, to a time when the ear was caressed rather than assaulted.
Pitch: There have been a number of attempts to coral all instrumentalists into playing at the same pitch, some more successful than others, none more so than placing the A note at 440 cycles per second of vibration. This pitch is higher than most people would have played in the 19th century, and even then no one pitch level was agreed upon. My approach is a more practical one: tune to where the instrument resonates the most sympathetically. It follows that not all guitars would be in agreement (let alone guitar players!). 16th-century vihuela players were advised to tune the first (gut) string as high as it would go without breaking, and although not the best advice ever given in regards to pitch, it is something I still experiment with. Some guitars seem to want to go to 440 or even higher, but most are happier at a lower pitch. This particular guitar choked quite severely as the string approached breaking point - the volume was halved, and the string was not allowed to sing. By lowering the string to the point where the music started happily singing, I found the pitch to be around 400 cps, almost a tone below modern pitch. This doesn’t worry me at all, as the main thing is to get the instrument singing as much as possible.
Some thirty years ago, after graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, I cut my right-hand fingernails off, and dedicated myself to a study of the lute. After fifteen years as a semi-professional lute player, I found myself drifting back to the classical guitar, initially the classical period of Fernando Sor and his contemporaries.
I found the technique outlined by Sor in his Method to be similar to what I had latterly been developing in my lute playing. I made an album of Sor studies (still available on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, etc) with gut strings on a copy of a Lacote guitar from Sor’s period, and tried to get as close as I could to employing Sor’s technique.
More recently - in the past five years - I have explored the Romantic era of Tárrega, Llobet, Ponce, Segovia, Pujol, etc, and intend to record some of those pieces in the not-too-distant future.
Guitars in the 19th century were generally much lighter than the modern classical guitar, and more lightly strung. I found myself getting more beauty of tone and finger control when playing flamenco guitars, which retain vestiges of 19th-century guitar construction.
So, I generally play flamenco guitars, but strung with gut trebles, my current squeeze being a Camps Amazon Negra - a very beautiful instrument. And I still play without plucking with the fingernails of the right hand, just the flesh of the finger pad. There is something about flesh and gut, and lightly-built guitars (as opposed to nails on plastic, with heavily-built instruments), that I find immeasurably attractive, and an antidote to modern instruments built for volume and speed. It’s my personal preference. As a result, I follow in the footsteps of Sor, Arcas, (the latter period) Tárrega, Pujol, etc, all flesh-only players.You can read about other no-nail players on my website: http://rmClassicalGuitar.com
The project to make the present recording was initiated by my wholly unexpected meeting with this guitar, and from there an eagerness to explore repertoire I had overlooked. I would say around half of the programme was unknown to me until recently, and will be unfamiliar to most classical guitar players. But the scores are beginning to emerge from publishing houses and online, and it is my hope that, after hearing this recording, some players will make the effort to seek them out. They will not be disappointed.
Available from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby, as well as many other places.
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