Reforming the Guitar Repertoire

If I say ‘classical guitar repertoire’, what comes to mind? For most people it’ll be the Spanish guitarists from Sor to Villa Lobos. But while the Spanish repertoire is ever popular, it can be rather dull. I notice that the British guitarist Sean Shibe, clearly a rising star, has distanced himself from it:

My gripe with the “Spanishry” associated with the guitar is not that it is associated with the guitar, it’s that often it’s the only thing associated with the guitar – because it can be the most marketable. I always felt pushed to play that repertoire, because promoters always want something fast and flashy.

He instead looks to the 20th century British composers who, thanks to the efforts of Julian Bream, gave us a wealth of guitar music. Shibe’s album, Dreams and Fancies, can boast impressive performances of Walton, Berkeley, Arnold and Britten (alongside a couple of John Dowland fantasies).

Nevertheless, I take the opposite approach to Shibe. Learning the guitar, I’ve found that the best music for the instrument predates the modern classical guitar. The period 1497-1757 contains the most sublime music playable on guitar. (The dating, or at least the starting date, is somewhat arbitrary: from the birth of Francesco da Milano until the death of Domenico Scarlatti. 1500-1750 covers nearly everything.) First, there is the music for Renaissance lute, much of it written for a six-course lute, and pieces written for seven or eight courses are usually easy to adapt for guitar. Secondly, pieces written for the Baroque guitar, which are fewer than those for the Renaissance lute, but contain some marvellous pieces by composers such as Robert de Visée and Gasper Sanz. Thirdly, the Baroque lute repertoire, which is generally less suited to classical guitar than its Renaissance counterpart, but there are many great exceptions. And fourthly, Bach and Scarlatti, many of whose works are not only easily playable on guitar, but arguably sound better on guitar. The supreme example is Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, originally for violin. John Feeley playing:

I’m flicking through the ABRSM guitar grade syllabus considering whether or not to pursue them. In addition to the sight reading, scales and all that, you have to pick three pieces from their list of around 20-30 pieces. The list is divided into three sections, each representing an era, roughly: 1) Renaissance and Baroque 2) Classical and Romantic and 3) modern. You pick one from each list.

Not all the pieces seem very idiomatic. For the first few grades, instead of going for some of the simpler (but nevertheless beautiful) pieces for lute, we get often unimpressive arrangements of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi et al. for guitar. Things start to improve in later grades when pieces by de Visee, Weiss, Milan et al. appear.

The Classical and Romantic section is the usual stuff: Giuliani, Sor, Tarrega, Aguado and some lesser knowns and transcriptions. All quite pleasant, but not a lot of it is terribly interesting.

The modern section feels a bit desperate. In between the Ponces and Brouwers, there are a lot of mediocre compositions by unfamiliar names that are basically pastiches (not writing them all off, though). There really isn’t much to choose from, as much of the best modern guitar music is too difficult for even Grade 8.

And while I of course see the advantage of such a comprehensive grading system, the eras aren’t anyway near as discrete as the syllabus suggests. Playing de Visee’s guitar suite requires a quite different approach to a da Milano fantasie, though they somewhat misleading come under the same section. One would also hope ghat most students are taught about the different types of ornaments used, the difference between Renaissance and Baroque (in the former you neither slur them nor let the notes ring), though somehow I doubt it. 

So, the grades are problematic and uninspiring — not that that I would expect them to be otherwise. The problem is that many students, at least in the UK, seem to learn their instrument almost solely through grades. They never stray outside this patchy repertoire.

The guitar needs to somehow de-shackle itself from the Spanish masters. No other instrument is so burdened by its national heritage. The Spanish repertoire consists of too much insipid music and makes the guitar seem a less serious instrument. Sor is great for learning, but rather tedious. Giuliani is good fun, but not that enriching. Tarrega wrote some lovely music, but none of it on the level of a Scarlatti sonata or even a Dowland galliard.

Okay, then, what pieces should enter the repertoire? To start with, how about the Kapsberger toccatas. The Toccata Arpeggiata is frequently played, but the others seldom are, yet they work so well on guitar. Here’s his Toccata VI:

And more Zamboni:

And Bacheler. I was trying to find a video of his variations of the popular French song, Une Jeune Fillette, but here’s Monsieur’s Almaine instead:

And you can never, ever have enough Dowland. Should be as much required playing as Bach or Sor for any guitarist. 

More of this and less of the Spanish stuff — yea or nay?

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4 thoughts on “Reforming the Guitar Repertoire

  1. You are so right that guitarists have a repertoire problem! Up until the late 17th century, the vihuela, guitar and lute were core members of the polyphonic instrument family and important composers like Milan, Narvaez and Francesco da Milano wrote for them. These artists were highly respected and were found at the important seats of power–the royal and papal courts. This continued until the end of the 17th century with people like Corbetta and de Visée. But what happened was the keyboard in the form of the harpsichord and later piano. These instruments absolutely pushed the fretted ones to the fringes of the musical world. By the time we get to Sor and Giuliani, it is painfully obvious that nothing they wrote could possibly compare with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The nationalist schools of the late 19th century offered a bit of a resurgence, if only in Spain, where the guitar had never quite been eliminated. Also, 20th century composers found a use for the guitar’s unique timbres and textures. But it never returned to a central role in the repertoire.

    We will never have sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, virtuoso music by Liszt, impromptues by Schubert, nocturnes by Chopin, ballades by Brahms, or anything by Prokofiev or Scriabin. The pieces by modern British composers, despite some fine ones by Britten and Walton, cannot stand in for the missing repertoire.

    So you are right: a lot of our best repertoire has to come from earlier times, when some of the best composers wrote some of their best music for the lute, vihuela and guitar.

    But let me just put in a word for a couple of Spanish composers: Joaquin Rodrigo and Federico Moreno Torroba wrote some fine, if slight, music for guitar and for that we should be grateful. Have a look at the Nocturno by the latter. Nothing wrong with that excellent piece!

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    1. When I want to be provocative, I enjoy arguing that the invention of the piano was a mistake, partly for that reason. It’s hard to resist the power of the piano; yet at the same time I am suspicious of an instrument so totalitarian and mechanical, one that has come to dominate music totally, to alter the mind of the composer forever, and to give so much power to one man. The guitar, however, has an almost perfect balance of possibilities and limitations. If only it stayed in tune it would be perfect…

      My other point, which I somewhat neglected, is that not only does early music make up some of our best repertoire, but that guitarists have not properly explored early music — quite possibly a side effect of the early music movement. There is a lot of lute/vihuela/early guitar music that could be played on guitar, and with interesting musical possibilities, but for some reason it rarely is. I was shocked to find almost no guitar transcriptions of Robert Johnson’s music, despite myself discovering that much of it is playable on guitar, and in fact highly suitable given how expressive and lyrical his pavans are.

      Torroba is new to me, but I just listened to Nocturno with great admiration.

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  2. Yes, I have had similar feelings about the piano and certainly many pianists, who bang away loudly with little musical expressivity, confirm those fears. The piano is like a mechanical factory for generating great quantities of notes. But then there are players like Sokolov…

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