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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Lorca and the Golden Polyphemus

Poet, dramatist, painter, pianist...guitarist?

Federico Garcia Lorca

Few poets have written such striking images of the guitar - its sound, its emotional impact - as Federico García Lorca did. Through his life he loved it, for its ancient roots and flamenco expression, and wrote various poems about it. He congratulated his great friend and mentor Manuel de Falla on his one and only guitar composition – Tombeau – but admitted he could only play the first few bars. “My fingers get caught in the strings, and I make such an awful noise that my mother snatches the guitar away and hides it from me.”

As a teenager he showed remarkable gifts as a writer, musician and painter, and for a time was uncertain which path to pursue. Throughout his life he continued to play the piano. My uncle went to study in Granada in the early 1930’s and became a personal friend of Lorca. He told me that he was a great improviser: ask him to play a Haydn minuet in a ragtime style, or in any style, and he would. He would love to entertain his friends late into the night, and continue playing while everyone was falling asleep all around. At other times, the improvisations would turn into serenades and everyone else would creep out of the room when someone caught the poet’s eye. According to my uncle, Lorca would pick up the guitar from time to time and yes, he was able to play simple things on it, mostly in a flamenco style.

He was friends with two great guitar players: the Granada-born Angel Barrios and Regino Sáinz de la Maza. In the flamenco song competition of 1922, the brain-child of Falla, Lorca also rubbed shoulders with Andrés Segovia. And it was Segovia who proved crucial to the poet's publishing ambitions by praising his poetry. But it was with Sáinz de la Maza that he shared the greatest friendship in an illuminating correspondence. Still in his early twenties Lorca wrote to him that he sometimes felt there was not one Lorca, but many Lorcas, neatly folded and stacked in the “warehouse of eternity” waiting to fly free. Twenty years later, after the poet’s death, Sáinz de la Maza would give the première of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra in Barcelona. These lines by Lorca seem to anticipate the theme of the slow movement:

The wail of the guitar begins,
it is useless to stop it,
it is impossible to stop it.

Lorca grew up in Granada, and had a love-hate relationship with it. As poet, dramatist and theatre director he achieved international recognition as few other Spanish artists have done. When he returned to Granada at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War – against the advice of all his friends - he was arrested and disappeared. His body has never been found.

In my Lorca tribute concerts I use Albéniz’s Granada as a musical symbol of his upbringing and tragic death. He loved the music of Albéniz, and wrote a sonnet to the composer. I also have turned to the dozen or so folk songs he arranged for voice and piano. His harmonisations are simple but very effective. I have taken them a step further and re-arranged them for solo guitar. In doing so I have also remembered Lorca’s feel for the guitar, his love of flamenco, and his dark imagery:

The guitar
causes dreams to weep.
The sobs of lost
Escape through its round

Yet there are two more images which I find amazing. The one is his description of the sound-hole as a spider’s web designed to “trap sighs” and the other is his comparison of the guitar to the Greek God Polyphemus in the poem Adivinanza de la guitarra dedicated to Sáinz de la Maza. Polyphemus was the god with one eye in the middle of his forehead. Better still, he was no ordinary Polyphemus, if there was such a thing, but a “Polyphemus made of gold”. Therein lies great poetry, and an inspiration for guitar players to live up to.

Photo of García Lorca and poem extracts by kind permission of La Fundación García Lorca:

España: Carlos Bonell plays Spanish music at the Bolivar Hall, London, 20th May 2011 at 7.30pm including a 75th anniversary tribute to Lorca
Tickets £10 on the door, or in advance in Store at:

Read more at:

Poem Adivinanza de la guitarra in English translation:

Selected poems with parallel Spanish text published by Oxford World’s Classics:

A biography of García Lorca by Ian Gibson:
Federico García Lorca: A Life

I am grateful to author and historian Graham Wade for his advice in the preparation of this article.

May 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=517 .
© 2019.

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