Playing early music: a guitarist’s introduction to historically inspired performance #1

by Harold Gretton

Introduction:
The purpose of the following series of articles is to give guitarists of all calibers a brief introduction to Historically Inspired Performance (HIP). The present dissertation retains the practice established by Bruce Haynes in The End of Early Music of referring to interpretations made with reference to historical primary sources as historically ‘inspired’, rather than historically ‘informed’. The term ‘inspired’ better-reflects the interpretive practices of performers interested in historical sources. It has been prompted by a frequent confusion among guitarists at guitar festivals as to what authenticity means, and what the aims of interpretation are. The aim is to liberate us from the weight of a distorted werktreue (fidelity to a work), in which our fidelity is to a written score. It is argued that a written score is only a small part of what a work can be.

Under such partiturtreue (fidelity to a written score), older repertoire runs the risk of becoming stale and predictable, creativity of being discouraged, and players of being judged on criteria that are essentially anti-musical. It seems imperative to the future life of the classical guitar that classical guitarists, like early musicians and musicians from improvising traditions, rediscover creativity in their music-making.
 
The examination of old sources, central to HIP, and the freedom that is preached by the authors of older works, has the potential to deliver great freedom and ultimately greater authenticity to the interpretations of classical guitarists.

This series of articles is in 7 parts. It’s focus is on the 19th century, as this is the period with which the author is most familiar. The first part (the body of this article) gives a brief history of the classical guitar in the early 19th century, focusing on the variety, excitement, and confusion of this period. The second part, divided into 6 articles, presents an introduction to HIP for guitarists, with reference to classic literature on the subject.
 
A brief history of peculiarities that resemble the classical guitar
The six-course, single-strung, figure-eight shaped, fretted instrument that we call the classical guitar is quite recent when compared with the violin, keyboard instruments, flutes or double reeds. In The guitar and its music, Paul Sparks points out that the earliest six-string classical guitars began to appear across Europe only in the 1780s (p.209). It is an instrument that has changed enormously since it’s first appearance. Only the briefest comparison of any modern concert classical guitar with, for example, a guitar by Louis Panormo (1784-1862), reveals an instrument that is bigger, louder, longer, with increased sustain, pitch and dynamic range, differently constructed (using different woods), and strung with nylon rather than gut strings. Even the use of wound metal on the bass strings was controversial until the 1800s, and luthiers were still experimenting with bracing. The result is that within the early 19th century, there is an impressive variety of guitar designs.

Compare, for example, the fan-bracing of the Panormo with the ladder bracing of a guitar by René Lacôte (c.1785-after 1868), or the revolutionary X-bracing of Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873). The variety of instruments in the early 19th century is impressive: the small and elegant guitars of Juan Pagès (d.1821) and Giovanni Battista Fabricatore (fl.c.1785-1807), the beautifully embellished guitars of Lorenzo Alonso (d.1796), the richly triple-strung basses of Francesco Sangino (fl.c.1750-1790), the large and powerful guitars of Gaetano Guadagnini (1796-1852), and the innovative, so-called Legnani-model guitars by Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853) and his son Johann Anton Stauffer (c.1705-after 1871). The most popularly reproduced image of Napoléon Coste (1805-1883), one of the more eminent guitar virtuosi of the 19th century, amply illustrates the great variety of guitar-like instruments (see Figure 1). Coste is pictured with a seven-string classical guitar by Lacôte, an 18th century arch-cittern, what appears to be a smaller “terz” guitar, and a custom-built, extra-large guitar.
 
It is interesting to compare this abundance of experimentation with the attitude towards experimental designs still commonly encountered among guitarists, essentially a hang-over from old masters like Segovia and his numerous pupils. Despite their obvious success and international prominence, lattice-braced, double-top, and sandwich-top guitars still meet with prejudice-filled approbrium.
 
Coste
Back in the 19th century, to add to the confusion, the first six-string, guitar-like instruments to gain popularity in France, were the lyre-guitars (with their unusually-shaped body). Concurrently, the decachord (a ten-string guitar touted by Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841) in his method for the instrument) and terz guitars (tuned one third higher than a modern classical guitar, and built correspondingly smaller) were also gaining popularity.
 
Certainly these must have been at once exciting and confusing times for concert guitarists. The latter were by necessity all composers, as previously no repertoire existed for their instrument. Though they no-doubt made use of methods and repertoire published previously for five- and six-course (double-strung) guitars, these earlier instruments were principally used to accompany voice, and the repertoire written for them does not harness the later classical guitar’s polyphonic capabilities.
 
Methods for the new classical guitar were published in abundance. In 1799, in Spain alone, four methods for six-string guitar were published, by Fernando Ferandiere (c.1740-1816), Federico Moretti (1769-1839), Antonio Abreu (c.1750-c.1820), and Juan Manuel García Rubio (fl.c.1799). These were followed within 30 years by the better-known and still circulating methods of Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Ferdinando Carulli, Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849), and of course the edited version of the Sor method by Napoléon Coste (in reality a separate work).
 
Numerous contradictory techniques are expounded in these methods, adding considerably to the confusion. The aspiring 19th century dilettante would not find easy answers to questions such as:
• Should I use fingernails on all the fingers and thumb (Giuliani), on the fingers but not on the thumb (Sor and Aguado), or not at all (Moretti, Ferandiere, Abreu, Rubio, and Sor… again)?

Aguado
• Should I rest my right-hand pinky finger on the sound-board near the bridge while playing (like occasionally Coste and Aguado, as well as the early Spanish theorists), only occasionally place my pinky (Sor), have my hand and arm suspended over the guitar which is independently supported (later Aguado), or rest my arm on the guitar but keep my hand hovering above the strings (Giuliani and most later theorists)?
• Should I balance the upper-bout of the guitar on a table, or use a footstool, or invest in a guitar support by Aguado (see Figure 2)?
• Should I play mainly with the thumb, index and middle fingers of my right-hand whenever possible (Sor and earlier theorists), or should I include the ring-finger (Aguado and Giuliani, amongst others)?
• Should I play scales alternating the right-hand index and middle fingers, with only one finger for a consistent sound, or alternating the thumb and index fingers?
• Should I play a melody on only one string where possible? Should I use the left-hand thumb to hold certain bass notes, for example in a D major chord in first inversion in the second position?

 

Discussion

A popular illustration of the strongly held and contradictory feelings circulating among guitarists can be seen in the painting included as Figure 3, in which players who prefer the approach of Carulli have a friendly discussion with those who prefer that of Francesco Molino (1775-1847).
 
Concurrent with the publication of methods came the abundant publication of studies and concert repertoire, of admittedly varying quality. The overwhelming bulk of this repertoire does not reach the modern concert stage. Only a very few solo guitar works published during the early 19th century are regularly performed, and have become almost obligatory repertoire for any aspiring concert guitarist. A list of popular early and mid 19th century guitar repertoire would perhaps shock some readers with it’s paucity: only a small number of early 19th century pieces are popularly played and repeatedly re-interpreted.

That this list is so short and these works so often heard presents an immediate series of questions to the 21st century interpreter:
• What can I do to make my interpretation unique?
• How can I make this repertoire interesting to an audience that knows exactly what notes are coming, as well as to new audiences?
• What instrument should I play? And what technical approach (whether historical, modern, or 21st century) should I observe?

Most players simply follow the advice of their teachers, lecturers and professors, at least at the beginning of their careers. However, repeated exposure to very different approaches (so easy with the internet and at big guitar festivals, and encouraged by any teacher of quality) is likely to lead them to question the taste that was formed in them during their pre-tertiary and undergraduate study. Such exposure may either reinforce their instilled taste, or suggest alternatives for experimentation and eventual transformation.
 
The young performer’s reaction will depend on the charisma of the mature artists who presents these alternative approaches. A more compelling performance based only on intuition shall naturally sway the opinion of an impressionable young talent far more than a mediocre and lifeless performance according to historical principles, or indeed the principles of a respected master with a fine pedigree. Charismatic figures such as Andrés Segovia still cast a heavy shadow over the interpretive practices of many players, though the great Spanish guitarist’s approach, far from ignorant, would nevertheless generally not be referred to as “historically-informed”. I was greatly inspired by Pavel Steidl during my own student years, and while Steidl’s approach is inspired by his knowledge of primary sources, it was undoubtedly his passion and conviction that captivated me.
 
An open-minded interpreter now has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing an interpretive approach. Yet a choice must be made, and it must be a choice to which interpreters are happy to commit themselves in performance. It is here that historical research may come to the interpreter’s aid, giving authority to his or her opinions, and enabling a whole-hearted and committed performance.

The abundance of contradictions in historical sources, suggested in the confusion described above, can only be a source of encouragement to the curiosity-filled 21st century interpreter. With no definitive answers to so many questions, both technical and musical, an approach that is historically aware and unique in contemporary times is a real and exciting possibility.
 
In the following series of articles, “What are primary sources and do we need them?”, it is argued that historical sources have the potential to facilitate the creation of an interesting and lively interpretation of historical repertoire, despite their numerous problems.

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