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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Style's The Thing, But Where To Begin?

If Tárrega came back today he might be shocked...and mocked

H.G. Well's novel The Time Machine set the modern mind racing regarding time-travel. Dr Who popularised the theme on TV. The Hollywood blockbuster Back To The Future and its sequels developed it for the cinema. Woody Allen explored the theme in his wonderful movie Midnight In Paris. All four set modern man centre-stage travelling in time – past and future. What I have not seen or read so far is a fictional account of people arriving on our doorstep, so to speak, unannounced, from a different time zone, wishing to mingle, observe and join in with no malicious intent.

The advantages for us 21st century guitarists could be huge. Imagine guitarist-composer Gaspar Sanz strolling into your practise room while you play selections from his best-selling book La Instrucción de Música published in 1675, from where we draw such pieces as Españoleta and Canarios. No sooner has he taken a seat in the corner than another two visitors knock on the door. “Hello, my name is Fernando Sor, may I come in?” Behind him is Francisco Tárrega. What would they think of us and our playing? Would they like our big brash modern guitars with nylon and carbon strings, tuned at modern pitch? And how would they react to the sound of an acoustically amplified guitar, or a plug-in one?

Now let me reverse it. How would we react to them if they did not reveal their identities? Picture the scene. There they are, illustrious guests, in our very presence. Sanz picks up a guitar, plays it without nails, and improvises around his own pieces with a mixture of strums, rasgueados, and scale runs before passing it on to Tárrega. Nailess, he slides and vibratos his way through Capricho Arabe while Fernando Sor waits his turn. If we knew not who they were, would some of us not be tempted to make such modern pronouncements as:
“Stick to the score, you are making up too many notes and harmonies.”
And maybe: “too many glissandi and too much vibrato, and oh yes, don't exaggerate the rubato.”

Let's face it, such a scene is not likely to happen soon but my imagination is fired by it and its implications. Underneath my musing lurks that dark horse of musical performance: style and authenticity. There are few criticisms more unsettling than to be accused of playing “not in style”. If Sanz listened to us playing today he would have a few things to say, and I bet many would be entirely unexpected. No doubt he would be both touched and amused by some of our earnest “authentic” interpretations. He would be flattered we had read all the instructions he had written in his book, and in books by other 17th century composers, and studied contemporary music of his time, and of his parents' time – all in our attempt to play his music in the manner and style to which he was accustomed. “Well thank you very much”, he might say, and then add a few disarming remarks.

And what about our old friend Luys Milan, the vihuela player,who published El Maestro in the 1530's? He has crept into our studio almost unnoticed. We play him one of his fantasias, which contained the first tempo indications ever published in music. They included apriesa (fast), despacio (slow) and ni apriesa ni despacio (neither fast nor slow). As well as his musical publications, he wrote a book about courtly manners and customs. I can see him now, this gentleman-player from the great Spanish Royal Court of Valencia, politely leaning forward, and in exquisite old Spanish say:
“Jolly good. May I suggest the fast passages are too fast...”

Don Luys' remarks prompt Fernando Sor to speak:
“That reminds me, you played my Andante Largo too slowly.”

And our shyest guest of all, Francisco Tárrega interjects:
“I would prefer you to play all the glissandi more expressively. They are part of the tune.”

By this stage, I would be slightly dazed if it were me playing to them: one man's (or woman's) slow is another man's medium tempo. One man's glissando in good taste is another one's bad taste.

The performance comments above reflect some of my own inclinations of course. But then I will be the first to listen to masters come back to life to confirm what I already suspect: how difficult it is to project ourselves into musical styles of the past. The search for genuine “authentic” style is fascinating, laudable, and irresistible. It creates a convincing performance for the player himself and for the listener, but it is a quest that raises almost more questions than answers. Written indications in a musical score are just that, indications, and no more. Allow them to set free our imaginations and then musical sparks really fly.

Think of it: Don Gaspar, Don Luys, Don Francisco and Don Fernando in your studio, speaking all together animatedly in their cute vintage Spanish of the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries, saying:

“Si, si, si, sin imaginación no hay música – yes, yes, yes, without imagination there is no music.”

At least we can all agree on that.

Read more:
Gaspar Sanz: La Instrucción de Música Sobre La Guitarra Española (1675)
Tablature for 5 course guitar with explanatory notes by the author

Luys Milan:
Libro de Motes de damas y cavalleros: el juego de mandar (1535)
His book on life at court

El Maestro (1536)
Music in tablature for 6 course vihuela with introduction by the author

Francisco Tárrega: Capricho Arabe

Fernando Sor: Andante Largo Opus 5, no. 5

November 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=850 .
© 2017.

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