Less is more – the limits and horizons of the classical guitar

To say it clearly, right at the start, I love the warm and dark sound of the “classical” guitar.

Julian Bream’s film “Guitar in Spain” by itself would be enough for me to place it among the western world’s most beautiful instruments. Still, we cannot ignore how in the field of classical music the star of this instrument is well on the wane. Some people blame it on a growing instrumental narcissism trivializing the choice of musical programs. Others suggest that the rather smothered, too bottom-heavy sound of the classical guitar has simply slowly gone out of fashion, much like the heavy perfume our grandmothers wore.

I personally believe that every musical instrument has its own timeless beauty, as long as it keeps to its natural limits and one does not demand of it things which cannot suit its tone character or performing capacity. It seems to me that the rise and fall in the guitar’s popularity has something to do with the extent to which these limits have been respected or disregarded. Let’s take a look at the natural conditions and presuppositions of this instrument.

The guitar owes its rise at the start of the nineteenth century to a vacuum left by the disappearance of the lute from European musical life. Yet the guitar is in no sense responsible for the lute’s decline; even less did it subdue or supplant the lute. Its role as the dominant plucked instrument of the period can only be very loosely compared to the preceding epochs of lute instruments. Right from the beginning, it never was among the functions of the guitar to take its place in a classical ensemble in the way that archlute, theorbo or gallichon had until recently done in the baroque orchestra. The guitar’s sweet tone did charm the ear, of course, but could not console critical listeners over the loss music had suffered with the eclipse of an ancient and established family of instruments, with all its varied lute forms and various roles in music making.

The self-evident integration of plucked instruments like lute, archlute, theorbo or gallichon in chamber and orchestral music which continued until the middle of the eighteenth century had given these instruments a recognised role and their players social status. In their stead there arose the freelance professionalism of vagrant guitar virtuosos who enchanted a largely bourgeois public with more or less precious works of their own composition and with daring arrangements. The essence of this enthusiasm was without a doubt the sound itself of this new guitar which, although it hardly differed from the lute instruments in terms of volume, certainly did have more sweetness, singing-sustain and range of colours distinctly in its favour. And this charm has become the source, after all, of the dangerous flirtation with its own physicality, to the detriment of musical substance. Serious enthusiasts of the guitar’s sound like Fernando Sor, for example, lamented not without reason how the publishers of the time, riding the wave of popularity, were perfectly prepared to pander to triviality of taste in repertoire.

If we ignore, for a moment, the achievement by the early romantic guitar of a characteristic new sound, then it would seem that the rise of a six-stringed plucked instrument in a 4ths tuning only fifty years after the death of S. L. Weiss was an astonishing anachronism. It has presumably less to do with musical rationale than with the preferences of amateurs, keen to sing, for whom the opportunity of “strumming” over all the strings was something particularly romantic. In a sense, this development had already been prepared for in the second half of the eighteenth century through the rise of an instrument greatly favoured by the dilettante, the mandora. This was a lute instrument constructed in three ranges, with only six or nine courses, of which the six course model in E has a tuning exactly the same as the later guitar.

In order to understand some further anomalies in the guitar’s development a short excursus into the history of lute instruments is essential.

Already by 1500 there was a member of the lute family in use with an E tuning (the tenor lute: E – A – D – F# – B – e). This deep range was quickly exploited by composers and soon needed to be extended down by the interval of a second or a fourth (7 or 8 course lutes).

Lutes were built in at least four different sizes besides the tenor, and these served quite distinct purposes:

Descant lute in b natural    string length 48-52 cm       for ensemble use

Alto lute in g or a                 string length 56-60cm        for solo or ensemble

Tenor lute in e                      string length 67-72 cm       for solo or ensemble

Bass lute in d                       string length 74-78 cm       for ensemble

Great bass lute in g            string length 88-95 cm       for ensemble

The alto lute in g or a with its string length of between 56 and 60 cm played roughly the role in an ensemble that the violin plays today in a group of strings. Until around 1620 it was the favourite instrument for the performance of solo polyphonic works (Francesco da Milano, G. A. Terzi, John Dowland et al). The tenor lute in e, however, whose tuning is more or less identical to the guitar of today, can be most closely compared to the viola. It was used in ensemble and for song accompaniment; also for the less difficult solo pieces.

The considerably shorter string length of the renaissance solo instruments in comparison with today’s guitar was in line with hard physiological facts. A useful test for gauging the correct size of an instrument, to correspond to the size of their hands, for players of the alto lute was the stopping of a particular chord in A flat major in the first position (in guitar tuning an F major chord). This is a chord which appears in a prominent position in many pieces of the period and is made up of a barré at the first fret, which stops an A flat on the sixth course and an e flat on the second. On the third course a c’ is stopped at the third fret and on the top string a c’’ at the fifth fret. (On a guitar with the g string tuned down to F# this would give us the notes F, a, c’, a’). This small experiment might dissuade sensible people from having any ideas of a professional lutenist’s career.

Experience has shown that a string length of 56-60 cm on an instrument strung in 4ths is the most natural for managing the demanding solo repertoire and its most common left hand stretches. The string length of today’s guitars, averaging 65 cm is physiologically simply too long. 58 cm would make more sense. For an instrument in e tuning which is primarily involved in ensembles, on the other hand, it tends to be too short; 67 cm being the normal lower limit. In this sense, then, the gymnastic challenges facing a player of the “classical” guitar tuned in 4ths and with a string length of 65 cm – when compared with the background of the naturally sized instruments of the lute family – is rather like a violinist being forced to perform the solo violin repertoire on a viola tuned like a cello. But let’s return to the lute instruments.

The small volume of air in the little body of the alto lute led to its decline once the era of thorough bass began to make increasing use of a strong bass register, also in the solo plucked repertoire. Since the extension of the bass strings (a “theorboed” neck) on such small instruments only partially satisfied these demands, tenor and bass lutes, thanks to their larger bodies, began to gain in importance.

The greater string length of these instruments in turn demanded a tuning of strings at lesser intervals than 4ths in order to manage the solo music without compromise. In the D minor tuning, appearing around 1630 and made up of intervals of 3rds and 4ths, extreme stretches of the left hand no longer occur. It should be of interest to today’s guitarists, who must negotiate passages on their 65 cm mensuration which were originally intended for sixteenth century alto lutes, with between 56-60 cm mensuration, that even with this more convenient string length the 4ths tuning was not spared criticism for its innumerable uncomfortable stretches. This is what led to its being superseded by the D minor tuning.

A good way to reduce the technical difficulties of an instrument tuned in fourths would be to replace the fourth between the fifth and sixth string with a third:

Guitar: B E F (or F sharp) A d g b e’

This was implemented not only in the new D minor tuning of the lute – where beneath the A a diatonic series of open strings replaced the interval of a 4th – but also on the 8 course mandoras of the eighteenth century, which were found tuned as follows: E-F-G-A-d-g-b-e. If you are familiar with Dowland’s lute music and its prevalent fingering problems and happen to have a guitar or lute to hand with eight strings (or courses), thenI would earnestly advise making the experiment of playing this music with an interpolated string in A (or A flat depending on key) in sixth or seventh position (on a guitar this would be an F# or F) and pay close attention to the resulting ease in the fingering which only one additional string can provide with this tuning.

The disadvantage in lacking low G and F(or F#) as open strings was also perfectly clear to guitarists in the nineteenth century. Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841) therefore developed his “Décacorde”, a 10 string guitar with the tuning C-D-E-F-G-A-d-g-b-e’, which can be admired today in the Paris Musée de la Musique. The Spaniard Antonio Jimenez Manjón (1866-1919), quite differently, organised the bass strings on his 11 string Torres guitar in this musically very considered series: C-F-D-G-B-E-A-d-g-b-e’; even daring to claim that with this reassembled instrument he had found the “heir of the worthy theorbo”.

The dominance of the 6 string guitar is less the result of any musical rationality than the effect of commercial preferences shown by nineteenth century publishers, keeping always an eye on the mass amateur market. A more careful survey reveals a surprising number of players, besides Carulli and Manjón, who made use of many-stringed guitars in the last two centuries. In terms of counterpoint and compositional standards an extension of the bass range of instruments tuned to the E-A-d-g-b-e’ matrix appears totally reasonable. An extra D, at the very least, is the unanimous requirement. The availability of D, C and contra B as extra open string would of course be better.

The reasons that can be advanced against such an extension of the range of the classical guitar, on the other hand, can also be easily grasped and rest on both aesthetic and musical grounds.

As a visual form the 6 string guitar conceived by Antonio Torres is simply perfect. The slender contours of the instrument of 1864 in maple wood which Francisco Tárrega favoured radiate a timeless elegance comparable only to the violins of Antonio Stradivari’s golden period. Julian Bream can unfortunately not be contradicted when he finds in this connection that multi-stringed guitars cannot really be looked at without great effort and reluctance.

From the acoustical point of view it soon appears that the “classical” guitar is already given to such a deep end of the tone spectrum, due to its construction principles, that all notes beneath low D are so poor in overtones that they can hardly satisfactorily mix with the descant register. Unless, that is, they are paired as courses with octave strings, or their string length extended to allow the use of thinner strings richer in overtones. The only alternative would be to completely alter the guitar’s design.

It is apparent that the “classical” guitar is well advised – as long as we desire to retain its physical beauty and acoustical balance – to keep to its limits of 6 or at most 8 strings and to be satisfied with the musical possibilities these offer.

Limits of use and adaptation to ensembles

In terms of the variety of styles which can be cultivated on the classical guitar it is certainly to be considered a universal instrument. From the point of view of its potential uses in ensembles, however, this is far from being the case.

The rise of the guitar at the beginning of the nineteenth century was not at all rooted in its success at taking on the varied roles of the defunct lute family as equal members of instrumental ensembles. Lost somewhere between the singing power of the strings and the two-handed harmonic potential of the various swiftly rising pianofortes, the acoustic charm of the small early romantic guitar was simply not enough to guarantee the continued notice of the greatest composers of this epoch.

The flourishing of the guitar in the first half of the nineteenth century is therefore less due to important chamber works than to song accompaniment and a very attractive solo repertoire contributed by celebrated names like Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani. Sor himself is quite exceptional, inasmuch as the history of the guitar can boast – in contrast to the lute in its heyday – very few harmonists of his rank.

Neither Antonio de Torres or Francisco Tárrega attempted to establish a stable place for a plucked instrument in the ensemble of strings and winds. Torres’ famous “La Leona” – the prototype for today’s “classical guitar” – may well be able to show, when compared with the early romantic models, an increased resonance and more sonorous basses, but due to its darker tone it proved to have even less ability to carry and to be heard in ensemble than its smaller and more brightly toned predecessors.

While Torres, working in considerable isolation from the contemporary music establishment, was able to refashion the early romantic guitar into an instrument capable of fully expressing the darker ideal of late romantic sound, Tárrega, later, no less reclusive, sounded the depths of playing techniques to make the most of every facet of this sound. The situation of these two eccentrics on Europe’s periphery is strangely similar to that of the French lute masters in the seventeenth century, sunk in the most refined experimentation with the stylistic and expressive possibilities of the newly devised D minor tuning and caring little for public interest or applicability to ensembles. So the lute became extinct in France by the time the eighteenth century was underway, whereas the theorbo, never losing its orchestral connections, retained its honour and position.

That the classical – or rather the “late romantic” – guitar managed to take the leap into the twentieth century at all is due to a series of extraordinary virtuosos who were able, again in a largely solo context, both to celebrate the fabulous sonic possibilities of the instrument for a stunned audience and to gather a cult-like following.

The basic problem involved in suitably “amplifying” the guitar for suitability in ensemble conditions had already led to extensive experiments and trials of altered instrument shapes. Some of these make it hard for today’s researchers to keep a straight face. As it happened, none of these experiments could assert itself against the classical form and construction of the guitar.

The results which have been achieved in the twentieth century to strengthen the sound by modifying the soundboard construction – with all due respect – hardly go far enough to really enable, without electronic amplification, an unproblematic integration of the guitar amongst stringed instruments. It is probable that a shift of the spectrum towards a brighter sound would be more decisive than this small increase of resonance, which often enough can only be achieved at the expense of the instrument’s natural charm. The question needs to be raised, how much of the characteristic sound of the guitar can be rescued under such conditions.

Limits of repertoire

The nineteenth and twentieth century guitar commands a remarkable wealth of original compositions. Particularly impressive are the series of important works that great twentieth century virtuosos have inspired to be written for the instrument. A shining peak for me is Julian Bream’s “Guitar Music of the 20th Century”. The lute is at the present time unfortunately still unable to produce recordings of this type.

When considering this ample fortune of music one is left puzzled by the program choices of many of today’s performers on the guitar. Truly important original works of the twentieth century are as rare there as the substantial and perfectly rounded compositions of Fernando Sor.

(See also: Interview with Eduardo Fernández)

Despite full understanding for the joys of transcriptions and the need for music with a strong folk or improvisational touch, the neglect of classical and the weightier parts of contemporary repertoire remains highly troubling. Moreover, the popular adaptations of Bach’s lute works scarcely meet with the approval from critical listeners which they can count on at guitar festivals.

When one is familiar with the original version of Bach’s works for lute and knows how they sound and can be played on a lute instrument of the period, then renditions on a 6 string instrument in 4ths tuning seem reminiscent of someone playing the “Well Tempered Clavier” with perhaps three fingers on one hand and two on the other. Transcriptions of the music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss for a 6 string guitar unavoidably evoke a picture of a one-handed pianist.

Arrangements of keyboard or orchestral works like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” for the guitar may well be as legitimate as Franz Liszt’s piano paraphrases of Wagner’s overtures, but to my mind this hardly justifies neglect of the original guitar repertoire.

Its strongly romantic character inevitably seduces players of the guitar into kinds of interpretation grossly unfitting for music of the pre-romantic period, alienating anyone, at least, who is at all acquainted with historical performance practice. In renditions of renaissance and baroque music – despite dashing displays of “musicality” and virtuosic bravura –this lack of experience, and stylistic feeling, is especially in evidence.

Yet in spite of such criticisms, I am far from making, as a lutenist, the kind of sneering and disrespectful comments that are commonly to be found in lute logs and forums about the guitar and guitarists in general. These opinionated people sometimes seem to forget that it was guitarists who kept the memory of their sister instrument alive throughout the nineteenth century, not to mention the enormous contribution made by guitarists to the development of both playing technique and construction for plucked instruments. The renaissance of the lute in the twentieth century is hardly thinkable without the commitment of musicians like Julian Bream. On this point, the celebrated lutenist Paul O’Dette has responded, pithily and precisely, that without Bream there would be no lute scene at all.

Less is More – Prospects

The diminished acceptance accorded to the “classical” guitar in the field of classical music today is accompanied by an unmistakable aging of the “historical” lute scene. It is possible that the split into two distinct professions has not been favourable to the recognition of plucked instruments as a whole. Wouldn’t it be a smarter alternative for the sides to approach each other again on the grounds of a shared and still fertile tradition of single-stringed and chamber-ensemble-suited instruments, in order to find a way to be both, like the players of earlier centuries, both “lutenist” and “guitarist” in one?

In contrast to reanimated lute forms, the new lute (Liuto forte) does not exclude guitarists. On the contrary, it invites them, welcoming their bringing in of abilities and experience to lute and ensemble music. Classical guitarists can thus continue to concentrate on the strengths of their instruments, coming from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but without having to forego music from earlier epochs which, thanks to contemporary models of the Liuto forte, are again accessible without any excessive readjustment of playing technique.

The classical guitar, owing to its particular acoustical disposition, has never at any time achieved a degree of musical integration comparable to that of the archlute, theorbo or gallichon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its sweet and somewhat suppressed tone, which predisposed it for solo performance, at the same time prevented its plucked sound from being audible in a homogenous tutti among strings and winds. This situation made it difficult right from the start for the guitar to become an equal partner in concert, church and opera house. Irrespective of an increased employment of the guitar in chamber music by twentieth century composers, the fundamental problem of its inability to audibly assert itself against most other instruments remains.1 This realisation need not discourage guitarists, though, since the varied additional capacities of the Liuto forte in ensemble actually free their beautiful instrument from such unsustainable and unsuitable duties. Even if the classical and late romantic guitar should not be able to meet the demands of ensemble instrumentation, it will stay – inasmuch as it does not stray beyond natural limitations – a tempting and attractive orchid-lined path through the field of music.

Perhaps we should simply get used to the thought that the actually flourishing epoch of the classical and late romantic guitar, with its ups and downs of intensity, was the time between 1800 and perhaps 1980. As far as the search for new horizons and the conquest of larger auditoria goes, it is clear that with the second half of the twentieth century a new day began of electric and electrically amplified guitars, in their several divergent models.

Whether or not the “classical” guitar will manage to keep its place in the field of classical music, or whether it will be reduced to technical preciosity at a high level – and otherwise become a delightful episode in the past history of musical instruments – will depend as much on the respectful understanding of its limits as on the clever exploitation of its strengths.

1 Paganini’s “Trick” could help to improve the audibility of the guitar, especially when playing with bowed instruments. (See also: Details, Tuning varieties)