Issac Albeniz and the Guitar part 3

by Daniel Wolff

The story tells that Francisco Tárrega, regarded as the founder of the modern guitar school, performed his guitar transcriptions of Albéniz’s pieces for the composer, who on the occasion manifested his preference for the guitar version rather than the original piano score. Following Tárrega several guitar virtuosos, among them Andrés Segóvia and Miguel Llobet, proceeded to transcribe Albéniz’s pieces for the guitar, the resulting output being nowadays a highlight in the instrument’s mainstream repertoire. Thus Segóvia wrote in 1947: “What artist or what critic, no matter how severe he may be, can condemn the transcriptions of the works by Albéniz for the guitar? They are true restitution to the instrument which furnished the original inspiration.”[11]

In order to better understand the guitaristic aspect of Albéniz’s music, we may refer to a comparison with Domenico Scarlatti, whose sonatas are also often performed on the guitar. It has already been mentioned the existence of a link between Albéniz and Scarlatti, who he took as his keyboard master in line, but how deep does this connection run? First of all they both wrote mostly for solo keyboard and had a large output of miniature pieces. But what is most important is that the two of them made frequent use of Spanish folk music elements in their works. The minor second grids that Albéniz used to provide rhythmic accents were not unknown to Scarlatti, as can be seen in example 2. Here, the effect of the tone clusters resembles that of the rasgueados (a guitaristic effect, originally from flamenco music, consisting of the strong strumming of chords in a way to produce rhythmic accents, working almost as a percussive effect), demonstrating that even when writing for the keyboard, Scarlatti had the guitar in mind.

Example 2: Scarlatti, Sonata K175/L429, mm.25-28

Scarlatti example

But unlike Scarlatti who, being primarily Italian, used elements from Spanish folk music only occasionally to enlarge his sources of inspiration, Albéniz turned to it completely in order to develop his own personal style. This makes transcriptions of his piano music for guitar not only possible but desirable, since the instrument is not only the one most used in flamenco music, but is actually highly associated with Spanish music as a whole. This becomes quite clear by comparing certain passages of Albéniz’s works transcribed for the guitar with the original piano version.

The above mentioned rasgueados, for example, are often used in continuous motion in order to produce a full chord tremolo effect. Being impossible to reproduce it at the piano, Albéniz opted in Cordoba, from Cantos de España, to replace it by a left-hand octave tremolo on the bass, the remaining chord tones being played by the right-hand in quarter-notes (see example 3).

Example 3: Albéniz, Cordoba, mm.136-37

Albeniz Cordoba Example

Asturias, from the Suite Española, serves as a good example of the campanella effect, which is obtained by a repeated pedal note on an open string while a melody is played on one or more of the remaining strings. In this particular case the melody is played on the forth and fifth strings against a pedal note B played on the second open string (a transposition from the original key G minor to E minor is required). The result is a clear separation between the moving melody and the pedal note which the piano can not completely achieve, especially when the pedal and the melody note are the same, as in the first and third beats of the first measure in example 4. The circles indicate the pedal notes played on the open second string.

Example 4: Albéniz, Asturias, m.1

Albeniz example 4

As for typical guitaristic accompaniment figures Albéniz’ music is so full of them that an example may not be necessary here. I shall only mention the Suite Ibéria, which is permeated throughout its twelve movements – notably in El Albaicín, Triana and El Puerto – by such figures.

But there are also several pieces by Albéniz that cannot be played on the guitar, since the instrument is not capable of handling as many notes as the piano due to limited register and mechanical possibilities. In some cases a transcription for two guitars will be preferred, but in others no trancription will not be possible at all. Nevertheless, the fact that a certain piece is not playable on the guitar does not exclude the possibility that it was the instrument Albéniz had in mind while composing. He was after all writing for the piano and therefore had to suit his music to that instrument’s technical characteristics, even if from the bottom of his heart, the guitar was his true source of inspiration.

Arnold, Denis, ed. The New Oxford Companion to Music. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” East Kilbride: Thomson Litho Ltd.,1984.

______________. The New Oxford Companion to Music. S.v. “Nationalism in Music.” East Kilbride: Thomson Litho Ltd.,1984.

Baker, Theodore. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 7th ed. by Nicholas Slominsky. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” New York: Schirmer,1984.

Cavaterra, Jeremy. “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. I – Isaac Albéniz.” MSM Notes (September 1994): 6-7.

______________. “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. II – Manuel de Falla.” MSM Notes (October 1994): 4-5.

Chase, Gilbert. The Music of Spain. New York: Norton,1941.

Jacket notes. Concierto de Aranjuez. Renata Tarrago, guitar. Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid. Odon Alonso, conductor. Columbia ML5345, s.d.

Livermore, Ann. A Short History of Spanish Music. New York: Vienna House,1972.

Marco, Tomas. Spanish Music in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Cola Franzen. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press,1893.

______________. “Albéniz, Isaac.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vols. London: Macmillan,1980. I:202-03.

Segóvia, Andrés. “A Note on Transcriptions.” Guitar Review 1, no. 3 (1947): 3.

Thompson, Oscar, ed. The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” New York: Dod, Mead and Company,1985.

© 2001 Copyright by Daniel Wolff. All rights reserved.

[1] Ann Livermore, A Short History of Spanisch Music (New York: Vienna House,1972), 180.

[2] Theodore Baker, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th ed. by Nicolas Slonimsky, s.v. “Albéniz, Isaac” (New York: Schirmer,1984).

[3] Tomas Marco, Spanish Music in the Twentieth Century, trans. Cola Franzen (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press,1993), 8.

[4] Jeremy Cavaterra, “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. II-Manuel de Falla,” MSM Notes (October 1994):4.

[5] Marco, Spanish Music, 46.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Gilbert Chase, The Music of Spain (New York: Norton,1941), 154.

[8] Ibid., 153.

[9] Jacket notes to Concierto de Aranjuez, Renata Tarrago, guitar, Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid, Odon Alonso, conductor, Columbia ML5345, s.d.

[10] Chase, The Music of Spain, 155.

[11] Andrés Segóvia, “A Note on Transcriptions,” Guitar Review 1, no. 3 (1947): 3.

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