By Steve Rider
The guitar is an instrument with many faces and names. It’s possible that no other instrument can claim the numerous facets of the indomitable six-string. Whether it’s a sleek modern instrument made for the agile shredder or the roughed-up old acoustic in the weathered hands of a Delta Bluesman, the guitar has a voice to match the artist. The guitar is an instrument that many can play, but few can truly master. These days it’s not hard for us to imagine the guitar in any setting, from campfire to concert hall, but this was not always the case. It took the lifelong ambition of a virtuoso guitarist called Andrés Segovia to bring the guitar to prominence in the classical setting.
Going back to the turn of the century between the late 1800s and early 1900s, the guitar was considered a parlor instrument, nothing more. Without amplification, the humble six-string could not hope to compete with the piano, cello, or violin on the concert stage. Composers were not creating music for guitar, so classical players were dedicating themselves to other instruments. Segovia described the situation like this, “When I began, the guitar was enclosed in a vicious circle. There were no composers writing for the guitar because there were no virtuoso guitarists.”
Andrés Segovia was born Feburary, 21st 1893 in Linares, Spain. He went to live with his aunt and uncle at a very young age. They fostered the boy well and supported his education, moving to Granada to provide him opportunities to study. At the time, Flamenco was a ubiquitous style for the guitar, but young Andrés didn’t care for folk music and instead decided to study classical music. He delved into the works of composers like Sor, and Tarrega. Tarrega would be a great influence on Segovia’s life. Tarrega had even responded to a letter from André’s family, accepting an invitation to visit them in Granada, but passed away before he was able to make the trip.
Segovia began giving performances at a young age, despite his limited repertoire at the time. Not finding a teacher he considered adequate, he decided he would be his own pupil and instructor in one. Segovia once said, “I was my own teacher and pupil, and thanks to the efforts of both, they were not discontented with each other.”
As his mastery of music grew, he began to follow composers’ works who had transcribed music meant for other instruments into music for the guitar. Segovia’s goals were to bring the guitar to what he considered its rightful place among other classical instruments. He combined styles of fingertip and fingernail picking to expand his tonal range. His playing grew in-depth, and nuance and his performances showed that the guitar was no instrument merely for pastime entertainment but a fully expressive window into the artist’s soul.
Watch Andrés Segovia demonstrate the versatility of tone his style could produce with a classical guitar.
This pursuit of transcribing existing works enticed working symphonic composers to write music explicitly for his classical guitar style. Segovia is quoted as saying this, “(The) goal was to create a repertoire which was not a repertoire by guitarist composers – with the exception of Sor and Giuliani. Tarrega was not a big composer; the other composers were not very musical. I began to ask the real composers – symphonic composers – to help create the guitar’s repertoire. The first to answer positively was Torroba. He was then a young composer of great talent. The first composition he did for the guitar was the dance in the Suite Castellana.”
Torroba would go on to write some two-hundred pieces for Segovia over the years, leading a host of composers in his wake. Villa-Lobos wrote a concerto among his many contributions. Castelnuovo-Tedesco rivaled Torroba in his contributions, numbered at one-hundred-twenty. Ponce, Tasman, and Turina also provided their talent to feature Segovia’s masterful playing.
With these artists’ compositions and more, Segovia would have a repertoire of over three-hundred pieces with which to choose from. He provided his own contributions as well, especially from his transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach. According to Graham Wade, writer of many books on Segovia, “Segovia was particularly enthusiastic about editing and performing music by J.S. Bach, especially when he discovered H.O. Bruger’s edition (1921) of the lute works. In 1935, he premiered his own monumental transcription of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.” It was this performance that achieved his goal of elevating the classical guitar. The masterful performance of Bach’s work transcribed for guitar left audiences and critics alike speechless.
A player such as Andrés Segovia needs an instrument to match his ability. As a young man, Segovia had already gained experience playing venues in his native Spain. By the time he moved to Madrid, he knew that the Benito Ferrier guitar he had been using could not attain his desires. He decided to go to the guitar workshop of Manuel Ramirez, a story which would be related many times over the years and would become part of his legend.
Segovia approached Ramirez, asking for the best guitar with the intention of renting it, in response to which Ramirez laughed at him. Segovia had come without even a letter of recommendation. Segovia began to play, attracting the attention of another patron of the shop, one Don Jose del Hierro, a violin professor at the Royal Conservatory. Del Hierro complimented him on his playing and asked why he didn’t abandon the guitar in favor of the violin. Andrés responded that he was dedicated to the guitar in the way of Tarrega and would not be swayed from it. Ramirez, witnessing Segovia’s skill and determination, took the instrument back down and handed it to him, saying, “Take the guitar, kid. It’s yours. Make it flourish in your hands with your good work. Pay me back with something other than money. Do you understand?”
And that is exactly what Segovia went on to do. He played the 1912 Ramirez guitar for many years after that. In 1924, he visited Munich, Germany, and caught some performances where the musicians were using Hermann Hauser guitars. He paid a visit to the renowned German luthier and showed him his 1912 Ramirez. Several years later, Hauser gifted him with the guitar he would use on his American tour in 1933. The guitar was then given to a close friend, U.S. Representative Sophocles Papas. Papas eventually gave it to his classical guitar student, Charlie Byrd, who used the guitar on several recordings. The prolific luthier would send Andrés two guitars every year for thirteen years after that, but none would meet the exacting standards of the Maestro. In 1937, Hauser finally made the guitar that Segovia would call “The greatest guitar of our epoch.” Segovia would keep his 1937 Hermann Hauser with him until 1961 when a microphone fell on the beloved instrument. Andrés claimed that it never sounded the same following the incident.
In 1961, Segovia returned to the Ramirez dynasty in search of his final guitar. The construction was overseen by Jose Ramirez III and carried out by Paulino Bernabe, whose initials are stamped in the guitar’s heel. Bernabe would later leave Ramirez to become a quite sought-after luthier in his own right in 1969. The guitar had a 650mm scale with a wider fingerboard than the previous model. It was given the designation of “1a” by Ramirez. The guitar featured a spruce top, an ebony fingerboard, and rosewood sides and back. When Aaron Green later restored it for the Metropolitan Museum, he described the sound as “Dark, but with a sparkling quality.”
The final piece of the puzzle for Segovia fell into place in the late forties following WWII. That was the advent of the nylon string. Before nylon, guitarists were using catgut strings, which lacked precision in intonation. However, the nylon strings would allow Segovia to dial in the intonation, leading to a perfection of tuning up and down the fretboard. This advance allowed Andrés to showcase his phenomenal abilities further to coax such a wide array of tones from his instrument. Segovia claimed that the guitar was “an orchestra in a box,” capable of covering many instruments’ places.
With decades of work and performances, Segovia had influenced a generation of classical guitarists, including Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream, John Williams, and Oscar Ghiglia. He gave master classes around the world, including Spain, and at a college in California. He would have direct contact with the students who would go on to take their places as top classical players in the years to come. He was a very strict teacher, with an unshakable belief in his own style of technique. How intimidating it must have been to hear your name called from the front and come forward to take your place opposite the man known worldwide as the premier classical guitarist of his age. His strict teaching methods even prompted criticism from his students from time to time, such as John William’s claim that his methods suppressed the student’s personal style in favor of his own. But despite any of this, his name was so established as a font of excellence that he even noted he had students all around the world that he had never met.
Watch Segovia instruct a student in one of his many Masterclasses
Andrés Segovia was a man with a talent and a dream. He combined those into a mission to redeem the classical guitar in the public’s eyes the world over. He lived to be 94 years old; he never stopped playing, never stopped contributing to that mission. His discography tallies a mind-boggling 195 releases! 120 albums, 22 singles and Eps, and 53 compilations, all told. Add to that his books and transcriptions, and you have one of the most prolific musical talents known. He marshaled his virtuosity into a showcase that drew composers in like moths to a flame, lifting regard for the classical guitar from folk instrument to a home in celebrated concert halls everywhere. He was a man who was truly on a crusade.