Whither the Segovia Legacy?

SEGOVIA, ANDRES 1963       © ERLING MANDELMANN

SEGOVIA, ANDRES 1963 © ERLING MANDELMANN

Some years ago, during a conversation with one of the most influential classical music managers in the world, the words “Andres Segovia” were uttered. The manager’s response: “Who is that?” This would not have mattered if it had been a regular person, but this manager in particular lives the day to day of the classical music industry, representing a handful of artists of the highest profile – artistic directors of the top orchestras, Grammy winning pianists and violinists – and arranging concerts for them with the top venues in the world. In spite of this vast knowledge of the industry, and a relatively long career in the classical music industry, the word ‘Segovia’ evoked no reaction other than curiosity: “Who was this ‘guitarist’ who was apparently so famous?”

Earlier this month, ‘Classical Guitar Magazine’ undertook a major shift and repositioned itself as an online Blog in aims to diversify its popular printed magazine in the fledging publishing industry. Last week, they took a look at their archives and fortuitously brought to light a legendary interview that the late Colin Cooper and our beloved David Russell did to Segovia on the occasion of his 90’th birthday. You can read the original interview HERE.

Despite of his age, Segovia was able to continue his concert tours for almost four more years after the interview, something unprecedented in the history of music. However, such article also raised to mind the amazing legacy of this man, which he himself segmented in four distinct areas.

Colin Cooper described this by stating:

“At the beginning of his career Andrés Segovia had set himself four aims”:

  • To redeem the guitar from flamenco and other folkloric amusements
  • To persuade composers to create new works
  • To show the real beauty of the classical guitar
  • To influence schools of music and conservatories to teach guitar at the same dignified level as the piano, violin and cello

At the moment of the interview, it was absolutely clear Segovia had miraculously achieved these genre defining feats. However, the anecdote with the manager described above brought light to the following question:

30 YEARS LATER: WHAT HAS HAPPENED WITH SEGOVIA’S LEGACY?

During the interview, Segovia stated that “Tarrega did not give concerts frequently, not in concert halls or theatres. He was, rather, surrounded by several friends, and he played for them. He received a very modest remuneration. It was a difficult life.” (A. Segovia). Clearly this was not a life he wished, not the life he worked for or the life he developed when he finally “broke through” the guitar circle to be admired by classical music audiences. In fact, he had just played a major concert at the Barbican – a venue perhaps unfamiliar to many guitarists reading this note – prior to the interview.

Thirty years later, we see that the classical guitar is largely unknown by the classical music audiences that Segovia catered, and that until very recently, no guitarist had been able to reach a level of sustainable media presence. To clarify, a sustained presence – for this blog – represents the combination of annual/biannual record releases in major labels, publicity, TV appearances and awards, and an increasing quantity and quality of concerts and return engagements in the relevant venues of the classical music industry in an uninterrupted fashion year over year. During the 25 years following Segovia’s death, not a single guitarist met these benchmarks in a way that significantly positioned a career at the forefront of the classical music world. Therefore, from the Classical Music Industry’s perspective, the Classical Guitar had slowly disappeared from the venues where Segovia used to regularly appear. Little by little, the classical guitar torchbearers began to lose a grip on the audience base that Segovia had forged, and delved in guitar centric events that maintains the development of the instrument astray from the public at large to this day. Exceptions to this rule can be counted with one hand. Therefore, the reaction of the Manager depicted at the beginning seems understandable, even obvious.

The following assessment – conducted under the most objective prism possible – reflects on the transformation and evolution of each of these four ‘commandments’ of the very artist who created the classical guitar profession. What happened?

  • REDEEM THE GUITAR FROM FLAMENCO/OTHER FOLKLORIC AMUSEMENTS

One of the early articles of this blog – found HERE – reflects on how during the last decades, classical music venues and organizations have seen an increase in popular guitarists playing with orchestras, chamber music, and solo acts, in detriment of the ‘Classical Guitarists”.

In spite of Segovia’s derision of Flamenco, it has been ultimately the latter that seems more established and the ‘guitar style of choice’ for many large concert halls. For example, the late Paco de Lucia did his last concert tour in the USA playing almost exclusively in classical music venues like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Chicago Symphony Hall, and the NJPAC center.

At the time of the interview, it had seemed like Segovia had succeeded over Flamenco. However, cultural shifts and the growth of ‘crossover’ and ‘world music’ offerings eventually shaped the landscape in favor of Flamenco and the popular guitar. The likes of Tomatito, Vicente Amigo, and Yamandu Costa now populate concert halls, and often times are the only guitar offer during the yearly seasons of many top-notch venues.

  • PERSUADE COMPOSERS TO CREATE NEW WORKS

Even though almost every major composer has composed works for guitar during the past 30 years, these are either formulaic concertos that fail to become part of the repertoire, avant-garde compositions, or chamber music works that relegates the guitar to coloristic or harmonic effects of larger works (E.G. in the works of Boulez or Golijov). In short, the guitar has not had a ‘hit’ since the Aranjuez, and since Bream, no guitarist has had the leverage to establish new compositions in the repertoire with the decisiveness that either Bream or Segovia championed Castelnuovo Tedesco, Ponce or Villa-Lobos, Britten, Walton or Henze.

Further, the above situation has forced new generations to appeal to the old ‘Guitar Composer’ formula. It seems that every day a new guitarist feels compelled to become a composer and create its own means of differentiation in the ultra-competitive classical guitar industry. In this aspect, the instrument seems to be on course to return to the arcane 100 year old model that Segovia so wished to eradicate.

  • TO SHOW THE REAL BEAUTY OF THE CLASSICAL GUITAR

In spite of its philosophical connotations, this objective indirectly calls for the ideal of making the ‘Classical Guitar’ a relevant voice in the artistic community and the world at large. After all, how can one show the beauty of an instrument, if only the people playing it know of its existence?

Segovia was a public figure, known by the entire artistic community of his time, dignitaries, heads of state, and even pop icons like The Beatles. 30 years after his passing, would any pop culture icon identify a classical guitarist? Would they even know what classical guitar is? Even if in fact the number of guitarists has grown exponentially (given point #4 below), new talents lack the ability to break through the noise. Further, the ‘competition structure’ established in the last decades effectively commoditizes the classical guitar art, for only a very small number of people is able to differentiate top players from mediocre ones.

Therefore, one could say that at the macro level, less people enjoy the beauty of the guitar nowadays than they did in the 70’s and 80’s. Essentially, the only ones enjoying this art are those who produce it

  • TO INFLUENCE CONSERVATORIES AND SCHOOLS OF MUSIC TO TEACH CLASSICAL GUITAR.

Without a doubt, education is the greatest legacy of Segovia. In 2010, the Curtis Institute of Music became the last major conservatory in the world to create a classical guitar program. For many, this became the apex of a path that Segovia had begun exactly 100 years prior since his first concerts in 1910. The news was a matter of international celebration, as it seemed that the guitar would finally gain the status and importance of other instruments. You can read the historical announcement HERE.

Unfortunately, as the points above demonstrate, the ideals of an established guitar in the classical music industry have thus far failed to materialize.

This situation creates a number of paradoxical questions:

  • Why would the instrument fall almost into oblivion in the classical music industry precisely during the decades when guitar education was exponentially increasing?
  • Why would popular guitar and Flamenco be able cannibalize some of the opportunities that gave birth to the ‘Classical Guitar’, when flamenco and popular guitar are seldom offered as career options in higher education institutions?
  • Could it be that the very desire to expand guitar education is the reason why the guitar is unable to compete efficiently in the classical music industry?

One of the main aspects of a successful career is differentiation. Over the past 30 years, the combination of a small established repertoire – basically, the Aranjuez – and the exponential increase in the number and quality of apt guitarists, made it almost impossible for any single classical guitarist to differentiate. Further, as guitarists lost bargaining power with audiences, and the classical music industry itself fell into the perils of changing tastes, the already limited options available for guitarists started to disappear, and artistic administrators had an incentive to favor ‘lighter’ versions of guitar that appealed to wider audience segments. Only a handful remain as exceptions to this rule.

During the last 30 years, the likes of the Radio France, ARD, Naumburg, and a myriad of other top classical music competitions eliminated their ‘guitar’ editions for lack of talent, audiences, or a combination of both. Guitar series in many of the major halls followed suit. As such, the increasing number of students that graduated from conservatories faced a market with less opportunities to differentiate than their forbearers, which might explain some of the paradoxes outlined above.

Andres Segovia died on April 8, 1987, three days before a scheduled appearance in the Stern/Perelman Hall at Carnegie Hall. That was – to our knowledge – the last time that a solo classical guitarist was scheduled by Carnegie Hall to give a solo recital in their largest concert hall.

However, none of this analysis matters without the opinion of the guitar community.

What do you think? Why would this be?

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