This essay is at best only a fragment of the enormous topic of “Spanish Guitar Music.” I wrote it for the benefit of two music college students: “Mister Iceland,” a guitarist, and Ella García, a classically trained soprano who is also a student of song-writing and arranging. This is not a scholarly article, just my own thoughts about music I have heard and enjoyed. First, I will describe a few of what I consider to be the essential pieces and forms of the Spanish guitar repertoire, then I will describe a modern American composition that I see as having many features of classical Spanish guitar music. I refer to examples posted on YouTube as music videos. Enjoy.
Romance de Amor – Vicente Gómez
“Romance de Amor” is anonymous, and the best known Spanish guitar piece. Vincente Gómez added a slower intermediate section (or, an introduction), making for a better piece. The sheet music for this piece is in his book of 14 guitar pieces, “Vincente Gómez Guitar Album,” published by Belwin Mills Publishing Company (Melville, NY), 1980. A number of the pieces in Gómez’s book have a flamenco sound, all are pure Spanish and very good. I highly recommend this book to any serious student of the guitar, especially any student of classical guitar music and playing technique.
Leyenda (“Asturias”) by Isaac Albéniz – Andrés Segovia
Segovia is the founder of modern classical guitar. He made many transcriptions of Baroque and Classical pieces for the guitar. He used to say that J. S. Bach really “intended” his pieces for guitar; Segovia’s way of saying the guitar was a natural instrument for contrapuntal music. “Asturias,” by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) was originally written for the piano. Asturias is a province on the north coast of Spain (where my paternal grandfather came from), and this piece, “Leyenda” (Legend), was one of a number of pieces in Albéniz’s piano suite evoking the different regions/provinces of Spain.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra, played by Andrés Segovia
“Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (Memories of the Alhambra), by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), is my favorite Spanish guitar piece. Tárrega was 44 years old when he wrote Recuerdos de la Alhambra in 1896, 3 years after Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) was born. Tárrega was a master guitarist and composer who (like Segovia later) elevated guitar music and guitar playing to a sophisticated and refined “classical music” form of art. To many in the 19th century, guitar music was considered only peasant and street music. Francisco Tárrega, Fernando Sor (1778-1839), and perhaps a few others championed the guitar as an instrument of refined art, and Segovia carried on that effort after Tárrega.
Flamenco – Manitas de Plata (1955?)
Manitas de Plata (1921-2014) (Little Hands of Silver) was a Roma (“Gypsy”) flamenco guitarist born in Southern France. This video of his first TV appearance shows him before his subsequent international fame and pop-star status. This short video (which has too long a gap of silence at the start) shows several flamenco guitar techniques: four-sequential-finger strums, arpeggios, and drumming by tapping the guitar top. It is evident that Manitas de Plata had great facility and a fluid style of playing. This guitar music is improvisational within a variety of general forms, some “fast” and some “slow.” On one occasion in 1964, Pablo Picasso heard him play and afterwards took Manitas de Plata’s guitar and drew pictures of a picador on it (raising the value of that guitar considerably!). I noticed that there are no pictures on Manitas de Plata’s guitar in the video linked above, but there are on the video linked below.
Manitas de Plata (on TV), 1967
Manitas de Plata (born Ricardo Baliardo) was a phenomenon on the Riviera, and he gained worldwide fame with the release of his 1963 recordings in Arles, France, produced by the Phillips label and distributed in America in 1967 by the Connoisseur Society (of New York). These recordings preserve the sound of authentic flamenco musical performances (“unplugged”) as had been heard for centuries, before the advent of elaborate studio electronics and recording professionalism. The Connoisseur Society double album of Manitas de Plata’s live open-air recordings included selections with vocals, the canto hondo (deep song) of flamenco music. Here is one example of these Manitas de Plata sessions.
Manitas de Plata, 1963: Malagueñas Flamencas – Recorded at Arles, France, October 1963
La Verbena de la Paloma – En Chiclana me crié
This video (just above) has no guitar, but the piano music heard at the beginning could easily have been performed by a guitarist in real life. This scene is from a 1960s Spanish movie of one of the most famous and popular Zarzuelas (Spanish operettas), La Verbena de la Paloma (a feast day for the Virgin Mary, which is also an occasion for festivals). This scene evokes the type of gathering, with music (usually guitar), dancing, singing, and food and wine, that was “of the people,” that is to say popular, not theatrical (in real life). This scene is set in the 19th century, and shows how most people of the time – who were workers and peasants, not wealthy, nor city sophisticates – actually made and enjoyed music.
The woman lead performer singer and dancer (Concha Velasco) is playing an unmarried and very popular young woman who is pursued by a handsome, young and poor man, and also by an old druggist (apothecary) with “plata” (silver = money); and she sort of plays one against the other (a conflict of: love in poverty versus amicable loveless security).
Her song “En Chiclana me críe” (I Was Raised in Chiclana) is about her pride of being from her native village and region (near the ancient city of Cádiz). This song has the intensity of flamenco song but without the roughness of pure street flamenco; it is more polished here as a musical theater/operetta song. Much of flamenco and Spanish-style guitar music originates from this type of popular entertainment. The rough equivalent today would be acoustic guitar music with a beat that could simultaneously be sung to and danced with. The young ladies (and the hapless man-hero) in the video have operatic voices, while the old folks are invariably vocal music comics, who are always included in Zarzuelas, which were from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Fernando Sor (1778-1839) – Seguidillas
This video shows the performance of three seguidillas by Fernando Sor (1778-1839), who was 22 years younger than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The performance duo are one guitarist and one soprano who, in this case, were students at the San Francisco Conservatory in 2017. This is genteel music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, yet it still “moves” as you can easily hear in the guitar accompaniment. Segovia played and championed the music of Sor as part of his promotion of “classical” guitar. The major progression of such well-known classical guitar players/champions being (from the 18th to 20th centuries) Sor, Tárrega, and Segovia.
Infinitesimal – Perfect Aquarium
To my mind, the 2015 American song composition, “Infinitesimal,” is a modern version of seguidillas. Liam Hardison (the Spanish-style guitar player) uses numerous features of Spanish guitar music, and techniques of Spanish guitar playing: flamenco strums, classical style arpeggios, and the counterpoint of a thumb-played bass-line accompanying the four-finger plucking of a treble line with arpeggios and tremolo.
The vocals on Infinitesimal are in a classical (Bel Canto/operatic) style, but with also a small hint of canto hondo, the flamenco “deep song” vocalization style that originally came from the Moorish-Arabic influence on Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, of long unbroken lines of melismatic chants, which in flamenco are sung extremely emotionally, roughly and horsely, something like melodic primal scream.
What is not included in this particular recording of Infinitesimal is the guitar-drumming that is typical of flamenco, and is also used in Cuban country-style guitar playing (used to great effect by Rafael Cueto of the Trio Matamoros – described elsewhere on my blog). Another excellent feature on this recording of Infinitesimal is the percussion, which adds an exotic flavor that I think of as a mix of Arabic-Moorish and African spicing to a Spanish musical broth.
I don’t know if the young people who composed and performed Infinitesimal knew of the Spanish forms and influences I have mentioned here, but there is no question in my mind that Liam was throwing in all the idioms of Spanish classical guitar music that he had learned in his musical education up to that point. This song is the only one of its kind on the album, “Perfect Aquarium,” which is otherwise a contemporary Art-Rock album. So, I think Infinitesimal is a modern accidental seguidillas, a composition formulated by osmosis from what the band members had heard and played during their prior schooling, and not as a product of their intentional musicological research.
Also, I think Infinitesimal is very good in every way.
About Perfect Aquarium:
“Perfect Aquarium” album (9 songs) released on September 3, 2015
Perfect Aquarium (the band):
Liam Bernard: Lead & Classical Guitar
Ben Saldich: Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
Isaac Roth: Bass, Vocals
Frank Klopotowski: Drums, Vocals
Vocals on “Infinitesimal” by Ella Garcia
Maybe “Mister Iceland” and Ella will come up with their own seguidillas, as music for our time.
27 January 2018 is the 262nd birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most sublime personifications of the voice of the Universe, and a gift from it to the Ages.